Until the late 1970s, feverfew was discredited as a healing herb. In The Herb Book, John Lust summarized most herbalists' feelings: "Feverfew has fallen into considerable disuse. Its name no longer fits. It is also hard to find, even at herb outlets."
Now feverfew is hot. Recent studies show it's remarkably effective at preventing migraine headaches.
FEVER A MISNOMER
Many sources claim the name feverfew comes from the Latin febrifugia, meaning "driver out of fevers." They also say it's been used since ancient times to treat fever. They're wrong on both counts.
The plant was never called febrifugia. Ancient physicians including Dioscorides and Galen used its Greek name, parthenion, and prescribed it for menstrual and birth-related problems, not fever. During the Middle Ages, the name parthenion faded, and the plant was renamed featherfoil because of its feathery leaf borders. Featherfoil became featherfew and eventually feverfew.
Once feverfew acquired its name, herbalists decided it was, in fact, a fever treatment. They planted the strong-smelling herb around their homes in hopes of purifying the air to ward off malaria, which they mistakenly believed was caused by bad air (hence malaria, from the Italian mala, "foul," and aria, "air").
Malaria had plagued Europe since prehistoric times, and it was untreatable until Spanish explorers returned from Peru with cinchona bark and early chemists isolated its antimalarial constituent, quinine. Quinine proved so successful at treating malaria that for a brief period, other fever herbs basked in its reflected glow, and feverfew picked up the name "wild quinine." But the name didn't stick. Quinine proved so superior as a malaria treatment that feverfew fell by the wayside.
For a while, some herbalists recommended feverfew for other ailments, particularly headache. In the 17th century, England's John Parkinson claimed feverfew "is very effectual for all paines in the head." And more than 100 years later, John Hill wrote, "In the worst headache, the herb exceeds whatever else is known."
But most herbalists stuck to feverfew's traditional gynecological uses. Seventeenth-century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper called it a "general strengthener of wombs" and prescribed it in tea for colds and chest congestion. Culpeper also recognized the herb's decline, declaring it "not much used in present practice."
Early colonists introduced feverfew into North America, where malaria was also a major problem, but as it fell from fashion in England, it stopped being used here as well.
America's 19th-century Eclectics prescribed it mainly as a menstruation promoter and treatment for "female hysteria," (menstrual discomforts) and some fever-producing diseases.
HEALING WITH FEVERFEW
In the late 1970s a happy accident occurred that made earlier observations about feverfew's benefit for "paines in the head" appear prophetic.
Migraine Headaches. The wife of the chief medical officer of Britain's National Coal Board suffered chronic migraines. A miner heard about her problem and told her he'd also been a longtime migraine sufferer -- until he started chewing a few feverfew leaves every day. The woman tried the herb, noticed immediate improvement, and after 14 months was free of her searing headaches.
Her husband brought his wife's experience to the attention of Dr. E. Stewart Johnson of the City of London Migraine Clinic. Dr. Johnson gave feverfew leaves to 10 of his patients. Three pronounced themselves cured, and the other seven reported significant improvement.
Dr. Johnson then gave feverfew to 270 of his migraine patients, then surveyed their experiences. Seventy percent reported significant relief -- and for many, standard medical treatment had provided no relief at all.
Next, Dr. Johnson arranged a scientifically-rigorous trial. Some participants took feverfew. Others took a look-alike placebo. And neither the researchers nor the subjects knew who got what until the end of the trial period. Feverfew significantly outperformed the placebo.
Soon after, the results of an even more rigorous experiment were published in the British medical journal Lancet. Seventy-two migraine sufferers were randomly assigned to receive either a look-alike placebo or a capsule a day of powdered, freeze-dried feverfew (the equivalent of two medium-size leaves). Neither the volunteers nor the researchers knew who got what, and after two months the groups were switched, so the initial placebo-takers tried the feverfew and vice versa. The results were striking: Feverfew cut migraines by 24 percent, and the headaches the herb-takers experienced were comparatively mild, with significantly less nausea and vomiting.
