While it has been used as a poison in the past, scientists today extract chemicals from belladonna for use in medicine. These chemicals, when used under a doctor's supervision, can treat a range of afflictions, from excessive urination at night to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
What is belladonna?
The belladonna plant may also be called deadly nightshade.
Belladonna (Atropa belladonna) is a poisonous plant, native to parts of Asia and Europe. It is sometimes known as deadly nightshade.
Belladonna produces small, black berries that must not be eaten. Eating the berries or leaves can be deadly. Similar to poison ivy, a person whose skin comes into direct contact with the leaves may develop a rash.
In ancient times, people used belladonna for its toxic properties, as an oral poison or on the tips of arrows.
Some scholars believe that Shakespeare referenced belladonna in his play, "Romeo and Juliet." It is possible that belladonna was the poison that Juliet drank to fake her death.
As time progressed, people used belladonna for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. For example, doctors used it as an antiseptic before surgery in medieval Europe.
During the Italian Renaissance, which lasted from the 14th to 16th century, fashionable women drank the juice of belladonna berries to dilate their pupils. Belladonna owes its name to this practice, as it means "beautiful woman" in Italian.
In modern times, optometrists often use belladonna to help dilate pupils when examining a person's eyes.
Other recent uses of belladonna include over-the-counter creams and other herbal supplements. Despite its commercial availability, people are strongly advised to use belladonna with caution and under a doctor's care.
When used correctly in appropriate doses, belladonna is safe to use as part of regular medicinal practices.
It is important to note that ingesting even small amounts of the leaves or berries can be deadly. Small children and infants are particularly at risk. Be sure to use caution when storing medicines that contain belladonna.
Scopolamine and atropine
Belladonna contains chemicals used to treat conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Belladonna contains two chemicals used for medicinal purposes.
The first chemical is scopolamine, which is used primarily for reducing body discharges. It is also helpful in reducing stomach acid, which can help with both nausea and acid reflux.
Scopolamine is also used for controlling the heart rate and relaxing muscles.
The second compound extracted from belladonna is atropine. Similar to scopolamine, atropine can be used to help reduce bodily discharge, but it is not as effective as scopolamine when used as a muscle relaxant and in heart rate control.
Also, atropine can be used to dilate the eyes. In some cases, atropine works as an antidote to insect poison and chemical warfare agents.
Once extracted, one or both chemicals are combined with other medications to help treat some diseases and conditions.
Some of the treatments target:
- motion sickness
- irritable bowel syndrome
- stomach ulcers
- excessive nighttime urination
- Parkinson's disease
- pink eye
When taken as part of a prescribed medication, belladonna is considered mostly safe. Like all medicines, it can have side effects, and people should consider its use very carefully.
As with any potentially harmful medication, it is best to speak to a doctor before using a product containing belladonna.
Like many well-known plants and extracts, belladonna is available in some over-the-counter alternative medications and supplements.
Unlike traditional medicines, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate supplements, which means they are often not tested for safety or the effectiveness of their claimed outcomes.
Companies that have made products containing belladonna state that it can improve various conditions. These include:
- the common cold
- whooping cough
- hay fever
- motion sickness
- a cough and sore throat
- joint and back pain
- arthritis pain
- spasms, or colic-like pain in the stomach or bile ducts
- nerve problems
- Parkinson's disease
Belladonna is an ingredient in creams, some liquids, ointments, and, in some cases, suppositories.
There is little research into belladonna's effectiveness at treating any of the above conditions. It is important to consider the potential side effects before taking belladonna as a supplement.
Risks and side effects
Blurred vision and hallucinations are potential side effects of belladonna.
Belladonna is considered a toxic plant with historical uses as a poison. Despite being sold as an over-the-counter supplement, it is likely not safe to consume. It is also important to be aware that the FDA do not monitor the quality and purity of belladonna supplements.
There are some side effects to consider before using belladonna. These side effects include:
- dry mouth
- red, dry skin
- inability to sweat
- muscle spasms
- blurred vision
- enlarged pupils
- inability to urinate
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may be at additional risk, as some of belladonna's side effects may appear in the unborn child, and it might dry up milk production.
In addition to the side effects, belladonna may make some conditions worse. These include disorders that some manufacturers claim belladonna helps.
Conditions that belladonna can make worse include:
- acid reflux
- rapid heartbeat
- gastrointestinal (GI) tract infections
- high blood pressure
- urination problems
Belladonna has negative interactions with certain medications as well, such as those for allergies and depression. Side effects of the interaction include a rapid heartbeat and rashes.
Belladonna can be a safe herbal supplement or part of medication but only when used properly under a doctor's care and supervision. There are a number of side effects that should be considered before using belladonna as a supplement.
Additional research needs to be conducted to test the effectiveness of belladonna alongside the risks. Individuals should carefully consider their options before trying belladonna as a replacement or supplemental treatment.