The Health Benefits of Bugleweed

Commonly Used in the Treatment of Thyroid Conditions

Bugleweed leaves and flowers, harvested and drying

Judith Haeusler / Getty Images

Bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus) is a bitter, pungent tasting, aromatic herb, with astringent properties, commonly used to treat thyroid problems (such as Grave’s disease). It originated in Europe but is native to North America, found in areas east of the Mississippi River. The plant is a perennial flowering species, that belongs to the mint genus—the family of Lamiaceae—but lacks the minty smell of other mint varieties. Its deep purplish-blue colored flowers bloom from May to September (depending on geographic location) and the seeds ripen from July to September. 

Other common names for bugleweed include ajuga, ashangee, chanvre d'eau, green wolf's foot, gypsy weed, hoarhound, menta de lobo, Paul's betony, sweet bugle, water bugle, and water horehound.

Health Benefits

Historically, bugleweed was used as a part of Old Europe’s folk medicine then, later, by the early American herbalists as a remedy for cough, a sedative, and as a remedy for heart palpitations. During the 14th century, bugleweed was used in the treatment of a condition that was called consumption. Consumption was used to describe a wasting disease caused by starvation from pulmonary tuberculosis.

Other common traditional uses of bugleweed include the promotion of wound healing, treating fevers and mouth ulcers, stopping bleeding, and treating symptoms of alcohol withdrawal such as anxiety and rapid pulse. Regulating hormonal conditions—such as moderation of estrogen and lowering of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels—was commonly accomplished by administering bugleweed. 

Although there have been many studies on bugleweed, according to RxList.com, there is not enough clinical research data to back up the claims that bugleweed is effective to treat many maladies.

Related species that also go by the common name of bugleweed include Lycopus americanus, Lycopus europaeus, and Lycopus lucidus. "They are all used medicinally in similar ways for hyperthyroid-like symptoms, including heart palpitations and tachycardia (fast heart rate), chest tightness, tremor, anxiety, and insomnia," according to Restorative Medicine.org.

Bugleweed for Thyroid Conditions

Many of the medical research studies on bugleweed are aimed at evaluating its impact on thyroid function. Although many of the studies discovered favorable outcomes for the use of bugleweed to improve symptoms of thyroid disorders (such as hyperthyroidism) most of the research studies have been conducted on animals, not humans.

Preliminary studies show that bugleweed may be effective in treating thyroid problems, such as Grave’s disease.

Grave’s disease is a common form of hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). It’s considered an autoimmune disease, characterized by goiter (enlarged thyroid gland) heart palpitations and weight loss, among other things.

A study published by The Journal of Phytopharmacology reports that bugleweed increased the absorption and storage of iodine, slowing down the formation of goiter, reducing thyroid hormone activity and slowing metabolism in rats.

Restorative Medicine.org reports that although there are a limited number of studies on bugleweed, “One animal study reported Lycopus europaeus [bugleweed] was associated with a significant improvement in the symptoms of mild hyperthyroidism.”

A 2012 cohort study on humans, published by Springer Link identified data to support improvement in mild hyperthyroidism symptoms, identified after using an extract of wolfstraw (an herbal mixture used in Chinese Medicine containing bugleweed).

Other Conditions

A 2013 animal study found that bugleweed has significant antitussive (cough reducing) properties.

Another animal study found that extracts from bugleweed possessed strong analgesic (painkilling) and central nervous system depressant properties, lending itself to promoting sleep and relaxation.

Although many preliminary studies show that bugleweed may be useful in treating various disorders, more clinical research data are needed to back up the safe and effective use of the herb.

How it Works

Bugleweed and other related plant species from the Lamiaceae family contain compounds—called rosmarinic acid, lithospermic, and chlorogenic acids— which may exert an anti-thyroid effect in those with hyperthyroidism. The extract of whole Lycopus may calm excessive thyroid stimulation in Grave’s disease and other thyroid disorders.

It is thought that bugleweed may release the hormone prolactin, enabling the herbal supplement to help decrease breast pain. But according to Science Direct, no evidence-based study data exists to back up that claim.

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Ideally, it’s best to buy bugleweed that has been harvested in May or early in the month of June (when the leaves are at their peak level). After harvest, bugleweed is dried for packaging.

Purchase wild-harvested bugleweed, certified by a third party, to ensure the strength and quality of the product. 

Use caution when purchasing bugleweed (or any other herbal supplement) on the internet. Herbs and other natural supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or any other governing agency. Manufacturers are not bound to the same level of quality standards as for prescription or over-the-counter medications. 

Dosage

Although the safe and effective dosage of bugleweed has not been well established by clinical research studies, there are some sources (such as clinical herbalists) who recommend its safe use.

