Osha root is a popular herb that is used for its various respiratory health benefits.
The roots of osha have been traditionally been used to treat various respiratory ailments, including mucus buildup, colds, coughs, bronchial pneumonia, and the flu.
In this article, we will look at the benefits of osha root, its safety, and history.
Table of Contents
What is Osha Root?
Osha root is a root that is found mainly in the Rocky Mountains. It’s commonly used as a traditional medicine in both the US and Mexico.
In Mexico, the plant is commonly called ‘‘chuchupate’’, ‘‘raíz del cochino’’ and ‘‘angelica’s root’’, among others. In the USA the most popular names are osha, porter’s licorice, and bear root.
Osha is known scientifically as Ligusticum porteri, it’s part of the Apiaceae (i.e. carrot) family of plants.
The roots of osha have been traditionally been used to treat various respiratory ailments, including:
- mucus buildup
- colds & flu
- bronchial pneumonia
- and other respiratory problems.
The roots have also been used externally to treat aches and pains, digestive problems, scorpion stings, wounds, and skin infections.
While osha has a long history of traditional medicine usage, the knowledge pertaining to the pharmaceutical uses of L. porteri is scarce due to a shortage of scientific research.
Health Benefits of Osha Root:
Osha root has many purported health benefits. While there is minimal scientific research on osha, there are some preliminary studies that seem to confirm traditional usage.
1. Antioxidant Properties
Test-tube research shows that osha root benefits the body through its strong antioxidant properties.
Oxidative stress occurs when an imbalance occurs between the production and accumulation of oxygen reactive species (ROS) in cells and tissues and the ability of a biological system to detoxify these reactive products.
High levels of oxidative stress are associated with cancer, various neurological diseases (including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s), as well as asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Antioxidants are special molecules that are able to neutralize free radicals. This disarms free radicals and reduces oxidative stress.
Findings from a 2016 in vitro study suggest that osha root has protective effects against oxidative damage. The researchers noted that these antioxidant properties may help to improve human immune system function.
A 2017 lab-based study by the same group looked at osha’s antioxidant mechanism of action. They found that osha root helps to prevent the oxidation of reduced glutathione, the body’s master antioxidant.
They also found that L. porteri root extract may be effective in preventing oxidative damage by increasing the activities of various antioxidant enzymes.
Summary:Initial laboratory research suggests that osha root has a strong antioxidant effect. While this research is promising, human clinical trials are needed to prove out these initial reports.
2. Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Laboratory research indicates that one of the primary benefits of osha root is its anti-inflammatory properties.
A test-tube study found that osha root extract worked to reduce a number of inflammatory markers. It’s thought that this is a result of its antioxidant activity.
Researchers speculate that these anti-inflammatory effects are a result of a phytochemical called Z-ligustilide that’s present in osha root.
An initial animal study found that Z-ligustilide has a strong anti-inflammatory effect. This has also been confirmed by test-tube studies in various labs.
Summary:Initial research shows that osha root may have strong anti-inflammatory properties. It’s thought that this is due to Z-ligustilide, a phytochemical found in osha. While these findings are promising, human clinical trials are needed for confirmation.
3. Antimicrobial Properties
Research indicates that osha root benefits the immune system through its antimicrobial properties which may help protect against infection.
An in vitro study found that the essential oil compounds in osha root were effective in fighting a multi-drug resistance (MDR) strain of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus.
Another study looking at phthalides, a category of phytochemicals that are well represented in osha root, found that they have strong antimicrobial properties.
Another study found that osha root extract is particularly effective against numerous bacteria, including Escherichia coli, Enterococcus feacalis, Strespcoccus epidermidis, Staphylococcus aureus.
This is in line with traditional usage. It has been used to disinfect wounds, for coughs and colds, as well as for the flu.
Additionally, studies show that Z-ligustilide, a phytochemical found in osha root, also has antifungal properties.
Summary:Test tube studies show that osha root is an active antimicrobial with the ability to fight against bacterial and fungal attacks. This follows the traditional medicinal usage of this plant. Human clinical trials needed to verify these promising findings.
4. Respiratory Health
Documented research is limited when it comes to proving the effectiveness of osha root for respiratory health, anecdotal and traditional findings suggest that this herb can benefit the respiratory system.
Osha root contains a variety of phytochemicals, including camphor, saponins, ferulic acid, terpenes, and phytosterols. It’s thought that this broad range of constituents provides the respiratory support mechanism.
As noted above, it has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties that may help to reduce inflammation and protect the lungs from viruses and infections.
It is also believed that osha root can help to increase blood circulation to the lungs which, in turn, may help to improve oxygenation throughout the entire body
Summary:While no human clinical trials have taken place looking at the benefits of osha root for respiratory health, traditional usage shows a strong profile for respiratory health.
5. Other Benefits
Since osha root is noted as being beneficial for a host of complaints, there has been a strong diversity of research on this plant, including:
- Gastroprotective Effect: This plant has been traditionally used in Northern Mexico to treat ulcers. An animal study looked at this mechanism and found that diligustilide, a component found in osha, has anti-ulcer activity.
- Sedative Activity: A test-tube study found that constituents in osha (including Z-ligustilide and Z-butylidenephthalide) may have a sedative and antispasmolytic effects.
- Stomach Ulcers: An animal study found that osha root extract helped to protect against stomach ulcers
- Pain Reduction: Osha root (and rhizome) is widely used in Mexican folk medicine for painful complaints. A study looking at this found that this plant helped to reduce pain.
- Blood Sugar Control: In a study looking at blood sugar regulation in mice with type 2 diabetes, osha root extract worked to reduce blood sugar levels after they consumed sugar
Summary:Small scale animal studies, as well as test-tube analysis, shows that osha root may have a variety of different health benefits. However, these need to be studied individually in human populations.
Osha Root Safety:
Safety Class: 2B
Interaction Class: A
The Botanical Safety Handbook rates Ligusticum porteri as being in the safety class of 2B, meaning it should be avoided during pregnancy except under the supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
It has an interaction class of “A” which suggests that no clinically relevant adverse reactions are expected to occur.
In general, this herb is well tolerated and safe to take for most individuals.
Pregnancy & Lactation:
Traditionally, osha root was used as an emmenagogue and abortifacient by natives from New Mexico.
There is no modern clinical research looking at the safety of osha root during pregnancy or lactation. However, based on traditional usage, this herb is not recommended during pregnancy.
Osha Root Dosing:
Capsules: Typically sold as a powdered extract. Take 1-2 capsules (~500mg each) daily.
Tincture Using a 1:5 tincture, take 20 to 60 drops of tincture of fresh root up to five times daily. In respiratory tract infections up to five mL of fresh tincture can be given every two hours while awake for 48 hours then reduce to five mL four times daily until symptoms subside.
Decoction: Two to four fluid ounces up to four times daily. Some herbalists report that large roots can be decocted numerous times before fully exhausting the medicine.
Tea/Hot Infusion: Take a couple of osha roots and several cups of water and simmer for at least 30 min, keep in mind that a longer simmer is better (5-6 hours is ideal). When finished, the tea will be a gray-brown color. Drink as needed.
Osha is currently not available as a cultivated crop; it has not yet been grown outside of its native mountain habitat. Its seeds are difficult to germinate and it prefers to grow in altitudes over 9,000 feet.
Since osha is not able to be cultivated, the only way to get access to this plant is via wild-harvesting. This is problematic as over-harvesting can threaten the long-term sustainability of this plant.
Osha is currently on the United Plant Savers “At Risk” list. It has an at risk score of 48 (on a scale of 1-100). Consumers should pay attention to the sustainability practices of the companies they buy from.
The root extract has been found to contain a combination of phthalides, terpenoids, phenylpropanoids, and coumarins.
The essential oil was reported to contain sabinyl acetate, Z-ligustilide, Z-3-butylidenephthalide, and sabinol as its main components.
Naming & Taxonomy:
The word “osha” is the native American word for “bear”. The American Herbal Pharmacopoeia mentions that this is due to the fact that bears would search out and eat this root in the springtime when they woke up from hibernation.
This is why osha is commonly called “bear root”. It’s also known as porter’s licorice and porter’s lovage. In Mexico, this plant is called ‘‘chuchupate’’, ‘‘raíz del cochino’’, and ‘‘angelica’s root’’.
The scientific name for osha is Ligusticum porteri. The genus name Ligusticum was named by Linnaeus referring to the Italian province of Liguria in Northwest Italy in which lovage, now Levisticum officinale, was commonly grown.
The American Herbal Pharmacopoeia says the species name porteri is named after botanist Thomas Porter, who was among the first to catalog this herb.
Multiple species in the Apiaceae family are commonly called “osha,” including:
- Ligusticum canbyi
- L. filicinum
- L. grayi
- L. tenuifolium
- and Conioselinum scopulorum
However, L. porteri is considered as being the only true “osha” plant.
Because osha cultivation is limited and much of the available product in commerce is wild-harvested, knowledge of these species and their subtle differences is especially important for quality control initiatives and sustainability, according to the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia.
History & Traditional Use:
Osha has been used medicinally by various indigenous peoples for centuries and subsequently absorbed into the medicine formulas of many cultures.
The roots of the osha plant have been used in various preparations (tinctures, infusions, or teas) and taken internally, especially for catarrh, colds, coughs, bronchial pneumonia, flu, and other respiratory infections.
Root preparations have been used to treat fever, diarrhea, gastrointestinal disorders, hangover, sore throats, and rheumatism.
Externally, root preparations were used to treat aches and pains, digestive problems, scorpion stings, wounds, and skin infections. Additionally, the hollow stems have been smoked to break the nicotine habit.
In conclusion, osha root appears to be a safe and well-tolerated herb.
Osha root benefits the body in a variety of ways. Laboratory research appears to be promising for helping reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, as well as supporting a variety of others health markers.
It’s worth looking into osha root if you are needing support in any of these areas. As always, make sure to consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or adding a new supplement.
Gardner, Z. & McGuffin, M. (2013). Botanical safety handbook (2nd edition). American Herbal Products Association.
Moore, M. (2003). Medicinal plants of the mountain West. 2nd ed. Santa Fe (NM): Museum of New Mexico Press.
Upton, R. (2018). Osha: Standards of analysis, quality control, and therapeutics. American Herbal Pharmacopoeia.
Yarnell, E., Abascal, K., & Hooper, C.G. (2003). Clinical botanical medicine. Larchmont (NY):