Belladonna, more commonly known as deadly night-shade, Atropa belladonna, devil's cherries, devil's herb, divale, dwale, dwayberry, great morel, naughty man's cherries, and poison black cherry, is a perennial herb that has been valued for its medicinal properties for over five centuries. Belladonna is a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, and can be identified by its bell-shaped, purple flowers and cherry-sized green berries that mature to a dark purple or black color. The tall, branching plant can grow to a height of at least 5 ft (1.5 m), and is native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia and cultivated in North America and the United Kingdom. Belladonna has also been introduced to a number of places, including the United States and Ireland and now grows wild.
Belladonna leaves are large (up to 10 in [25.4 cm] in length) and grow in pairs on either side of the plant stem. Near the flowers or blossoms, one of each leaf pair is noticeably smaller in size. Both the leaves and root have a sharp, unpleasant odor and bitter taste. As the name deadly nightshade suggests, the herb is highly toxic if taken even when taken in extremely low concentrations.
One of the first widespread uses of the herb was purely a cosmetic one. Sixteenth century Italian women reportedly applied belladonna solutions to their eyes to dilate the pupils and achieve a dreamy and supposedly more desirable appearance (hence the name belladonna, which is Italian for 'beautiful lady'). Atropine, an alkaloid of belladonna that blocks certain nerve impulses, is still used by some opthamologists today to dilate the pupils for eye exams.
Belladonna has a long history of medicinal applications in healthcare. Belladonna alkaloids are anticholinergic, which means that it works by blocking the certain nerve impulses involved in the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates certain involuntary bodily functions or reflexes, including pupil dilation, heart rate, secretion of glands and organs, and the constriction of the bronchioles in the lungs and the alimentary canal (digestive tract). Belladonna relaxes the smooth muscles of the internal organs and inhibits or dries up secretions (e.g., perspiration, mucous, breast milk, and saliva).
Belladonna alkaloids, the active ingredients of the plant, include atropine and scopolamine. These alkaloids are extracted from the leaves and root of the plant and administered either alone or in combination with other herbal remedies or prescription medications. However
even tiny doses are toxic and should only be taken by prescription.
Belladonna alkaloids are used to treat a variety of symptoms and conditions, including:
- Gastrointestinal disorders. Because the alkaloids relax the smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract and reduces stomach acid secretions, it is useful in treating colitis, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, colic, diarrhea, and peptic ulcer.
- Asthma. By relaxing the bronchioles, belladonna alleviates the wheezing symptoms of an asthma attack.
- Excessive sweating. Belladonna slows gland and organ secretion, which makes it useful in controlling conditions that cause excessive sweating.
- Nighttime incontinence. Belladonna acts as a diuretic, and can be helpful in treating excessive nighttime urination and incontinence.
- Headaches and migraines. The pain-relieving properties of atropine, a belladonna alkaloid, are useful in treating headaches.
- Muscle pains and spasms. Belladonna is frequently prescribed to ease severe menstrual cramps.
- Motion sickness. Scopolamine, an alkaloid of belladonna, is helpful in treating motion sickness and vertigo.
- Parkinson's disease. Belladonna can alleviate the excessive sweating and salivation associated with the disease, as well as controlling tremors and muscle rigidity.
- Biliary colic. Muscle spasm, or colic, of the gallbladder and liver can be relieved through the muscle relaxing properties of belladonna.
Belladonna is frequently prescribed homeopathic remedy used to treat illnesses that manifest symptoms similar to those that belladonna poisoning triggers (i.e., high fever, nausea, delirium, muscle spasms, flushed skin, dilated pupils). These include the common cold, otitis media (earache), fever, arthritis, menstrual cramps, diverticulitis, muscle pain, sunstroke, toothache and teething, conjunctivitis, headaches, sore throat, and boils and abscesses. As with all homeopathic remedies, the prescription of belladonna depends on the individual's overall symptom picture, mood, and temperament. When used as a homeopathic remedy, belladonna is administered in a highly diluted form to trigger the body's natural healing response without risk of belladonna poisoning or death.
Results of a clinical trial performed at the National Cancer Institute of Milan, Italy, have also indicated that homeopathic remedies of belladonna can be useful in relieving the discomfort, warmth, and swelling of the skin associated with radiotherapy for breast cancer (i.e., radiodermatitis).
Belladonna leaf is harvested between May and July and dried at temperatures no warmer than 140°F (60° C). The roots of Atropa belladonna plants that have reached two to four year old maturity are also harvested for herbal preparations in early fall between mid-October and mid-November. The roots are then cleaned and dried at temperatures no warmer than 122°F (50°C). After drying, the leaves and roots are crushed for use in a number of forms, including decoctions, tinctures, infusions, plasters, pills, suppositories, liquid solutions or suspensions, and powders. They can be used both alone and in combination with other herbs and medications.
It is extremely dangerous to self-prescribe belladonna, and it should always be taken under the direction of a doctor or other qualified healthcare professional. The frequency and quantity of dosage will depend on both the patient and the illness the herb is prescribed for, but the doses are always extremely small. For example the Physicians Desk Reference (PDR) for Herbal Medicines recommends an average single dose of 0.05-0.10 g. Each patient's illness is different and some patients experience toxicity at unusually low doses.