High Blood Pressure. The feverfew/migraine studies also showed the herb may reduce blood pressure. High blood pressure is a serious condition that requires professional care, but [there appears to be] no harm in taking feverfew in addition to standard medical treatment.
Digestive Aid. Like its close botanical relative, chamomile, feverfew contains chemicals that may calm the smooth muscles of the digestive tract, making it an antispasmodic. Try feverfew after meals.
Women's Health. Antispasmodic herbs soothe not only the digestive tract but other smooth muscles, such as the uterus, as well. In addition, part of the reason feverfew prevents migraines is possibly its ability to neutralize certain substances in the body (prostaglandins) linked to pain and inflammation. Prostaglandins also play a role in menstrual cramps. Feverfew's possible anti-spasmodic and anti-prostaglandin actions support its traditional use in treating menstrual discomforts.
Intriguing Possibilities. One animal study suggests feverfew has a mild tranquilizing effect. Taken before bedtime, it just might help bring on sleep.
Another report suggests tumor-fighting properties. It's much too early to call feverfew a cancer treatment, but one day it might be.
Rx FOR FEVERFEW
For migraine control, chew two fresh (or frozen) leaves a day, or take a pill or capsule containing 85 milligrams of leaf material. Feverfew is quite bitter. Most people prefer the pills or capsules to chewing the leaves. If feverfew capsules do not provide benefit after a few weeks, don't give up on the herb without changing brands. A report in Lancet showed some feverfew pills and capsules contain only trace amounts of the herb.
Take feverfew in the form of an infusion to enjoy its other possible healing benefits: to help lower blood pressure, as a digestive aid, or to help bring on menstruation.
For an infusion, use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon per cup of boiling water. Steep 5 to 10 minutes. Drink up to 2 cups a day.
Do not give feverfew to children under age 2. For older children and people over 65, start with low-strength preparations and increase strength if necessary.
THE SAFETY FACTOR
Feverfew has not been shown to cause uterine contractions, but it has a long folk history as a menstruation promoter. Pregnant women should err on the side of caution and not use it.
Feverfew may cause sores inside the mouth. Some people also report abdominal pain.
Feverfew may inhibit blood clotting. Those with clotting disorders and anyone taking anti-coagulant medication should consult a physician before using it.
Feverfew suppresses migraines but does not cure them. When the herb is terminated, the headaches typically return, which means migraine sufferers might wind up taking feverfew for years. To date, long-term use of the herb has caused no problems, but there is no research on its long-term effects.
For otherwise healthy nonpregnant, non-nursing adults who do not have clotting disorders and are not taking anticoagulants, feverfew is considered safe in amounts typically recommended.
Feverfew should be used in medicinal amounts only in consultation with your doctor. If feverfew causes mouth sores or stomach upset, use less or stop using it. Let your doctor know if you experience any unpleasant effects or if the symptoms for which the herb is being used do not improve significantly in two weeks.
GROW YOUR HEADACHE MEDICINE
Feverfew is a perennial that reaches 3 feet and has lovely daisylike flowers with yellow centers and up to 20 white rays.
For personal migraine prevention, a few plants should suffice. Feverfew grows from seeds, but most authorities recommend root cuttings planted when the temperature reaches 70øF. Space plants 18 inches apart. Feverfew does best in partial shade. Compost stimulates better growth. Pinch back flower buds to encourage bushiness. Harvest leaves when they become mature.
Bees dislike feverfew and generally avoid the plant. Don't plant this herb around other plants requiring bee pollination.
Feverfew can also be maintained indoors year-round as a houseplant.
Licorice and feverfew excerpts reprinted from The Healing Herbs. (C) 1991 by Michael Castleman. Permission granted by Rodale Press, Emmaus. PA 18098.
Natural Way Publications, Inc.
By Michael Castleman