|Illustration from Köhler's Medicinal Plants 1887|
Atropa belladonna or Atropa bella-donna, commonly known as Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the family Solanaceae, native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. The foliage and berries are extremely toxic, containing tropane alkaloids. These toxins include scopolamine and hyoscyamine, which cause a bizarre delirium and hallucinations, and are also used as pharmaceutical anticholinergics. The drug atropine is derived from the plant.
It has a long history of use as a medicine, cosmetic, and poison. Before the Middle Ages, it was used as an anesthetic for surgery; the ancient Romans used it as a poison (the wife of Emperor Augustus and the wife of Claudius both were rumored to have used it for murder); and, predating this, it was used to make poison-tipped arrows. The genus name "atropa" comes from Atropos, one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, and the name "bella donna" is derived from Italian and means "beautiful woman" because the herb was used in eye-drops by women to dilate the pupils of the eyes to make them appear seductive.
Atropa belladonna is a branching herbaceous perennial, often growing as a subshrub, from a fleshy rootstock. Plants grow to 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) tall with 18 centimetres (7.1 in) long ovate leaves. The bell-shaped flowers are purple with green tinges and faintly scented. The fruits are berries, which are green, ripening to a shiny-black, and approximately 1 centimetre (0.39 in) in diameter. The berries are sweet and are consumed by animals (see Toxicity) that disperse the seeds in their droppings, even though the seeds contain toxic alkaloids. There is a pale-yellow flowering form called Atropa belladonna var. lutea with pale-yellow fruit.
Atropa belladona is rarely used in gardens, but, when grown, it is usually for its large upright habit and showy berries. It is naturalized in parts of North America, where it is often found in shady, moist locations with limestone-rich soils. It is considered a weed species in parts of the world, where it colonizes areas with disturbed soils. Germination of the small seeds is often difficult, due to hard seed coats that cause seed dormancy. Germination takes several weeks under alternating temperature conditions, but can be sped up with the use of gibberellic acid. The seedlings need sterile soil to prevent damping off and resent root disturbance during transplanting. This plant is a sign of water nearby.
Naming and taxonomy
The name Atropa belladonna was published by Linnaeus in Species Plantarum in 1753. It is in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which it shares with potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, jimsonweed, tobacco, wolfberry, and chili peppers. The common names for this species include belladonna, deadly nightshade, divale, dwale, banewort, devil's berries, naughty man's cherries, death cherries, beautiful death, devil's herb, great morel, and dwayberry.
The name Atropa is thought to be derived from that of the Greek goddess Atropos, one of the three Greek fates or destinies who would determine the course of a man's life by the weaving of threads that symbolized his birth, the events in his life, and finally his death, with Atropos cutting these threads to mark the last of these. The name "belladonna" comes from the Italian language, meaning "beautiful lady"; originating either from its usage as cosmetic for the face or, more probably, from its usage to increase the pupil size in women.
Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants found in the Eastern Hemisphere. All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids. The berries pose the greatest danger to children because they look attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste. The consumption of two to five berries by a human adult is probably lethal. The root of the plant is generally the most toxic part, though this can vary from one specimen to another. Ingestion of a single leaf of the plant can be fatal to an adult.
The active agents in belladonna, atropine, hyoscine (scopolamine), and hyoscyamine, have anticholinergic properties. The symptoms of belladonna poisoning include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, severely dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions. In 2009, A. belladonna berries were mistaken for blueberries by an adult woman; the six berries she ate were documented to result in severe anticholinergic syndrome. The plant's deadly symptoms are caused by atropine's disruption of the parasympathetic nervous system's ability to regulate involuntary activities, such as sweating, breathing, and heart rate. The antidote for belladonna poisoning is physostigmine or pilocarpine, the same as for atropine.
Atropa belladonna is also toxic to many domestic animals, causing narcosis and paralysis. However, cattle and rabbits eat the plant seemingly without suffering harmful effects. In humans, its anticholinergic properties will cause the disruption of cognitive capacities, such as memory and learning.
The common name belladonna originates from its historic use by women - Bella Donna is Italian for beautiful lady. Drops prepared from the belladonna plant were used to dilate women's pupils, an effect considered attractive. Belladonna drops act as an antimuscarinic, blocking receptors in the muscles of the eye that constrict pupil size. Belladonna is currently rarely used cosmetically, as it carries the adverse effects of causing minor visual distortions, inability to focus on near objects, and increased heart rate. Prolonged usage was reputed to cause blindness.
Belladonna has been used in herbal medicine for centuries as a pain reliever, muscle relaxer, and anti-inflammatory, and to treat menstrual problems, peptic ulcer disease, histaminic reaction, and motion sickness. At least one 19th-century eclectic medicine journal explained how to prepare a belladonna tincture for direct administration to patients.
