How does it feel?
Henbane has a bitter and acrid taste due to the alkaloids. The odour of the fresh plant is pretty revolting. Some describe it as like rotting flesh or fish, others say it is like bad body odour or mouldy potatoes. It is a sticky and malodorous plant!
What can I use it for?
This is a poisonous plant and thus in the UK it is legally restricted for use only by qualified herbalists and medical doctors.
It acts on the autonomic portion of the nervous system and is used for the relief of spasms, in particular within the urinary tract but also of use in cases of colic within the digestive tract and for bronchial spasm within the respiratory tract. It has been used in excessive salivation and tremor such as in Parkinson’s disease.
The alkaloid hyoscine is used widely in conventional medicine in various formulations including for spasms in the gut, for nausea, an overactive urinary bladder, as a pre-operative medicine and in palliative care for excessive respiratory secretions or bowel colic.
Into the heart of Henbane
The tropane alkaloids within henbane and other members of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family such as Datura and Belladonna have an anticholinergic effect on the nervous system – in other words they dampen down the activity of the parasympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system, which activates and monitors those involuntary activities that take place within the body such as heart and breathing rate, blood pressure, digestion and urination. Hence this plant’s traditional and modern day use for relaxing acute spasm and for the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Henbane has a long history of use across our herbal medicine traditions. It was often used as an anaesthetic, analgesic, spasmolytic or sedative and was sometimes given to women in childbirth in combination with opium poppy to bring relief in the form of a ‘twilight sleep’ a practice noted on records from Wiltshire.
Pain-relieving necklaces were made from the root and placed around the necks of children to ease teething or prevent fitting.
Henbane was one of the plants used in soporific sponges or spongia somnifera and pomanders or ‘sleeping apples’ used prior to anaesthesia back in the Middle Ages.
In Tibetan medicine the seeds have been used as a remedy against intestinal worms, tumours, toothache and inflammation of the lungs.
A paste of the seeds is used in Ayurvedic medicine to be applied over painful joints, including for gout and also for neuralgic or dental pain. It is also prescribed for tremor in cases of Parkinson’s disease and for spasm within the smooth muscle.
It has a tradition of use traceable back to the Babylonians and a long association with soothsaying, witchcraft and magic.
Anticholinergic – antispasmodic, especially indicated for urinary spasm, sedative, narcotic and analgesic
What practitioners say
Caution is key and practitioners will only ever use such a herb if no other will suffice. Drop doses of this herb are usual and are prescribed when such circumstances arise, with a very gradual increase if required and never exceeding a maximum daily dose.
Digestive system: Henbane can be a valuable remedy for severe spasm in the gut where other, milder herbs may not be as effective, including for use in biliary colic(gall bladder spasm). It can significantly slow down the transit time of the gut and reduce the secretory ability so has sometimes been used in cramping associated with severe bouts of diarrhoea.
Respiratory system: Datura is sometimes thought to be more indicated for asthma, however henbane is also useful here and can also be helpful in cases of whooping cough.
Nervous system: Henbane can be indicated in Parkinson’s disease, for use in tremors or excessive salivation. In Ayurvedic medicine it is often used in a combination therapy for this condition. It is also of use in neuralgia and myalgia and can help with the symptoms of Meniere’s disease and motion sickness.
Externally: It has been used topically in the form of an oil for neuralgia including sciatic pain and myalgia and gout.
The different alkaloids have slightly different properties, however as a whole, henbane inhibits the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and thus has a dampening down effect on the parasympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system. Henbane causes a decrease in sweat, salivary, gastric and bronchial secretions, lessens the tone and motility of smooth muscle in the urinary and gastrointestinal tracts and increases the pulse rate.
There is a paucity of quality human trials data on henbane however, a recent small randomised clinical trial was carried out on the effects of propolis combined with henbane for clinical symptoms in patients with acute respiratory syndrome associated with Covid-19. The formulation was given to 50 patients of mixed sex between the ages of 18 and 75 in the form of a syrup. A significant improvement was observed in the intervention group on a number of symptoms including reduction of cough, shortness of breath and chest pain, compared to those on placebo. These improvements became more pronounced with the increasing number of days of treatment. These initial findings are promising and call for larger studies.
Did you know?
The genus name Hyoscyamus comes from the Greek hyoskyamos, – hys meaning pig and kyamos meaning bean. Hog bean is also one of the herb’s common names, perhaps because pigs can eat henbane without being poisoned, although other livestock don’t have this protection.
Gerard the herbalist (1545-1612) says of henbane: ‘The leaves, the seeds and the juice when taken internally cause an unquiet sleep, like unto the sleep of drunkeness, which continueth long and is deadly to the patient. To wash the feet in a decoction of henbane, as also the often smelling of the flowers causeth sleep’ – referring to the potency of the plant, which can exert such effects even via the skin and respiratory system.’
In the middle ages it was known as ‘Witches herb’, being made into an ointment along with other alkaloid-containing herbs and applied topically, giving the hallucinatory sensations of flying and bypassing the digestive tract to afford being able to take higher doses, although still very much risking death!
This anonymous individual summarised the danger of messing with Henbane: ‘If it be used in sallet (salad) or in pottage (soup/stew), then it doth bring frenzie, and whoso useth more than four leaves shall be in danger to sleepe without waking’.
This herb is a poison. In the UK it falls under the legislation for Human Use Regulations 2012 within the schedule 20 part 2 herbs. This means that it is a practitioner-only medicine and has clear maximum weekly and single doses. x The reason for this is that it has a narrow therapeutic window, (the effective therapeutic dose is close to the poisonous one).
Symptoms of over-dosage can start with a dry mouth, dry skin, dilated pupils, warm, flushed skin and agitation, going on to include impaired vision, delirium, hallucinations, convulsions and coma. It can cause death from heart or respiratory failure. Definitely not a plant to mess with.
It is certainly contraindicated in pregnancy and lactation and also in glaucoma, tachycardic arrythmia (rapid heart rate), and urinary retention.
As henbane is classed as a restricted herb within UK legislation it can only be prescribed following a one-to-one consultation with a qualified practitioner. x In many countries the use of henbane is illegal.
Maximum weekly dose is 20 ml of a 1:10 tincture
Maximum single dose: 100mg
Maximum daily dose: 300mg
Practitioners start low and only slowly work upwards if required, in drop doses whilst monitoring closely. Effects can vary between individuals.
- Tropane alkaloids: principally hyoscyamine, hyoscine (scopolamine), atropine
- Flavone glycosides: quercetrin, rutin, Kaempferol
- Volatile amines: choline, methylpyrroline pyridine