Belladonna

Belladonna: Remedy with a Dark Past

Belladonna (Atropa belladonna) is a poisonous plant that has been used as a medicine since ancient times. It is named “Belladonna” for the “beautiful women” of Renaissance Italy, who took it to enlarge their pupils, which they found more alluring.

But it also goes by a more sinister name — deadly nightshade — that implies a darker history. Indeed, not only are its dark berries sometimes known as murderer’s berries, sorcerer’s berries, and even devil’s berries, they are thought to be the poison that caused Juliet to appear dead in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”


It’s an ingredient in a number of medications, and also sold as a supplement. When your eye doctor dilates your eyes, belladonna is in the eye drops.


Belladonna, native to Europe and parts of Asia, can grow up to 5 feet. It has purple flowers and dark, inky berries that are slightly sweet.


Medical Uses


Despite its toxicity, belladonna has some medicinal benefit. The chemicals atropine and scopolamine, which are derived from belladonna, have important medicinal properties.


Atropine and scopolamine have almost the same uses, but atropine is more effective at relaxing muscle spasms and regulating heart rate. It’s also used to dilate the pupils during an eye exam. Atropine can also be an antidote for insecticides and chemical warfare agents.


Scopolamine has many sources, including belladonna, and is more effective at reducing body secretions, such as stomach acid. It can also help motion sickness, via skin patch.


Combined with Phenobarbital or other medications, these chemical derivatives of belladonna (atropine or scopolamine) are used to treat a number of conditions, including:

  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • spastic colon
  • stomach ulcers
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • diverticulitis
  • motion sickness
  • excessive nighttime urination
  • pink eye
    • colds
    • flu
    • fever
    • cough
    • sore throat
    • inflammation
    • joint and back pain
    • earache
    • gout

What is it?

Belladonna is a plant. The leaf and root are used to make medicine.

The name “belladonna” means “beautiful lady,” and was chosen because of a risky practice in Italy. The belladonna berry juice was used historically in Italy to enlarge the pupils of women, giving them a striking appearance. This was not a good idea, because belladonna can be poisonous.

Though widely regarded as unsafe, belladonna is used as a sedative, to stop bronchial spasms in asthma and whooping cough, and as a cold and hay fever remedy. It is also used for Parkinson's disease, colic, motion sickness, and as a painkiller.

Belladonna is used in ointments that are applied to the skin for joint pain (rheumatism), leg pain caused by a disc in the backbone pushing on the sciatic nerve (sciatica), and nerve pain (neuralgia). Belladonna is also used in plasters (medicine-filled gauze applied to the skin) for treating psychiatric disorders, a behavior disorder called hyperkinesis, excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis), and bronchial asthma.

Rectally, belladonna is used in hemorrhoid suppositories.

How effective is it?

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates effectiveness based on scientific evidence according to the following scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, Ineffective, and Insufficient Evidence to Rate.

The effectiveness ratings for BELLADONNA are as follows:


Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for...

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Early research suggests that taking belladonna along with the drug phenobarbital by mouth for one month does not improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Asthma.
  • Whooping cough.
  • Colds.
  • Hay fever.
  • Parkinson's disease.
  • Motion sickness.
  • Arthritis-like pain.
  • Nerve problems.
  • Hemorrhoids.
  • Spasms and colic-like pain in the stomach and bile ducts.
  • Other conditions.
More evidence is needed to rate the effectiveness of belladonna for these uses.

How does it work?

Belladonna has chemicals that can block functions of the body's nervous system. Some of the bodily functions regulated by the nervous system include salivation, sweating, pupil size, urination, digestive functions, and others.

Are there safety concerns?

Belladonna is LIKELY UNSAFE when taken by mouth. It contains chemicals that can be toxic.

Side effects can include dry mouth, enlarged pupils, blurred vision, red dry skin, fever, fast heartbeat, inability to urinate or sweat, hallucinations, spasms, mental problems, convulsions, and coma.

Special precautions & warnings:

Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Belladonna is LIKELY UNSAFE when taken by mouth during pregnancy. Belladonna contains potentially toxic chemicals and has been linked to reports of serious side effects. Belladonna is also LIKELY UNSAFE during breast-feeding. It can reduce milk production and also passes into breast milk.

Congestive heart failure (CHF): Belladonna might cause rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) and might make CHF worse.

Constipation: Belladonna might make constipation worse.

