Health and Wellness

Birch Bark - an alternative pain reliever

Janet Moje
The orange inner bark is where the medicinal properties are concentrated.
The orange inner bark is where the medicinal properties are concentrated.

The dangers of pain killers are becoming more widely known, from prescription opioids to the side effects of over-the-counter drugs such as ASA, acetaminophen and ibuprofen, more commonly known as Aspirin, Tylenol and Advil. Taking these pain killers regularly can cause damage to our internal organs or worse. Yet chronic pain is something many of us live with daily.

A Traditional Medicine

A possible alternative is birch bark. It contains betulinic acid, betulin and methyl salicylate. It has been used for centuries to relieve headaches, reduce fevers, urinary tract infections, thinning the blood and eliminating excess water. Other known uses include treating stomach and intestinal problems, edema, kidney stones, cystitis, and skin outbreaks. It is a treatment for arthritis, gout and muscle pain in traditional medicine.

Chinese doctors have called it the Russian ginseng, using it as a remedy for malaria, pneumonia, headache relief, wounds and improving low blood pressure. It is currently being studied as a possible treatment for melanoma, tumour reduction and HIV. Unlike aspirin, it has a soothing effect on the stomach and even acts as a gentle sedative, helping one get a good night’s sleep.

How to Harvest

The medicinal properties of birch bark are found in the inner orange bark. It can be harvested from the main trunk but if the tree is standing it is best to harvest from branches rather than risk damaging the tree. Lightly scrape off the powdery white outer layer to expose the orange, then scrape it off until you reach the white wood beneath.

How to Use

These orange scrapings can be used immediately in a tea (1 tablespoon per cup of water; steep for 10 minutes), chewed for a toothache, or can be dried and ground into a powder which is the easiest way to store it. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of powder into a cup of hot water; steep for 5 minutes.*

The powder can also be capsuled if you prefer to take a pill to drinking tea. Empty capsules can be purchased and filled, then stored in a dry, dark bottle for later use.

Another alternative is to make a tincture. Place the birch bark in a jar and cover with vodka. Cover and let it sit in a dark cupboard for a week, giving it a shake once or twice a day. Take a teaspoon of this tincture 2-3 times per day for the medicinal benefits.

Polypores can be harvested, sliced and dried, then used like the orange inner bark
Polypores can be harvested, sliced and dried, then used like the orange inner bark
Janet Moje photos

Birch bark is not the only beneficial use from this tree. The leaves, the sap and even fungi that grow on it share its medicinal properties but are beyond the scope of this article. If you wish to look into this more, try searching the Chaga mushroom (inonotus obliquus) or Birch Polypore (piptoporus betulinus).

(*Suggested measurements are adult dosages).

NOTE: Birch bark can exacerbate allergies, so use with caution. WEBMD has a list of precautions regarding the use of birch bark, especially if you are on medications. It is always a good idea to check with your physician before adding wild foods to your diet.