Used as an antioxidant for preserving food and other benefits …

BHT Occurs Naturally
in a Medicinal Plant

… along with its use in a remarkable food chain

By Will Block

Fig. 1. Phytoplankton krillwhale
Afew years ago, scientific researchers found that a significant “synthetic” antioxidant is naturally synthesized in four freshwater phytoplankton, including a green alga and three cyanobacteria.1 Its purpose in these organisms is to potently prevent free radical damage.

Phytoplankton are generally regarded as innocent and health-promoting. After all, they are eaten by krill (a type of shrimp), which in turn provide dinner for baleen whales. This constitutes one of the more remarkable food chains in the ocean, extraordinary because of the small number of links (see Fig. 1). The name of the antioxidant found in phytoplankton is butylated hydroxytoluene, otherwise known as BHT. BHT is disliked by some, in part because it is “synthetic,” and loved by others because of its biochemical properties, whether synthetic or not.

Most photosynthetic organisms (including phytoplankton) are exposed to a combination of light and high oxygen concentrations, leading to the formation of free radicals and other strong oxidizing agents. Nevertheless, photoplankton seldom suffer from serious photodynamic and DNA damage in vivo, suggesting that their cells contain protective antioxidative mechanisms and other protective compounds. Could it be BHT? Should whales be indebted to BHT?

The Dose Makes the Poison

While its use for a number of unique and valuable supplemental purposes has been debated, owing in part to the fact that it was considered to be synthetic and not found in nature (until the phytoplankton study), BHT has been used for many decades as a food preservative. In fact, the FDA has given it GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status. Nonetheless, the FDA has restricted the use of BHT because of findings that it may be toxic at higher levels, and for its suspected carcinogenicity. That may not be a good reason. According to Paracelsus, the Renaissance physician and father of modern pharmacology, “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The correct dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.” This is true for BHT, or for any other GRAS substance, including most if not all the foods found in the American diet. Or in the present case, “the correct dose differentiates a remedy from a food preservative.”

New Natural Source of BHT

Now, in a new paper, another source of naturally-occurring BHT has been identified.2 The hairy broom Cytisus triflorus (family Fabaceae) is used in traditional medicine in Algeria for treating abdominal pain, wound healing, as a hemostatic (a substance that stops bleeding), as an antifungal, and also as a hypotensor (a substance that lowers blood pressure).

The biological activities as well as the phytochemistry of C. triflorus are relatively unexplored, except for some studies on various aspects of the aerial part of the species carried out by previous work of the new paper’s authors.3 So this is not the first time that BHT has been found in a plant. From the study’s abstract:

[BHT] is a synthetic antioxidant used generally for food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The leaf extract from the halophyte plant, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, was fractionated by using semi-preparative HPLC.[*] The different fractions were tested for their antioxidant activity using DPPH method. One fraction exhibited a high level of antioxidant activity. The molecule responsible for this antioxidant activity was identified as [BHT]) by gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy (GC/MS).

* High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is a technique in analytical chemistry used to separate, identify, and quantify each component in a mixture.

BHT is disliked by some, in part
because it is “synthetic,” and loved by
others because of its biochemical
properties, whether synthetic or not.

In their new study, the researchers report for the first time the production of natural BHT by all aerial parts of Cytisus triflorus L’Hérit, using different processes of extraction and identification.

Based on the results of the study, several compounds of different polarity may contribute to the antioxidative activity of C. triflorus. The differences in term of radical scavenging ability between the different extracts could be due to the different total phenolic compound content of the samples and also to their bioactive constituents.

What Purpose Does BHT Serve in Nature?

BHT is a phenolic compound, a molecule consisting of a phenyl group (−C6H5) bonded to a hydroxyl group (−OH). Phenols are produced by plants and microorganisms. Organisms that synthesize phenolic compounds are responding to ecological pressures, such as pathogen and insect attack, wounding, and UV. As these same phenolic compounds are present in food consumed in human diets and in plants used in traditional medicines of several cultures, their role in human health and disease is a subject of research. Also, some phenols are germicidal and are used in formulating disinfectants. Others possess estrogenic or endocrine disrupting activity.

Several other research groups have reported a linear correlation between phenolic content and antioxidant activity, but most natural antioxidative compounds often work synergistically with each other to produce a broad spectrum of antioxidative activities that create an effective defense system against free radical attack. The results converge and confirm that the potential antioxidative activity of the plant C. triflorus was partly due to the naturally occurring BHT in all aerial parts of the shrub.

The Biomedical History of BHT

BHT is a faint relative of vitamin E, and as an antioxidant, it is widely used to protect food from damage by oxidation and microorganisms. It also serves as an anti-aging supplement.

