The Health Benefits of Chickweed

This flowering weed is thought to treat skin conditions

Chickweed in field

TorriPhoto / Getty Images

Chickweed (Stellaria media) is an annual plant native to Europe that has become naturalized in North America, where it is mostly considered a weed. However, to herbalists and practitioners of alternative medicine, chickweed is a potent and long-standing folk remedy believed to offer significant health benefits.

The flowers, leaves, and stems of chickweed have long been used to make oral decoctions, extracts, and teas. Today, chickweed is more commonly used as a topical ointment to treat a variety of skin conditions. The consumption of chickweed, while common in some cultures, is typically avoided due to the risk of side effects.

Chickweed is recognized by its hairy stems, oval leaves, and small, daisy-like blossoms with five crenelated petals.

Also Known As

  • Chicken wort
  • Craches
  • Maruns
  • Mouse ear
  • Satinflower
  • Starweed
  • Tongue grass
  • Winterweed

Health Benefits

Chickweed's use in folk medicine has been recorded as far back as the 16th century when it was often used to treat wounds. Over time, it was embraced as a "blood cleanser" or used it to treat asthma, constipation, menstrual pain, peptic ulcers, rabies, respiratory illnesses, and scurvy, among other common and uncommon conditions.

Today, chickweed is rarely taken by mouth due to potential toxicities. That hasn't stopped certain cultures from using it as food, including Japan where it is widely eaten during the springtime festival, Nanakusa-no-sekku. Others believe that chickweed is an effective weight-loss remedy.

Despite concerns about toxicity, chickweed is not banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), although it is included in the FDA Poisonous Plant Database.

When applied topically, chickweed is believed to treat the following skin conditions:

To date, there is little evidence that chickweed can treat any medical conditions. With that being said, chickweed has significant concentrations of bioactive compounds, including flavonoids, phenolic acid, saponins, coumarins, and terpenoids.

Alternative practitioners have long contended that these compounds are potent enough to render health benefits. Unfortunately, most of the current research has been focused on chickweed as a weed rather than a medicinal herb.

Weight Loss

The one area in which chickweed has been studied is in the treatment of obesity. Two studies—one published in the journal Ayu in 2011 and the other in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2012—reported that obese mice fed an extract of Stellaria media for four weeks experienced weight loss despite being fed a high-fat diet.

Saponin, a plant-based compound that creates a soap-like foam when mixed with water, is believed to be responsible for this effect. Some believe that it has emollient properties and can effectively "trap" circulating fat, including cholesterol.

As promising as the findings seem, saponin is also one of the ingredients that pose possible health concerns.

Possible Side Effects

When used topically, chickweed is generally considered safe and well-tolerated. However, some people exposed to chickweed have been known to develop a mild rash. People allergic to plants of the daisy family may at higher risk.

Allergic reactions to chickweed ointments are rarely serious and can usually be treated with an oral antihistamine, an over-the-counter 0.5% hydrocortisone cream, or nothing at all.

It is unknown if chickweed can cause drug interactions.

Warning

The greater concern arises with the oral consumption of chickweed. Saponins and nitrate salts, both found in chickweed, pose a risk of toxicity if eaten in excess. Although saponins pose a lesser risk in humans, the combination of the two has been known to cause poisoning even in larger mammals, such as cows.

Symptoms of toxicity may include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rapid pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Cyanosis (bluish skin, nails, or lips)

In rare cases, muscle paralysis, convulsions, and coma may occur. Death is rare.

It is important to note that the extremely large amounts of chickweed are needed for the herb to be toxic. With that said, the actual amount can vary based on the size, age, and pregnancy status the individual.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infants under four months are at the highest risk of harm from nitrate exposure as are pregnant women at or near the 30th week of pregnancy.

To this end, it is best to play it safe and avoid consuming chickweed in any form. This includes nursing mothers who may pass compounds in chickweed to their baby through breast milk.

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Outside of Japan, chickweed is generally not consumed as food. In the United States, it can be readily purchased as an ointment, salve, oral supplement, or liquid extract as well as a variety of powders, teas, and dried herbs.

There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of chickweed. Chickweed ointments are often sold as anti-itch creams and can be applied to the skin several times daily. Chickweed salve, usually made with beeswax, is sometimes used to treat burns or draw splinters out of skin.

If the fresh chickweed is available, herbalists will often recommend that it be blanched in 50% water and 50% white vinegar until soft and applied to wounds as a poultice. However, you avoid applying the poultices to open wounds as they will not only sting (due to the vinegar) but may pass contaminants through breaks in the skin.

This is especially true given that chickweed is regarded by most as a weed and is likely to have been exposed to pesticides, lawn fertilizers, or other harmful chemicals.

If you do decide to take chickweed supplements, tea, or another other oral product, do not exceed the dose listed on the product label. More importantly, let your doctor know so that your condition can be monitored should an unforeseen side effect develop.

When to Call 911

If you experience dizziness, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, stomach pain, or bluish lips or nails after taking chickweed, call Poison Control at 888-222-1222 or go to your nearest emergency room.

Other Questions

How do you make chickweed salve?

Chickweed salve can be made with either fresh chickweed or chickweed oil. Though recipes vary, many herbalists will recommend the following:

  1. Blend two handfuls of freshly chopped chickweed with 1-1/4 cups of olive oil.
  2. Place the mixture in the top of a double boiler, bringing the water to a healthy simmer.
  3. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Transfer the oil to a bowl and allow to steep for 24 to 48 hours.
  5. Strain the oil through a double-layer of cheesecloth.
  6. Stir the rendered oil into 1 ounce of melted beeswax.
  7. Once cooled, the salve is ready to use.

Alternately, you can add 5 ounces of storebought chickweed oil to 1 ounce of melted beeswax. Both are said to work equally well and can be stored for up to six months in the refrigerator.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  1. Crellin JK, Philpott J. (1999) A Reference Guide to Medicinal Plants: Herbal Medicine Past and Present. Durham, North Caroline: Duke University Press Books; pp 156-157.

Additional Reading