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A practitioner-only herb with a long history of use as an antispasmodic in acute presentations

Henbane

Hyoscyamus niger L Solanaceae

Henbane contains tropane alkaloids that are used in conventional medicine.

  • 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.

  • Traditional uses

    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.

  • Traditional actions

    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.

  • Research

    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’.

Additional information

  • Safety

    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.

  • Dosage

    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.

  • Constituents

    • Tropane alkaloids: principally hyoscyamine, hyoscine (scopolamine), atropine
    • Flavone glycosides: quercetrin, rutin, Kaempferol
    • Volatile amines: choline, methylpyrroline pyridine
henbane illustration
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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