Organisms that synthesize phenolic
compounds are responding to
ecological pressures, such as
pathogen and insect attack,
wounding, and UV.

Does Herpes Cause Alzheimer’s Disease?

By the time Americans reach age 60, about 60–85% have become infected with Herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1). Most individuals infected with HSV-1 in childhood usually suffer a mild feverish illness of no great consequence. Some suffer recurrent infections, which appear as cold sores on their lips, while others intermittently shed the virus in their oral airway secretions.

Adults uninfected in childhood may be exposed to HSV-1 later in life through kissing, or through some other skin-to-skin contact (sexual or nonsexual). However, kissing is probably the principal agent of contagion in childhood; frequently from relatives, no less, who delight in smooching newcomers as a measure of their familial affability.

Generally referred to as oral herpes, HSV-1 replicates in epithelial cells and secondarily enters local sensory neuronal processes, traveling retrograde (backward) to the neuronal nucleus where it hides from the immune system in the cell bodies of nerves and enters latency (dormancy). Upon reactivation (typically caused by stress of one kind or another), newly synthesized viral particles travel anterograde (forward) to the epithelial cells of the lip, causing the recurrent cold sore.

In a study conducted few years ago,20 with the title, “Herpes Simplex Virus Dances with Amyloid Precursor Protein while Exiting the Cell,” coauthor Dr. Elaine Bearer—a pathology professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine—states that, “Herpes infects mucous membranes, such as a mouth or eye, and generates viral particles. … [which] burst out of the cells of the mucous membrane and enter sensory nerve cells where they travel inside the nerve toward the brain.”21

“Clinicians have seen a link between HSV-1 infection and Alzheimer’s disease in patients, so we wanted to investigate what might be going on in the body that would account for this,” adds lead author Dr. Shi-Bin Cheng, a post-doctoral associate, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Alpert Medical School, Brown University.2 “What we were able to see in the lab strongly suggests a causal link between HSV-1 and Alzheimer’s disease.” For the article from which this is drawn, see “Does Kissing Cause Alzheimer’s Disease?” in the July 2011 issue.

From the earliest therapeutic research, BHT uses—as distinguished from its industrial ones, such as preventing oxidation in fluids (e.g. fuel, oil) and other materials where free radicals must be controlled—served as a significant antioxidant for neutralizing peroxide radicals that damage cell membranes and cause inflammation in humans.

Importantly, BHT operates to disrupt the membranes of lipid viruses [such as the herpes virus, aka, Herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1)], altering their ability to interact with other cells and thus yielding anti-viral benefits.4 As an antioxidant, BHT can be helpful with cardiovascular disease, 5 cancer,6 and brain damage.7 It can even slow aging (in 1968 the distinguished scientist Dr. Denham Harman, M.D., PhD., published a dietary antioxidant study showing that BHT fed over a lifetime to mice produced a 45% increase in life span).8 (See “One Requirement for the Nobel Prize: You Have to Live Long Enough to Receive It” in The Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw® Life Extension News™ Volume 17 No. 6 • July 2014 for their comments on Dr. Harman’s praiseworthiness.)

Is There Value in Supplementing with BHT?

While our body is known to produce its own antioxidants, such as superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione, why do we need to take supplemental antioxidants? Answer: There are not enough to achieve optimal results, and as a great many studies have shown, other benefits are derived that go way beyond endogenous antioxidants. In other words, what our bodies make are inadequate to deal with the vast free radical damage that causes extensive damage to DNA and other essential structures necessary for proper function.

Almost none of the controlled studies
on the antiviral properties of BHT
have been performed on humans.

The Principal Benefits of BHT

In order of importance, supplementing with BHT can help:

  • Reduce and prevent viral infections such as herpes, thus terminating their outbreaks. Also BHT is effective against many different human and animal viruses including CMV (cytomegalovirus),9 pseudorabies,10 genital herpes,11 HIV,12 and some strains of influenza.13 A few of the viruses that have a lipid envelope and may be treated by BHT include herpes simplex I, herpes simplex II, herpes zoster, CMV, West Nile virus, HIV virus, influenza virus, hepatitis B and C viruses, avian flu influenza virus and the SARS virus. However, BHT has not been clinically tested to treat these infections.

