The herb lobelia was originally used by Native Americans in the New England region. It was subsequently popularized by Samuel Thomson, the founder of an ideosyncratic form of medicine called Thomsonianism. The enduring popularity of lobelia is one of the legacies of this nineteenth century enthusiasm. (
is another herb popularized by Thomson.) The traditional names of the herb capture its traditional uses: wild tobacco, asthma weed, gagroot, and pukeweed. Dried lobelia tastes and smells somewhat like tobacco, and for this reason it was sold as a tobacco substitute. Lobelia was also used to treat asthma and stimulate vomiting.
The Thomsonians additionally claimed that lobelia could relax muscles and nerves. On this basis, they used it for anxiety, epilepsy, kidney stones, insomnia, menstrual cramps, muscle spasms, spastic colon, and tetanus.
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.
The original published reference upon which this sequence of hearsay reporting appears to have been based is a note in the
American New Dispensatory
of 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
in 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.
Lobeline also appears to trigger coughing and a sense of choking, for reasons that are unclear.
The fact that lobeline restricts dopamine release suggests at least a possibility that lobelia could worsen symptoms of
(in which dopamine levels are low) and possibly interfere with the action of drugs used for
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.
Dwoskin LP, Crooks PA. A novel mechanism of action and potential use for lobeline as a treatment for psychostimulant abuse.
Miller DK, Crooks PA, Teng L, et al. Lobeline inhibits the neurochemical and behavioral effects of amphetamine.
J Pharmacol Exp Ther
Harrod SB, Dwoskin LP, Crooks PA, Klebaur JE, Bardo MT. Lobeline attenuates d-methamphetamine self-administration in rats.
J Pharmacol Exp Ther
Davison GC, Rosen RC. Lobeline and reduction of cigarette smoking.
Marlin DJ, Roberts CA, Schroter RC, Lekeux P. Respiratory responses of mature horses to intravenous lobeline bolus.
Equine Vet J
Decker MW, Majchrzak MJ, Arneric SP. Effects of lobeline, a nicotinic receptor agonist, on learning and memory.
Pharmacol Biochem Behav
Hamann SR, Martin WR. Hyperalgesic and analgesic actions of morphine, U50-488, naltrexone, and (-)-lobeline in the rat brainstem.
Pharmacol Biochem Behav
Subarnas A, Tadano T, Oshima Y, Kisara K, Ohizumi Y. Pharmacological properties of beta-amyrin palmitate, a novel centrally acting compound, isolated from
J Pharm Pharmacol
Subarnas A, Tadano T, Nakahata N, et al.
A possible mechanism of antidepressant activity of beta-amyrin palmitate isolated from
leaves in the forced swimming test.
Subarnas A, Oshima Y, Sidik, Ohizumi Y. An antidepressant principle of
Bergner P. Is lobelia toxic?
Wright IS, Littauer D. Lobeline sulfate: its pharmacology and use in the treatment of the tobacoo habit.
Felter HW, Lloyd JU.
King’s American Dispensatory
, 18th ed. Sandy, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1898, 1983; 1199–205.
Raj H, Bakshi GS, Tiwari RR, Anand A, Paintal AS. How does lobeline injected intravenously produce a cough?
Respir Physiol Neurobiol
Butler JE, Anand A, Crawford MR, et al. Changes in respiratory sensations induced by lobeline after human bilateral lung transplantation.
. 2001;534(Pt. 2):583–93.
Raj H, Singh VK, Anand A, Paintal AS. Sensory origin of lobeline-induced sensations: a correlative study in man and cat.