For homeopathic remedies, the plant is broken apart and juice is extracted through a pressing process. The extract is then mixed with a water/alcohol solution by a ratio of either 1:10 or 1:100, and this process is repeated up to 30 times to form an extremely diluted dose of the extract. Homeopathic belladonna remedy is generally added to pellets of sugar for easier administration. The dilution and dosage frequency depend on the symptoms being treated, but homeopathic remedies are typically administered only until the patient starts to show signs of improvement so that the body's natural healing response can take over.
Belladonna is available by prescription both alone (in high concentration strength) and in combination with other drugs. Currently available prescription combinations include belladonna with opium (for uterine pain), kaolin and pectin (for diarrhea), pheno-barbital (for menopausal symptoms and migraine prophylactic), other barbiturates (for insomnia and for cramping and muscle spasms in the digestive tract), or belladonna and opium suppositories (for severe intestinal cramping).
Belladonna preparations should be stored in air-tight containers away from direct light. Under these conditions, most preparations will remain potent for up to three years.
Ingestion of high concentrations of atropine, a potent alkaloid found in belladonna, can cause severe illness and death. Atropine is fatal in doses as small as 100 mg, which equals 5-50 g of belladonna herb, depending on the potency of the particular plant. For children, a fatal dose is even significantly less. For this reason, belladonna should never be used unless prescribed by a trained practitioner.
Individuals suffering from kidney disease, intestinal blockage, glaucoma, enlarged prostate, urinary blockage, severe ulcerative colitis, or myasthenia gravis are advised not to take belladonna, as are those patients with a known allergy to belladonna. Patients with any chronic health conditions should never take belladonna without a doctor's prescription.
Because of the sedative qualities of belladonna, individuals taking the herb should use caution when driving or operating machinery. Alcohol and other central nervous system (CNS) depressants should also be avoided, as they may increase drowsiness and dizziness in the patient taking belladonna.
If individuals taking homeopathic dilutions of belladonna experience worsening of their symptoms (known as a homeopathic aggravation), they should contact their healthcare professional. A homeopathic aggravation can be an early indication that a remedy is working properly, but it can also be a sign that a different remedy is called for.
Toxic signs of belladonna include dry mouth, drowsiness, dizziness, constipation, and nausea. Some side effects, including pupil dilation, blurred vision, fever (due to the inability to perspire), inability to urinate, arrhythmia, and excessive dry mouth and eyes, can also be early indications of belladonna overdose. Individuals experiencing these side effects should inform their health care practitioner immediately.
Belladonna overdose is also indicated by a burning throat, delirium, restlessness and mania, hallucinations, difficulty breathing, and flushed skin that is hot and dry. Without proper treatment, constriction of the airway can cause suffocation. If any of these symptoms occur, individuals should seek emergency medical attention immediately. Treatment of belladonna overdose is typically gastric lavage, which involves inserting a tube down the patient's throat and washing out the stomach with a solution of activated charcoal or tannic acid to neutralize the atropine. Oxygen may also be required until breathing is stabilized, and barbiturates may be administered to counteract mania and/or excitation.
Certain medications may increase the effects of belladonna. These include central nervous system (CNS) depressants, monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants, quinidine, amantadine, antihistamines, and other anticholinergics. Other medications, including anticoagulants (blood thinners) and corticotropin (ACTH), become less effective when used with belladonna, while some drugs, such as diarrhea medicines containing kaolin and attapulgite, may decrease the therapeutic response to belladonna when they are taken with the herb. If you are taking these or any other medications or herbal remedies, let your healthcare professional know.
Alcohol, a CNS depressant, can also enhance the sedative effect of belladonna, and should be avoided during belladonna treatment.
Individuals considering treatment with homeopathic dilutions of belladonna should consult their healthcare professional about possible interactions with certain foods, beverages, prescription medications, aromatic compounds, and other environmental elements that could counteract the efficacy of belladonna treatment.
Jonas, Wayne B., M.D. and Jennifer Jacobs, M.D., M.P.H. Healing With Homeopathy. New York: Warner Books, 1996.
Medical Economics Company. PDR for Herbal Medicines. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics Company, 1998.
Balzarini, A. et al. "Efficacy of homeopathic treatment of skin reactions during radiotherapy for breast cancer: a randomised, double-blind clinical trial ". British Homeopathic Journal. (January 2000) 89 (1): 8-12.
Sahelian, Ray and Victoria Dolby Toews. "Give Colds the Shoulder." Better Nutrition. (October 1999) 61 (10): 40-44.
The American Botanical Council. P.O. Box 144345, Austin, TX 78714-4345. (512)926-4900. http://www.herbalgram.org.
Office of Dietary Supplements. National Institutes of Health. Building 31, Room 1B25, 31 Center Drive, MSC 2086, Bethesda, Maryland 20892-2086. (301) 435-2920. Ods@ nih.gov. http://odp.od.nih.gov/ods/.