Common name: Lobelia
Other names: Indian tobacco
Latin name: Lobelia inflata
Affinities: Respiratory system, nervous system
Actions: Respiratory stimulant, antiasthmatic, antispasmodic, expectorant, emetic, diaphoretic, sedative, anticonvulsive, nervine
Specific indications: Seizures, anxiety, irritation of the respiratory tract
Diseases: Bronchitic asthma(2), bronchitis(2), epilepsy(3), panic attacks(3)
Parts used: Aerial parts
Energetics: Cooling, neutral
Characteristics: Lobelia inflata is an herb native to North America that grows in fields, open woods, meadows, and waste places (Felpin et al., 2004). It is an annual or biannual plant, which typically grows to 2-foot-tall and blooms from June through to October. It has small white to pale blue flowers and its fruit is an inflated pod that contains many brown seeds. It’s Latin name ‘inflata’ is due to its inflated seed pods.
History: Lobelia has a rich history that can be traced back over several centuries (Felpin et al., 2004). This herb is named after the famous French botanist and physician, Matthias De Lobel (1570-1616). The native Americans smoked the dried leaves instead of tobacco to produce a sedating effect on the central nervous system. Lobelia was used by herbalists in New England long before the times of Samuel Thomson (super-intendent of Indian affairs from 1756-1774), its assumed discoverer. As early as 1773, Thomson discovered its ability to procure vomiting. In 1791, he became acquainted with its capacity to relieve colic, rheumatism, and fever. Thomson and Cutler are thought to have used Lobelia for treatment of asthma from 1805-1809.
Lobelia was the most prized medicine in the 19th century by many of the American Eclectic physicians for the treatment of respiratory disorders. In the Eclectic text, King’s American Dispensatory, it is written, ’Perhaps the most important use for this drug will be in the treatment of respiratory affections. For this class of diseases no remedy is more highly valued by physicians of our school.’ (Felter and Lloyd, 1898). They further recommended it in ‘all forms of irritation of the respiratory tract’. Their other indications include; convulsive disorders, whooping-cough, asthmatic paroxysms, indigestion, bronchitis, and dyspepsia. They also mention it increases peristalsis and may relieve habitual constipation. Later, in the 20th century, Dr. Christopher used lobelia widely in many of his formulas and considered it a ‘thinking herb’ (Wood, 1997). Like Thomson, Dr. Christopher believed lobelia would go where needed in the body and could take other herbs in the formula with it.
Current applications: David Hoffman in Holistic Herbal mentions lobelia is one of the most useful systemic relaxants available to us and its main specific uses are bronchitic asthma and bronchitis (Hoffman, 1988). He also points out the action of the alkaloids in lobelia have complementary actions, lobeline is a respiratory stimulant, whilst isolobelanine is an emetic and respiratory relaxant. This will stimulate catarrhal secretion and expectoration whilst relaxing the muscles of the respiratory system. Lobelia combines well with cayenne.
Science: Wieland isolated in 1918 a pure crystalline compound from lobelia called lobeline (Curtis et al., 1926). Lobeline is a piperidine alkaloid and is thought to be partially responsible for the pharmacological properties of lobelia (Felpin et al., 2004). It has been found to stimulate respiration and to relax lung tissue (Liljestrand, 1951; Felpin et al., 2004), therefore supporting lobelias traditional role as a treatment for respiratory disorders.
Safety: Medium-high. It can be poisonous if taken in large doses. Be especially cautious regarding dose while taking lobelia, especially if taking sedative drugs.
Dosage: An approximate dose range is 1-5 drops tincture 2-3 times daily. Note, large doses will cause sweating and nausea.
Research on models
Anti-tumour activity: One study (Ma et al., 2008) demonstrated lobeline could reverse multi-drug resistance in tumour lines.
Respiratory modulating activities: Lobeline has been found to stimulate respiration (Liljestrand, 1951). It is also known to relax the tissues of the lungs (Felpin et al., 2004).
Christopher, John R. School of Natural Healing. Christopher Publications, 1976.
Curtis, F. R., and Samson Wright. “Observations ON THE ACTION OF LOBELINE.” The Lancet 208.5390 (1926): 1255-1258.
Felpin, François-Xavier, and Jacques Lebreton. “History, chemistry and biology of alkaloids from Lobelia inflata.” Tetrahedron 60.45 (2004): 10127-10153.
Felter, Harvey and Lloyd, John. King’s American Dispensatory, 1898.
Hoffman, David. Holistic herbal. Element Books, 1988.
Kuhn, Merrily A., and David Winston. Herbal therapy and supplements: a scientific and traditional approach. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000.
Liljestrand, G. “Action of Certain Drugs on Respiration.” British medical journal 2.4732 (1951): 623.
Ma, Yonggang, and Michael Wink. “Lobeline, a piperidine alkaloid from Lobelia can reverse P-gp dependent multidrug resistance in tumor cells.” Phytomedicine 15.9 (2008): 754-758.
Wood, Matthew. The book of herbal wisdom: Using plants as medicine. North Atlantic Books, 1997.