Nestled in parts of Europe and the Mediterranean lives a plant that looks, at first glance, like a disproportionate holly bush, but which packs some great circulatory benefits. I’m talking about butcher’s broom, the small evergreen bush used historically as a remedy for a large number of problems, including atherosclerosis, gallstones, varicose veins and hemorrhoids. (1)
Today, butcher’s broom is known most widely for the way it benefits the circulatory system, especially for those with orthostatic hypotension (a drop in blood pressure when going from sitting to standing) and chronic venous insufficiency.
What Is Butcher’s Broom?
Butcher’s broom (botanical name Ruscus aculeatus L.) is a member of the lily family. The plant also has a lot in common with the asparagus plant. Typically, the young stems and roots are used to create supplements. In some cultures, the shoots are prepared and eaten similarly to asparagus, although the flavor is much more bitter.
This plant is also known by a number of other names, including: box holly, pettigree, sweet broom, Jew’s myrtle and knee holly. (2)
As I mentioned, the folk uses of this plant are many. In various forms, butcher’s broom has been used as a laxative, diuretic and circulation booster. Although there are no studies yet to back many of these benefits, butcher’s broom is still recommended by many natural health practitioners to treat arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), swelling, Raynaud’s disease, gallstones, varicose veins and hemorrhoids. (3)
Of these, the majority of anecdotal reports finds butcher’s broom might be effective for swelling and hemorrhoids. (4) This is possibly due to the anti-inflammatory compounds found in butcher’s broom roots, which specifically cause contraction of veins.
But, what does the science say?
Benefits of Butcher’s Broom
Effectively Treats Chronic Venous Insufficiency
Sometimes called post-thrombotic syndrome, and related to phlebitis and other causes, chronic venous insufficiency is a circulation problem in which your veins (usually in the legs, but sometimes the arms) have non-functioning valves, causing blood to pool in your limbs and internal pressure to rise in the veins.
Women (especially those who have been pregnant multiple times), middle-aged and older adults are at the greatest risk for developing chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). Actually, this condition is quite common, possibly affecting close to 40 percent of the population of the U.S. Risk factors for developing CVI include varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis (blood clots).
While this condition is rarely life-threatening, it can be tricky to treat. Conventional medicine generally suggests compression treatment, and patients don’t seem to like that much because it’s pretty uncomfortable.
However, natural treatment for CVI includes butcher’s broom as well as horse chestnut seed extract. Both of these have shown impressive results in all studies where they’re tested. Butcher’s broom is heralded by many researchers as an effective natural treatment for chronic venous insufficiency, with minimal to no side effects. (5, 6)
Minimizes Symptoms of Orthostatic Hypotension
Changes in blood pressure when standing are common in older adults and result from the body’s poor physiological response to postural changes in blood pressure.
When you stand up, blood moves and pools in different places within your body as your circulatory system functions naturally, adjusting for the change in posture to keep blood pressure consistent. Orthostatic hypotension occurs when your body stops doing this properly. Diagnosis of this condition often involves tilt-table testing at your doctor’s office.
Orthostatic hypotension is often a side effect of medication or other underlying problems. The first line of defense, even according to conventional medicine, is to begin by eliminating any prescriptions that might be causing this problem. Doctors sometimes prescribe getting more sodium in the diet and minimizing high carbohydrate foods to manage the condition. There are also medications prescribed to treat the condition. (8)
A 2000 review of studies involving treatment for chronic orthostatic hypotension discovered that drug therapies used to treat orthostatic hypotension are only “marginally useful” and overall “disappointing.” On the other hand, supplementation with butcher’s broom is safe, inexpensive and has been extremely promising in all related research.
In fact, the author of the review points out that butcher’s broom has two features that no conventional drug treatment for this condition has. It doesn’t cause supine hypertension (a common condition that occurs alongside orthostatic hypotension in which blood pressure rises rapidly while lying on the back). And, it alleviates symptoms even in hot environments. (9)
While these results need to be reproduced on the wider scale of medical research, it seems that butcher’s broom might be a relatively safe and effective treatment method for people with chronic orthostatic hypotension.
Butcher’s Broom History & Interesting Facts
The butcher’s broom shrub grows about three feet high with flat, leafy branches, large red berries and a greenish-white flower from late winter through the spring. It is found natively in the Mediterranean, Iran, the Azores islands and parts of Africa.
How did it get such a name? Because of how stiff the branches are, butchers in Europe would bind the branches together to sweep and clean cutting blocks.
In folk medicine, butcher’s broom has been a common part of European remedies for two millennia as a laxative and diuretic. Some cultures soaked the roots in wine or water and then drank it to get rid of stomach pain. It was used to treat kidney stones as far back as the first century A.D.
How to Use Butcher’s Broom
There are a number of ways to get the benefits of butcher’s broom. Many people take it in supplement form, which can be found in pills, oils and creams. As I mentioned earlier, some people eat butcher’s broom roots like they would asparagus, although it smells and tastes much more pungent and bitter than asparagus. (11)
Possible Side Effects & Precautions
There are a couple of issues to be aware of if you choose to take or eat butcher’s broom. For one, butcher’s broom contains saponins. These compounds are something of a mystery because they have incredible benefits on one hand and potentially major drawbacks on the other. For example, saponins might interfere with digestion and cause issues when ingested (which is why they’re on my list of antinutrients to avoid). (12) However, these are some of the same compounds that benefit the circulatory system.
That’s why it’s important to listen to your body — if you start taking any new supplement and experience major digestion issues, it may be a sign that it isn’t for you. Of course, any new supplement regimen should be undertaken with supervision of a doctor/naturopath you trust.
One major concern many doctors have about butcher’s broom is the number of conditions it’s used to treat without the support of proper scientific research. In particular, hemorrhoids pose a significant medical concern and at least one review finds it concerning that butcher’s broom might be used for this condition because it can result in lost time with no results and a potentially worsened issue. (14)
Again, make sure that you are under medical care from a qualified physician/naturopath, and don’t try to treat serious medical conditions at home without their direction.
In addition, it’s possible that butcher’s broom may interact with blood pressure medications and stimulant medications. So if you’re taking either of these, you should probably avoid butcher’s broom.
Butcher’s Broom Key Points
- Butcher’s broom is a plant used to create supplements that is found in parts of Europe and Africa.
- Traditionally, it’s been used to treat a number of conditions from gallstones to hemorrhoids.
- The two conditions that seem to be affected positively by butcher’s broom are orthostatic hypotension and chronic venous insufficiency.
- Butcher’s broom may interact with blood pressure and stimulant medications, so do not take these together unless explicitly instructed by your physician.