  • Prevent DNA damage and cancer by certain carcinogens6

  • Protect the brain from damage by alcohol14

  • Increase the tissue concentrations of Vitamin E15

  • Prevent birth defects in diabetic pregnancies16

  • Prevent atherosclerosis17

Lower Incidence of Herpes Outbreaks

Succinctly, BHT has been shown to lower the incidence of herpes outbreaks (which our endogenous antioxidants cannot do), and to shorten the duration of outbreaks that do occur. What’s more, the virus cannot develop resistance to BHT as it can to anti-viral drugs such as acyclovir—to which the herpes virus has already developed significant resistance. This is because BHT alters membrane properties that are not determined by viral genes and thus, the herpes viruses cannot evolve resistance to BHT by any rearrangement or mutation of their genes.

World View, Politics and Ideology

Steven Wm. Fowkes

From his eBook The BHT Book: A Practical Guide to Solving a Viral Disease. . Accessed July 30, 2015.

“What could how we think have anything to do with BHT or viruses?

“Cognitive dissonance (thought conflicts, value conflicts) can disrupt body systems through the mind-body connection (the neuroendocrine regulatory system). So in a very real sense, you are what you eat, you are what you think, you are what you feel, and you are what you believe. Some readers may have a negative attitude towards BHT. BHT is a food preservative, and many people think or feel that preservatives are bad. BHT is a zenobiotic (a drug-like substance foreign to life, both plant life [until now] and animal life), and the very thought of using a drug may be repugnant. This is very relevant to the topic at hand.

“Some readers may have read that BHT is a carcinogen (it isn’t), and that it causes birth defects (it doesn’t). The key point is not whether these views are true (as some say), or not (as I say), but whether you believe they are true—or merely harbor doubts about either “truth.” The point that I’d like you to understand is that we all are biologically compelled to be “true and faithful” to our thoughts and beliefs, whatever they may be, or may become in the future. Some very officious organizations are saying some wrong, prejudicial and inaccurate things about BHT. If you hold those organizations in esteem, your beliefs may undermine the effectiveness of BHT.”

BHT Disrupts Viral Membranes

Forty years ago years ago a paper published in the journal Science showed that BHT could inactivate herpes simplex and other lipid-coated viruses.18 Two years later, another paper in the same journal reported similar results, but this time in live animals. Dietary BHT prevented chickens from dying of Newcastle disease.19 Like herpes simplex, NDV (the virus that causes Newcastle disease) is lipid-enveloped (i.e., its nucleic acid core is sheathed in a fatty membrane). Viruses of this type require an intact membrane to be infective. BHT works against such viruses by disrupting (“fluidizing”) their viral membranes.

BHT Ingestion Began with Life Extensionists

The other option for getting enough dietary BHT is to consume it as a food supplement. This may no longer be controversial now that it has been discovered to be a natural antioxidant. This is precisely what some pioneering life extensionists did in the late 1970s.

Encouraged by early scientific reports on the antiviral activity of BHT, a number of people tormented by herpes began to experiment on themselves. According to several books published in the 1980s, the BHT experimenters discovered that a daily dose of 250 to 1000 mg resulted in rapid recovery from herpes eruptions, with no recurrences without side effects (see the free e-book, Wipe Out Herpes with BHT, by John Mann).

Beyond Anecdotal Reports

In addition to these anecdotal reports, a number of studies published over the years confirmed the activity of BHT against many different human and animal viruses, including cytomegalovirus (CMV) and pseudorabies as well as genital herpes. BHT has also been shown to inhibit infectivity of HIV, the AIDS virus, although contradictory results have also been reported.

In fact, several studies revealed a protective effect of BHT against influenza infection as well. The mechanism involved may have to do with the fact that BHT is a highly potent, membrane-active antioxidant as well as a membrane fluidizer. It’s known that reactive oxygen species (ROS) play a role in the pathogenesis of viral infections including RNA viruses such as influenza, DNA viruses such as hepatitis B, and retroviruses such as HIV. It has been suggested that antioxidants may be useful as therapeutic agents in such infections.

Why Don’t Doctors Prescribe BHT?

If BHT is so effective against lipid-enveloped viruses, why don’t doctors prescribe it for their patients? The answer is that almost none of the controlled studies on the antiviral properties of BHT have been performed on humans; most of the experiments thus far have been conducted in lab dishes (in vitro) or in animals.

However, with the discovery that BHT is natural, the door to human clinical trials of BHT may be opening. While that hasn’t happened yet, the lack of trial data hasn’t stopped some people from using BHT on their own to treat herpes or other viral conditions. BHT may in the near future be sold as a food supplement instead of the euphemistic (to those in the know) suggestion to “add BHT to cooking oils or salad dressings to retain their freshness.”


