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It is widely stated that lobelia is a dangerously toxic herb. However, herbalist Paul Bergner undertook a review of published literature and discovered that each author who described lobelia as toxic was merely quoting another author, in a kind of game of telephone going back nearly 200 years. 1 The original published reference upon which this sequence of hearsay reporting appears to have been based is a note in the American New Dispensatoryof 1810, in which an “eminent physician” is quoted as stating that if a person consumes lobelia and doesn’t vomit, death will follow. The ultimate origin of this claim may have been the claims made by the prosecution in a widely publicized trial of Samuel Thomson in which he was accused of committing murder through use of lobelia.
In fact, there are no reported cases of death caused by Lobelia inflatain animals or humans. Considering how widely lobelia was used under the Thomsonians and subsequently, the concern that it reliably causes death appears to be a significant overstatement. Lobelia may present health risks, but if so, they have not been documented.
Short-term side effects that have been reported in association with lobelia include stomach pain, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. 2 Lobeline also appears to trigger coughing and a sense of choking, for reasons that are unclear. 3 4 The fact that lobeline restricts dopamine release suggests at least a possibility that lobelia could worsen symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (in which dopamine levels are low) and possibly interfere with the action of drugs used for schizophrenia or attention deficit disorder (which also act on dopamine). These concerns are, however, purely theoretical at this time.
Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or people with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established.
- Bergner P. Is lobelia toxic? Medical Herbalism. 1998;10:1,15–32.
- Wright IS, Littauer D. Lobeline sulfate: its pharmacology and use in the treatment of the tobacoo habit. JAMA. 1937;109:649–654.
- Raj H, Bakshi GS, Tiwari RR, Anand A, Paintal AS. How does lobeline injected intravenously produce a cough? Respir Physiol Neurobiol. 145(1):79-90.
- Butler JE, Anand A, Crawford MR, Glanville AR, McKenzie DK, Paintal AS, Taylor JL, Gandevia SC. Changes in respiratory sensations induced by lobeline after human bilateral lung transplantation. J Physiol. 534(Pt. 2):583-93.