Belladonna tinctures, decoctions, and powders, as well as alkaloid salt mixtures, are still produced for pharmaceutical use, and these are often standardised at 1037 parts hyoscyamine to 194 parts atropine and 65 parts scopolamine. The alkaloids are compounded with phenobarbital and/or kaolin and pectin for use in various functional gastrointestinal disorders. The tincture, used for identical purposes, remains in most pharmacopoeias, with a similar tincture of Datura stramonium having been in the US Pharmacopoeia at least until the late 1930s. The combination of belladonna and opium, in powder, tincture, or alkaloid form, is particularly useful by mouth or as a suppository for diarrhoea and some forms of visceral pain; it can be made by a compounding pharmacist, and may be available as a manufactured fixed combination product in some countries (e.g., B&O Supprettes). A banana-flavoured liquid (most common trade name: Donnagel PG) was available until 31 December 1992 in the United States.
Scopolamine is used as the hydrobromide salt for GI complaints and motion sickness, and to potentiate the analgesic and anxiolytic effects of opioid analgesics. It was formerly used in a painkiller called "twilight sleep" in childbirth.
Atropine sulphate is used as a mydriatic and cycloplegic for eye examinations. It is also used as an antidote to organophosphate and carbamate poisoning, and is loaded in an autoinjector for use in case of a nerve gas attack. Atropinisation (administration of a sufficient dose to block nerve gas effects) results in 100 percent blockade of the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors, and atropine sulphate is the benchmark for measuring the power of anticholinergic drugs.
Hyoscyamine is used as the sulphate or hydrobromide for GI problems and Parkinson's disease. Its side-effect profile is intermediate to those of atropine and scopolamine, and can also be used to combat the toxic effects of organophosphates.
Scientific evidence to recommend the use of A. belladonna in its natural form for any condition is insufficient, although some of its components, in particular l-atropine, which was purified from belladonna in the 1830s, have accepted medical uses. Donnatal is a prescription pharmaceutical, approved in the United States by the FDA, that combines natural belladonna alkaloids in a specific, fixed ratio with phenobarbital to provide peripheral anticholinergic/antispasmodic action and mild sedation. According to its labeling, it is possibly effective for use as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (irritable colon, spastic colon, mucous colitis) and acute enterocolitis.
Belladonna preparations are used in homeopathy as treatments for various conditions, although no scientific evidence supports their efficacy. In clinical use and in research trials, the most common preparation is diluted to the 30C level in homeopathic notation. This level of dilution does not contain any of the original plant, although preparations with lesser dilutions that statistically contain trace amounts of the plant are advertised for sale.
Atropa belladonna and related plants, such as jimson weed (Datura stramonium), have occasionally been used as recreational drugs because of the vivid hallucinations and delirium they produce. However, these hallucinations are most commonly described as very unpleasant, and recreational use is considered extremely dangerous because of the high risk of unintentional fatal overdose. In addition, the central nervous system effects of atropine include memory disruption, which may lead to severe confusion.
The tropane alkaloids of A. belladonna were used as poisons, and early humans made poisonous arrows from the plant. In Ancient Rome, it was used as a poison by Agrippina the Younger, wife of Emperor Claudius on advice of Locusta, a lady specialized in poisons, and Livia, who is rumored to have used it to kill her husband Emperor Augustus.
Macbeth of Scotland, when he was still one of the lieutenants of King Duncan I of Scotland, used it during a truce to poison the troops of the invading Harold Harefoot, King of England, to the point that the English troops were unable to stand their ground and had to retreat to their ships.
In the past, witches were believed to use a mixture of belladonna, opium poppy, and other plants, typically poisonous (such as monkshood and poison hemlock) in flying ointment, which they applied to help them fly to gatherings with other witches. Carlo Ginzburg and others have argued that flying ointments were preparations meant to encourage hallucinatory dreaming; a possible explanation for the inclusion of belladonna and opium poppy in flying ointments concerns the known antagonism between tropane alkaloids of belladonna (to be specific, scopolamine) and opiate alkaloids in the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum (to be specific, morphine), which produces a dream-like waking state. This antagonism was known in folk medicine, discussed in eclectic (botanical) medicine formularies, and posited as the explanation of how flying ointments might have actually worked in contemporary writing on witchcraft. The antagonism between opiates and tropanes is the original basis of the Twilight Sleep that was provided to Queen Victoria to deaden pain as well as consciousness during childbirth, and that was later modified, and so isolated alkaloids were used instead of plant materials. The belladonna herb was also notable for its unpredictable effects from toxicity.
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