FEVERFEW
Common Names

Feverfew ; Midsummer Daisy ; Featherfew
Botanical Name
Tanacetum parthenium

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Compositae

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What is it?

In herbal medicine, we use the leaves of Feverfew, a small but bushy and vigorous herb that rapidly spreads and covers available ground in a few years. Feverfew has been a part of medicinal herb gardens since antiquity and its name comes directly from the Latin word ‘febrifugia’ meaning ‘fever reducer.


FLOWERS


PLANT


DRIED

How has it been used?

Once something gets a name for doing a certain job it is hard to imagine it being able to do anything else. Feverfew has become well known as a natural migraine treatment in modern times and consequently all of its other traditional uses seem to have fallen by the wayside. That doesn’t mean those old uses don’t still hold true, we just don’t hear them talked about anymore.

Feverfew’s traditional recommendations include:

  • Painful, irregular or absent menstruation
  • To assist toning and cleansing the womb after labour
  • Actively inflammatory arthritis
  • Inflammatory rheumatism
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Meniere’s disease
    (chronic vertigo and nausea due to a disturbance of the inner ear)
  • Prevention of blood clots
  • Headaches that are relieved by heat and…
  • Migraines: more specifically vaso-constrictive migraines; meaning migraines where blood vessels constrict and the pain can be lessened by the application of some heat.

Historically speaking Feverfew was mostly used as a women's herb to help ease menstruation and as Culpeper wrote 'as a general strengthener of the womb'. The ancient Greek and Roman physicians called it 'Parthenion' and prescribed it for menstrual and birth-related problems.

The English herbalist Parkinson wrote 'Feverfew is very effectual for all pains in the head'. A century later John Hill wrote in 1772 that 'in the worst headache this herb exceeds whatever else is known'.

Avicenna, in his Canon of Medicine, one of the most influential medical books in history, writes of Feverfew as heating and drying. He says, 'it dissolves the hot swellings of the stomach and the blood coagulated therein, it is a strong diuretic, it promotes perspiration, its inhalation of a patient with insomnia gives him relief and it is useful for earache, it is helpful in injuries to the nerves and the muscles'

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Science on Feverfew

~ In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study treatment with Feverfew (just 82mg per day for 4 months) was associated with a significant reduction in the number and severity of attacks and a significant reduction in the degree of vomiting in migraine sufferers (Murphy JJ, Heptinstall S, Mitchell JR. Lancet 1988; 2(8604):189-192)

~ A double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study involving people with chronic migraine showed that Feverfew (100mg per day for 2 months) produced a highly significant decrease in pain intensity. In the second phase of this trial, the group who remained on Feverfew continued to experience a decrease in pain intensity and a highly significant reduction in vomiting, nausea and sensitivity to noise and light during attacks. Participants who switched to placebo experienced an increase in pain intensity. In the third phase of this trial transferring the feverfew-treated group to placebo resulted in an increase in pain intensity and other symptoms and shifting the placebo group to Feverfew therapy resulted in an improvement in pain and other symptoms (Palevitch E, Earon G, Carasso R. Phytother Res 1997; 11(7):508-511)

~ A survey of people with headache using Feverfew revealed that the frequency and severity of migraine headaches and tension headaches was much reduced. Associated nausea and vomiting decreased or disappeared and the effectiveness of conventional painkillers increased with concurrent use of Feverfew. Relief of arthritis symptoms was also experienced. The dosage was just 2-3 fresh leaves per day and it was noticed that the onset of benefit at this (quite low) dose was slow in many cases (Johnson ES. Feverfew (overcoming common problems). Sheldon Press, London, 1984; pp42-45)

~ Following the above study a much more rigorous double-blind, placebo-controlled trial was commenced in patients who had been self-medicating with the raw Feverfew every day. The ones who had been using it for 3 months who continued with unmarked Feverfew capsules continued without any worsening but the ones who went to the identical in appearance placebo capsules experienced a significant increase in the frequency and severity of headaches, nausea and vomiting (Johnson ES, Kadam NP, Hylands DM et al. Br Med J (Clin res Ed) 1985; 291(6502): 1128)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of nearly 80 further studies and articles on Feverfew are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Feverfew

Feverfew is extremely unlikely to be any problem for pregnant women unless very high doses are taken (much higher than would ever be recommended by a herbalist or available in a commercial product). It may be taken with confidence whilst breastfeeding and is generally a safe herb for the young or old.