  1. Babu B, Wu JT. Production of natural butylated hydroxytoluene as an antioxidant by freshwater phytoplankton. J Phycol. 2008; 44(6):1447–54.
  2. Ait-kaci Aourahoun K, Fazouane F, Benayad T, Bettache, Denni N. The synthetic antioxidant Butylated Hydroxytoluene, a naturally occurring constituent of the broom Cytisus triflorus L’Hérit. J Nat Prod. 2014;7:58-64.
  3. Bouftira I, Abdelly C, Sfar S. Identification of a naturally occurring 2,6-bis(1,1-dimethylethyl)-4-methylphenol from purple leaves of the halophyte plant Mesenbryanthemum cristallinum. Afr J Biotechnol. 2007;6(9):1136-9.
  4. Freeman DJ, Wenerstrom G, Spruance SL. Treatment of recurrent herpes simplex labialis with topical butylated hydroxytoluene. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 1985 Jul;38(1):56-9.
  5. Björkhem I, Henriksson-Freyschuss A, Breuer O, Diczfalusy U, Berglund L, Henriksson P. The antioxidant butylated hydroxytoluene protects against atherosclerosis. Arterioscler Thromb. 1991 Jan-Feb;11(1):15-22.
  6. Hocman G. Chemoprevention of cancer: phenolic antioxidants (BHT, BHA). Int J Biochem. 1988;20(7):639-51.
  7. Crews F, Nixon K, Kim D, Joseph J, Shukitt-Hale B, Qin L, Zou J. BHT blocks NF-kappaB activation and ethanol-induced brain damage. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2006 Nov;30(11):1938-49.
  8. Harman D. Free radical theory of aging: effect of free radical reaction inhibitors on the mortality rate of male LAF1 mice. J Gerontology. 1968;23:476-82.
  9. Kim KS, Moon HM, Sapienza V, Carp RI, Pullarkat R. Inactivation of cytomegalovirus and Semliki Forest virus by butylated hydroxytoluene. J Infect Dis. 1978;138(1):91-4.
  10. Pirtle EC, Sacks JM, Nachman RJ. Antiviral effectiveness of butylated hydroxytoluene against pseudorabies (Aujeszky’s disease) virus in cell culture, mice, and swine. Am J Vet Res. 1986;47(9):1892-5.
  11. Richards JT, Katz ME, Kern ER. Topical butylated hydroxytoluene treatment of genital herpes simplex virus infections of guinea pigs. Antiviral Res. 1985;5(5):281-90.
  12. Aloia RC, Jensen FC, Curtain CC, Mobley PW, Gordon LM. Lipid composition and fluidity of the human immunodeficiency virus. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1988;85(3):900-4.
  13. Chetverikova LK, Ki'ldivatov II, Inozemtseva LI, Kramskaia TA, Filippov VK, Frolov BA. Factors of antiviral resistance in the pathogenesis of influenza in mice [in Russian]. Vestn Akad Med Nauk SSSR. 1989;(11):63-8.
  14. Crews F, Nixon K, Kim D, Joseph J, Shukitt-Hale B, Qin L, Zou J. BHT blocks NF-kappaB activation and ethanol-induced brain damage. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2006 Nov;30(11):1938-49.
  15. Frank J. Beyond vitamin E supplementation: an alternative strategy to improve vitamin E status. J Plant Physiol. 2005 Jul;162(7):834-43.
  16. Yang X, Borg LA, Simán CM, Eriksson UJ. Maternal antioxidant treatments prevent diabetes-induced alterations of mitochondrial morphology in rat embryos. Anat Rec. 1998 Jul;251(3):303-15.
  17. Björkhem I, Henriksson-Freyschuss A, Breuer O, Diczfalusy U, Berglund L, Henriksson P. The antioxidant butylated hydroxytoluene protects against atherosclerosis. Arterioscler Thromb. 1991 Jan-Feb;11(1):15-22.
  18. Snipes W, Person S, Keith A, Cupp J. Butylated hydroxytoluene inactivates lipid-containing viruses. Science. 1975 Apr 4;188(4183):64-6.
  19. Brugh M Jr. Butylated hydroxytoluene protects chickens exposed to Newcastle disease virus. Science. 1977;197(4310):1291-2.
  20. Cheng SB, Ferland P, Webster P, Bearer EL. Herpes Simplex Virus Dances with Amyloid Precursor Protein while Exiting the Cell. PLoS One. 2011 Mar 31;6(3):e17966.
  21. Brown University (2011, April 4). Herpes linked to Alzheimer’s disease: ‘Cold sores’ connected to cognitive decline. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 19, 2011, from

Will Block is the publisher and editorial director of Life Enhancement magazine.

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