When treating illness or disease, it makes sense to consume food and medicine of the highest quality.
Should not the same standard apply, then, to the things we put onto our bodies, for instance, in the event of an injury or wound?
For those individuals who are looking for something less toxic than the creams and lotions with concentrated antibiotics (known to contribute to antibiotic resistance), synthetic preservatives, synthetic fragrances, and synthetic colors: consider looking to the birch tree for potential wound relief.
According to researchers from the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University of Freiburg, an extract from silver birch bark (Betula pendula) is able to expedite the wound-healing process, doing so in two unique ways (1).
First, the extract enhances acute inflammation. When skin is damaged, certain inflammatory mediators are recruited to the area of injury. Birch bark, in particular its triterpine betulin, heightens this particular response when applied to wounds, allowing for greater production of inflammatory substances that fight harmful bacteria and remove dead tissue. This pro-inflammatory process is only temporary, which is a good thing, as extended inflammation could be detrimental to the wound healing process.
Second, the extract enhances tissue repair. After skin is damaged and inflammation is underway, new skin cells must close the wound. Birch bark, when applied to skin, causes keratinocytes to migrate more quickly to the site of injury, helping to seal the wound. It seems as though the compounds betulin and lupeol are responsible for this crucial second step.
While the particular mechanisms behind the wound-healing properties of birch bark provide new information for scientists, the use of birch bark to heal wounds has been known by researchers for quite some time. A 2010 case study documented the ability of birch bark extract to successfully treat severe necrotizing herpes zoster (shingles) in a patient who failed to respond to conventional topical treatments (2).
In another report, birch bark extract was shown to be effective in treating two patients with second degree burning (3).
The history of birch bark for wound treatment goes back yet even further. If we are to look at the traditional use of birch trees by indigenous peoples, at least in North America, we find that several groups used the bark to treat various skin disorders.
For example, paper birch was used to treat skin rashes. The Cree used the outer bark to bandage burns. Inner bark, added to pitch and grease, was used by the Cree as ointment for persistent scabs and rashes.
Gray birch was used by the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq for infected cuts, and powdered wood from the downy birch was used by the Cree to treat chafed skin (4).
Although Native Americans did not produce extractions as sophisticated as the modern ones currently used in research, they were still able to take advantage of the skin-healing properties of birch trees through simpler methods, and so can you.
Both betulin and lupeol, the chemicals responsible for the wound-healing effects of birch bark, are poorly soluble in water. To make birch bark extractions, then, alcohol and fat would be better solvents. This can be accomplished by removing the bark (the researchers used the outer bark), crushing it into small pieces, and extracting the materials in alcohol or fat. After a few weeks, the mixture can be strained and bottled for later use.
A salve can also be quite effective, produced by extracting the bark in olive oil, straining, and adding the solution to melted beeswax. Upon solidifying, the salve is ready for use.
Being able to identify birch trees is important, as they can also be utilized for food, medicine, sap and syrup, basketry, dyes, lumber, and fire wood. When using them to treat wounds, however, understand that there is a limit to what they can accomplish. If you are out in the wild and injure yourself severely, professional emergency medical help might be the better option.
Still, it is important to know that birch bark can be used in certain circumstances to treat skin disorders. And what’s even more important than just knowing about it is taking action and putting this information to good use.
3. Schempp C, Huyke C (2005) Behandlung von Verbrennungen 2. Grades mit Birkencreme. Der Merkurstab 5: 402.
4. Moerman, D. E. (2008) Native American Ethnobotany. London: Timber Press, Inc.