In the past, comfrey was widely used for healing ulceration in the digestive tract, as it is mucilaginous and soothing as well as healing. It was also used for bronchitis and other chest complaints, to soothe the irritation and promote expectoration of mucus.
Today, other herbs tend to be preferred for these conditions, owing to the possible dangers of the pyrrolizidine alkaloids contained in comfrey - see box on page 40. Comfrey nonetheless remains valuable as one of the best herbs for healing broken bones, snapped tendons, sprains, strains, and bruises.
Once a bone has been set by a qualified person, apply a fresh comfrey poultice. If the fracture is in plaster, take the comfrey up to the edges of the plaster. In addition, use homeopathic comfrey (Symphytum 6x) internally as directed by a homeopath, or - as long as you are not pregnant or breastfeeding - you can drink a couple of cups of comfrey leaf tea a day until the bone heals. Use a leaf or half a large leaf per cup of tea, infusing for 5 minutes.
Comfrey can also be applied to varicose veins, as a poultice. For wounds and ulcers that are open, place mashed comfrey on the skin around the affected part. Comfrey can help heal old wounds such as surgical scars, being applied as a fresh poultice or using the infused
Comfery roots scrapd & boyle in milk is good to eat at night going to bed for a strayn or crik in the back; and boyld in ale to the thickness of a poultice [is] good to aply to a strayn.
- handwritten recipe from Norfolk, eighteenth century
It does not seem to matter much which part of the body is broken, either internally or externally; comfrey will heal it quickly.
- Dr Shook (quoted by Dr Christopher, 1976)
oil or ointment. It is also effective on bruises and other injuries to the muscles, ligaments and tendons.
Comfreys powerful healing effects are partly explained by its allantoin content. This chemical stimulates cell proliferation, which speeds up the healing process, and is also an anti-inflammatory that supports the immune system.
Comfrey is so good at "knitting" that it must not be used on broken bones until they have been set, or it will start bonding them together in the wrong position. Likewise, do not apply it on deep wounds, which can close at the top before the deep part has healed underneath. St John's wort is better for deep puncture wounds.
Cautions: Do not use comfrey root internally, and do not take comfrey leaf for longer than six weeks at a time. Do not use internally if pregnant or breastfeeding, or give to young children. The FDA recommends that comfrey is not used internally at all.
Mistaken identities: Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) leaves can easily be confused with comfrey before the plants flower.
Common comfrey's leaves run down the stem to the joint below, giving the stem a winged appearance
Common comfrey is the commonest comfrey in wetter habitats, but the flower color is very variable, ranging from creamy white through pink to dull purple. The leaves run down onto the stem, with the upper leaves extending right down to the next set of leaves, giving the stem a winged appearance (see photo left).
Russian comfrey is the most common comfrey in drier places. Its flowers are bright blue or purple, and the upper stem leaves don't run down the stem, or do so only slightly. Rough comfrey, its other parent plant, has bluish flowers and the upper stem leaves have short stalks and never run down the stem.
Comfrey has come into disrepute in recent years because it contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids. This is a large group of chemicals, some of which are toxic to the liver and can cause hepatic veno-occlusive disease. Poisoning has been reported in people eating other plants with high levels of these alkaloids, and there are a few reported cases of liver damage that appear to be based on the use of comfrey root.
Some herbalists argue that comfrey has been used traditionally and safely for hundreds of years without any problems, but the other side of the argument is that damage could occur gradually over time and not be attributed to the herb.
Another factor is the fact that Russian comfrey has been promoted for its benefits as a fertilizer and in making compost, especially for organic gardeners. It is wonderful for this purpose, but the problem from a medicinal point of view is that this is now the comfrey that most people have growing in their gardens.
Its levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids are much higher than those of common ciomfrey, the "officiial" speciies of herbalism. Russian comfrey is a hybrid between common comfrey and rough or prickly comfrey. Russian comfrey and prickly comfrey contain echimidine, the most toxic of the alkaloids, and are best limited to external use. The species hybridize readily and cian be difficiult to tell apart, but see above for guidelines. Growing conditions probably also have an effect on alkaloid levels, making the issue more complex.
It is better to err on the side of caution rather than risk any problems, so it is recommended that no comfrey root be used internally (it contains higher levels of alkaloids than the leaves). External use on unbroken skin is considered safe.
Common comfrey leaf can certainly be safely taken internally for short periods. Six weeks at a time is long enough to heal a broken bone.
Bisset and Wichtl (2001) say that a high level of consumption of the leaves "as a salad is five or six leaves a day," whicih would be within the toxic range. Using a couple of leaves a day to make tea should be fine for short-term use, and herbalist Susun Weed says she has been drinking more than a quart a week for 20 years with no ill effects.
Do not take comfrey internally during pregnancy, while breastfeeding or if you have liver disease.
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