According to Restorative Medicine.org, Lycopus is “generally safe,” at dosages from 100 to 400 milligrams, two to three times daily. Restorative Medicine also adds that “Higher doses of two grams or more a day have been well tolerated.”

For hyperthyroidism (under the supervision of a physician or other healthcare provider) steep one to two teaspoons of bugleweed leaves into a cup of hot water for 10 minutes. Strain and drink once per day for two to three weeks.

The right dosage of bugleweed (or any other herbal supplement) depends on a person’s age, general health, and other factors. Always follow the directions on the product package and be sure to consult with a physician or other healthcare provider regarding the correct dose before taking the herbal supplement.

Preparation

An extract made from the stems, leaves, and flowers of bugleweed is used for medicinal purposes. The leaves from the plant are used to apply to the skin for wound healing. Bugleweed ointment and medicated oils are used in topical preparations.

Possible Side Effects

There are few known side effects of bugleweed, although any herbal supplement could result in an allergic reaction. Symptoms of an allergic reaction may be mild to severe, and may include:

  • Hives or welts
  • Swelling of the lips, face, or eyes
  • Tingling of the mouth
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting

Anyone who experiences allergic symptoms after taking bugleweed should immediately stop taking the herb and contact a physician or other healthcare provider.

Symptoms of anaphylactic shock (a severe allergic reaction) may include:

  • Trouble breathing or noisy breath sounds
  • Swelling of the tongue or throat
  • Constriction of the throat
  • Problems talking (hoarse voice)
  • Wheezing or coughing
  • Dizziness that does not subside or collapse

 A person experiencing symptoms of anaphylactic shock should seek immediate emergency medical care.

Contraindications

Contraindications are conditions or circumstances in which a specific treatment, medication or supplement (in this case bugleweed) should not be used. These include:

Pregnancy or breastfeeding: Bugleweed may not be safe because it could disrupt the normal hormones required for a safe pregnancy or for adequate production of milk when nursing a baby. There are no clinical studies to indicate that bugleweed is safe or effective for an infant to ingest in breastmilk.

Diabetes: It is thought that bugleweed may lower blood sugar, therefore those with diabetes should avoid bugleweed unless it is approved by a physician or other healthcare provider. The dosage of insulin or oral (by mouth) diabetic medication may need to be adjusted by your healthcare professional before a diabetic begins taking bugleweed.

Enlarged thyroid or those with thyroid hypofunction (low functioning thyroid, such as during menopause) should avoid taking bugleweed because it may lower thyroid hormone levels, subsequently worsening thyroid function.

Endocrine disorders: Those with conditions such as hypopituitarism, pituitary adenoma, hypogonadism or other endocrine disorders should avoid taking bugleweed.

Bugleweed should not be taken with some medications, including:

  • Chemotherapy (bugleweed may interact with radioactive isotopes, causing severe symptoms)
  • Sedatives (bugleweed could potentiate, or increase, the action of sedatives)
  • Hormone supplements or products (including oral products such as estrogen, or topical products such as progesterone cream)
  • Oral hypoglycemic medication
  • Insulin
  • Thyroid medication
  • Oral contraceptives or fertility drugs

Special Precautions

Although bugleweed is reportedly possibly safe for most people, thyroid disease should never be self-treated. A physician or other healthcare provider should be notified anytime that thyroid problems are suspected. 

Long-term use of bugleweed and abrupt withdrawal may result in high levels of thyroid hormones (which could cause symptoms such as insomnia, heart palpitations, an increase in heart rate and more).

People who are scheduled for surgery should stop taking bugleweed at least two weeks before the surgery date. This is because bugleweed may affect blood sugar levels; the herbal supplement could interfere with normal blood sugar control during and after a surgical procedure.

Common Questions

Since bugleweed isn't your common herb, like oregano or sage, you may have questions about its use.

Bugleweed is edible. Bugleweed shoots can be eaten raw in salads or sautéed. The leaves can be steeped in tea, eaten in salads or added to casseroles. Traditionally, Native American tribes ate the roots of the bugleweed plant. When boiled, the roots are said to taste like Chinese artichokes. The safety of eating any part of the bugleweed plant, or drinking tea from its leaves, has not been well established in clinical research studies, but many experts agree that bugleweed is possibly safe for internal use.

Bugleweed can be used on the skin. Bugleweed has a long history of use in ointments and medicated oils to help heal the skin.

Children should not use bugleweed. The safe use of bugleweed has not been well established in infants or children.

A Word from Verywell

Bugleweed is not backed by enough randomized controlled clinical research trials (the gold standard of medical studies) and cohort studies (a specific type of observational study) on humans.

If you are thinking of using bugleweed, it’s important to consult with your physician, naturopathic doctor, or another healthcare provider first, particularly if you have a medical condition, or are taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, or other supplements.  

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