Down syndrome: People with Down syndrome might be extra-sensitive to the potentially toxic chemicals in belladonna and their harmful effects.

Esophageal reflux: Belladonna might make esophageal reflux worse.

Fever: Belladonna might increase the risk of overheating in people with fever.

Stomach ulcers: Belladonna might make stomach ulcers worse.

Gastrointestinal (GI) tract infections: Belladonna might slow emptying of the intestine, causing retention of bacteria and viruses that can cause infection.

Gastrointestinal (GI) tract blockage: Belladonna might make obstructive GI tract diseases (including atony, paralytic ileus, and stenosis) worse.

Hiatal hernia: Belladonna might make hiatal hernia worse.

High blood pressure: Taking large amounts of belladona can increase blood pressure. This might make blood pressure become too high in people with high blood pressure.

Narrow-angle glaucoma: Belladonna might make narrow-angle glaucoma worse.

Psychiatric disorders. Taking larga mounts of belladonna might worsen psychiatric disorders.

Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia): Belladonna might make rapid heartbeat worse.

Ulcerative colitis: Belladonna might promote complications of ulcerative colitis.

Difficulty urinating (urinary retention): Belladonna might make this urinary retention worse.

Are there interactions with medications?

Moderate
Be cautious with this combination.
Cisapride (Propulsid)
Belladonna contains hyoscyamine (atropine). Atropine can reduce the effects of cisapride. Taking belladonna with cisapride might reduce the effects of cisapride.
Drying medications (Anticholinergic drugs)
Belladonna contains chemicals that cause a drying effect. It also affects the brain and heart. Drying medications called anticholinergic drugs can also cause these effects. Taking belladonna and drying medications together might cause side effects including dry skin, dizziness, low blood pressure, fast heart beat, and other serious side effects.

Some of these drying medications include atropine, scopolamine, and some medications used for allergies (antihistamines), and for depression (antidepressants).

Are there interactions with herbs and supplements?

There are no known interactions with herbs and supplements.

Are there interactions with foods?

There are no known interactions with foods.

What dose is used?

The appropriate dose of belladonna depends on several factors such as the user's age, health, and several other conditions. At this time there is not enough scientific information to determine an appropriate range of doses for belladonna. Keep in mind that natural products are not always necessarily safe and dosages can be important. Be sure to follow relevant directions on product labels and consult your pharmacist or physician or other healthcare professional before using.

Other names

Atropa belladonna, Atropa acuminata, Baccifère, Belladona, Belladone, Belle-Dame, Belle-Galante, Bouton Noir, Cerise du Diable, Cerise Enragée, Cerise d’Espagne, Deadly Nightshade, Devil's Cherries, Devil's Herb, Divale, Dwale, Dwayberry, Grande Morelle, Great Morel, Guigne de la Côte, Herbe à la Mort, Herbe du Diable, Indian Belladonna, Morelle Furieuse, Naughty Man's Cherries, Poison Black Cherries, Suchi.

Methodology

To learn more about how this article was written, please see the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database methodology.

References

  1. Golwalla A. Multiple extrasystoles: an unusual manifestation of belladonna poisoning. Dis Chest 1965;48:83-84.
  2. Hamilton M and Sclare AB. Belladonna poisoning. Br Med J 1947;611-612.
  3. Cummins BM, Obetz SW, Wilson MR, and et al. Belladonna poisoning as a facet of psychodelia. Jama 1968;204:153.
  4. Sims SR. Poisoning due to belladonna plasters. Br Med J 1954;1531.
  5. Minors EH. Five cases of belladonna poisoning. Br Med J 1948;2:518-519.
  6. Joll ME. Three cases of belladonna poisoning. Lancet 1916;2:647.
  7. Firth D and Bentley JR. Belladonna poisoning from eating rabbit. Lancet 1921;2:901.
  8. Bergmans M, Merkus J, Corbey R, and et al. Effect of Bellergal Retard on climacteric complaints: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Maturitas 1987;9:227-234.
  9. Lichstein, J. and Mayer, J. D. Drug therapy in the unstable bowel (irritable colon). A 15-month double-blind clinical study in 75 cases of response to a prolonged-acting belladonna alkaloid-phenobarbital mixture or placebo. J.Chron.Dis. 1959;9:394-404.
  10. Steele CH. The use of Bellergal in the prophylactic treatment of some types of headaches. Ann Allergy 

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