Feverfew is a potent herb and is best used moderately. If you take too much of it then there will likely be a sign from the body such as disturbed digestion or some discomfort in the mouth or head. Don't automatically take this as a sign that it is the wrong herb for you but rather consider that may be simply taking too much of it than is good for you!

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Personal experiences

I have given Feverfew to many people over the years and, so long as it is the right herb for the person, I have seen it do a great deal of good in reducing pain and improving quality of life. I do think of Feverfew when people come in with chronic headaches or migraines but there are other times I feel called to use it and this is when I see 'stuck-heat' in the body.

'Stuck-heat' is just an old-fashioned way of saying what is now more commonly called 'inflammation' but I think this old phrase conveys a sense of how this painfully common problem might be better understood in a more constructive way. The body is not somehow invaded by inflammation as if it were some kind of infection; whenever there is a chronic tendency to 'stuck-heat' there are always causes and contributors in that person's life. For example, in how they work and rest, in how they live, in how and what they eat etc.

It can also be seen that wherever it is that a person gets stuck-heat in their body, whether it be their head, their joints, their belly or their back etc. it can be seen that there are things that can make the pain either better or worse. At the top of most people's list for making it better are those coldest of all drugs - anti-inflammatories. Less well known but just as likely at or near the top of the list for what makes things worse are those factors that add to the stuck-heat including things like physical or emotional stress, lack of sleep, excess junk foods, sugar or alcohol, even changes in the weather!

For a much more detailed holistic picture in these matters I recommend anyone reading this who has migraines to read here, with osteo-arthritis to read here, or with back pain to read here.

Above all I want to convey the idea of complexity when it comes to stuck-heat (inflammation). That simply taking a drug in the form of trying to put out a fire may give a short-term relief but if the causes of the problem are not being addressed then things generally get worse rather than better in the long term.

Amongst addressing the underlying factors this is where a herb like Feverfew can be of great benefit. It is not at all like a drug in the sense that no-one really gets any benefit from taking a few doses of it as a sort of natural anti-inflammatory, rather it seems to work with the body in a much more gentle but rather deeper level and I think of it as gently but insistently working on 'stuck-heat' in a way that is like slowly increasing the flow of water in a river that is moving against a great jam of debris and damage.

If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or perhaps have your own cogent reasons to get a deeper understanding of this potent plant ally then I urge you to take a small dose of Feverfew tincture or chew some of its fresh leaf and then closely observe your body and how it makes you feel in order to get a sense of just exactly it does work. I think that if you do this with a quiet and attentive mind then you will be able to feel for yourself this moving of 'stuck-heat'. The herb gets in under the surface of your senses and continues to exert its influence long after its distinctive taste has faded away.

Trying for yourself this ancient method of learning about herbs by experiencing their 'action' will also give you a personal sense of why it is important not to overdo this remedy. It is not particularly unpleasant tasting but you can feel how it is very potent and why a small and regular dose will be much more beneficial than a larger, briefer treatment...

Further to this, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here

In practical terms in tincture form in my own practice this usually means as little as 1 ml in a day or if in a tea form as little as a half a level tsp of the dried herb. Once you get the body used to having a small regular dose of Feverfew then it is all about patience; this is a herb that can do great things to shift problems that may have been stuck for many years, but you must be patient with it...

Feverfew is a great herb to use alongside other remedies, for example it will often combine perfectly with herbs such as Garlic or Ginger for sticky blood and to help move the blood when it is sluggish or congested it can work very well with Prickly Ash or even Cayenne.

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Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Feverfew is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This interesting and useful subject is introduced further here

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Feverfew can particularly offer its benefits when an activation is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898

Feverfew is one of the pleasantest of the tonics, influencing the whole intestinal tract, increasing the appetite, improving digestion, and promoting secretion, besides having a decided action upon the renal and cutaneous functions.

The warm infusion is an excellent remedy in recent colds, flatulency, worms, atonic dyspepsia, irregular menstruation, nervous debility, hysteria, suppression of the urine, and in some febrile diseases.

The cold infusion or extract makes a valuable tonic. The leaves in poultice are an excellent local application in severe pain or swelling of the bowels, etc.

 

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd