Betula species (birches)

Betulinic Acid

Birches with white coloured bark, such as silver birch, contain betulinic acid and its precursor, betulin. As well as giving the bark its colour, these are thought to protect the tree against extremes of temperature and parasitic infections. Both compounds have medicinal effects, with betulinic acid generally the more active.
Betulinic acid is active against some forms of cancer and has anti-inflammatory, anti-retroviral and anti-malarial activity. Betulin was one of the first active compounds to be extracted from a plant and has potential uses in the treatment of high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis and the herpes virus.

Both compounds have relatively poor solubility which limits their bioavailability in the body. Parasitic fungi such as the chaga mushroom which grow on the trees contain a more bioavailable form of betulinic acid and were traditionally used in Eastern European folk medicine to treat cancer.

Papery sections of some species of birch tree peel off and were used for writing on – the oldest surviving written documents found in Britain, the Vindolanda tablets from around 100 AD, were written on wood bark, including birch. The inner bark of silver birch trees was ground into a flour for making bread in times of hardship in Scandinavia. Birch tree pollen is one of the most significant contributors to hay fever symptoms in northern latitudes, due to the presence of the protein Bet v 1.

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