Plantain (not to be confused with the relative of the banana known by the same name) is a small weed often found in cultivated fields and at the edge of lawns. Traditionally, the crushed leaves were applied to the skin to treat wounds and bites, a leaf tincture was used for coughs, and the dried leaf was taken internally for the treatment of bronchitis, ulcers, epilepsy, and liver problems.
Plantain extracts do appear to have anti-inflammatory effects, at least in the test tube. 5,6 However, unlike most pharmaceutical anti-inflammatory drugs, which work on the cyclooxygenase-1 (COX-1) and cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) systems, one study suggests that plantain may work in a different fashion, by decreasing levels of nitric oxide. 5 Whether this indicates any real potential benefit in people remains unknown.
Contrary to some reports, one study found that plantain does not have diuretic (kidney-stimulating) effects. 10
A typical dose of plantain for oral use is 1–3 grams three times daily. 11 Syrups and tinctures are used for coughs.
Plantain contains active substances in the iridoid glycoside family, especially aucubin, catalpol, and acteoside. 12-14 The highest levels are found when the plant is collected in mid-fall. 14 Other potentially active ingredients fall in the phenolic category, such as caffeic acid. Some plantain products are standardized to levels of one or more of these ingredients, but it is not clear whether this produces a “better” product.
Plantain appears to be relatively safe, but comprehensive safety studies have not been performed.
Plantain grown in soil contaminated with heavy metals such as thallium or antimony may develop relatively high concentrations of these potential toxins. 15,16
In 1997, the FDA reported that some “plantain” available for sale on the herb market was contaminated with similar-appearing foxglove (digitalis), an herb with potent and potentially toxic effects on the heart. 17
Safety in pregnant or nursing women, young children, or individuals with liver or kidney disease has not been established.
5. Vigo E, Cepeda A, Gualillo O, et al. In-vitro anti-inflammatory activity of Pinus sylvestris and Plantago lanceolata extracts: effect on inducible NOS, COX-1, COX-2 and their products in J774A.1 murine macrophages. J Pharm Pharmacol . 2005;57:383–91.
10. Doan DD, Nguyen NH, Doan HK, et al. Studies on the individual and combined diuretic effects of four Vietnamese traditional herbal remedies ( Zea mays , Imperata cylindrica , Plantago major and Orthosiphonstamineus ). J Ethnopharmacol . 1992;36:225–31.
11. Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, et al. (eds). The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines . Austin: American Botanical Council and Boston: Integrative Medicine Communications; 1998:186–7.
17. Whitmore, A. FDA warns consumers against dietary supplement products that may contain digitalis mislabeled as "plantain." Available at: http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/NEW00570.html . Accessed May 5, 2005.
Last reviewed August 2013 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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