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Birch leaves, bark offer surprising health benefits

by Doris Penner

Birch tree branches are perfect for little boys to swing on, notes Robert Frost in his lovely poem simply entitled Birches. Birch trees with their distinctive white bark also add a beautiful contrast to other deciduous and conifer trees in Manitoba's boreal forests, and the smooth light-coloured surface of the bark offers a surface to write messages on as I discovered as a youngster playing in the woods with my sisters. However, a surprise to some might be that birch trees offer far more than beauty to the landscape—indeed, the bark, leaves and sap contain properties that are shown to have health benefits. This was known to Canadian Indians who not only used the lightweight bark for canoes and wigwams and the hard wood for furniture pieces, they early on realized tinctures made from various parts of the tree appeared to help combat infections, heal wounds and lessen pains from arthritis.

So what does the birch tree contain that is of benefit to the health of humans? It is interesting to note that the various components of the tree—in particular sap, bark and leaves—contain tannins, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals.

Like other trees, the birch has sap which courses through the tree, carrying nutrients along the branches to the leaves. The sap may be extracted from the birch tree by tapping the trunk in spring. The slightly sweet thin sap can be boiled down into syrup which has never achieved the marketability and world-wide popularity that maple syrup has. However, the sap itself, which contains sugars (xylitol), protein (several types of amino acids), minerals such as calcium, potassium and magnesium and enzymes is ingested in some countries as a tonic. What may increase the popularity of the “tonic” is the fact that it is often fermented which adds abit of sparkle to the drink.

Goodness of the bark

The goodness of bark is extracted by soaking crumbled bits in water for a time, then drinking the liquid. It appears the bark contains tannins that aid the digestive system, in particular to bring regularity to bowel movements. In addition, this concoction has been used to reduce fever in the case of influenza and colds. Externally, it helps disinfect wounds, sore throats and mouth ulcers.

It seems throughout history, the leaves of the birch have proved to be the most useful component of the tree to treat human ailments. In most cases, the leaves were dried, then crumbled into a container and water added to make a drink, often called “birch juice.” This infusion was highly prized as a diuretic and an anti-inflammatory agent.

A diuretic has the ability to stimulate the removal of fluid from the body—and this is more important to health than might be evident at first glance. First, diuretics help the kidney flush out harmful or toxic elements from the body. One example of this is uric acid that tends to collect in joints, causing a painful condition known as gout. Removal of excess fluid contributes to the health of both the kidney and liver.

Fluid retention also plays a role in bloating, which adds to weight gain. It's not only desirable to eliminate excess water for the sake of appearance, but also because extra fluid contributes to high blood pressure.

Birch leaves contain a substance known as betulinol which makes them an effective anti-inflammatory treatment. Cystitis or urinary tract infection as it is known among laypeople is a painful and rather annoying problem—very common among older individuals—which can be successfully treated with antibiotics if the cause is bacterial. However, inflammation of the bladder can have a number of underlying causes (for example, a reaction to certain drugs or irritants such as hygiene spray) which can be treated with an anti-inflammatory substance.

Reduce pain

Anyone who deals with arthritis on a regular basis is happy for any treatment that can reduce pain and swelling. It appears as an anti-inflammatory, birch juice may help in this regard. This is true also of pain experienced by patients with other rheumatic disorders.

An infusion of birch leaves has also been said to reduce hair loss—if one is vigilant in applying the concoction in the morning on rising and just before going to bed—but this may just be wishful thinking! It also seems a solution of dry leaves in water may decrease foot sweat which, of course, would prevent odor by eliminating microorganisms in the sweat. It's worth a try, certainly, and surely could do no harm, cleaning the feet if nothing else.

You may be interested in trying a birch infusion for some ailment or other, but are unsure how to go about it, or in fact may have no birch trees in the vicinity to access. The work is done for you . . .birch juice can be found on the market (an extraction mainly from fresh leaves) and is available at most health food stores.