The Health Benefits of Lobelia

Said to help with smoking cessation, the herb may be toxic

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Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) is a plant used in herbal and homeopathic medicine. Said to expel mucus from the respiratory tract, it is used to treat respiratory problems. In addition, some individuals use lobelia to help them quit smoking, sooth muscles, support alcoholism recovery, and more. While this wide range of uses is attractive, lobelia is listed in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Poisonous Plant Database as a potentially toxic herb and should be avoided. It is banned in Bangladesh and Italy.

If, despite this, you do decide to use lobelia, it's best to consult your medical provider and use extreme caution. Since there are limited human studies, not much is known don't known about its effects.

Commonly Known As

Asthma weed, bladderpod, emetic herb, gagroot, herbe à asthme, Indian tobacco, Lobelia inflata, Lobélie, Lobélie brûlante, Lobélie enflée, Lobélie gonflée, pukeweed, tabac Indien, vomit wort, wild tobacco

Health Benefits

To date, research on the potential health benefits of lobelia has yielded mixed results. Advocates tout lobelia as a natural remedy for the prevention or treatment of the following health problems:

  • ADHD
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Asthma 
  • Bronchitis 
  • Cough 
  • Depression
  • Pneumonia
  • Smoking addiction

And when applied topically:

  • Muscle pain or sprains
  • Bruises
  • Insect bites
  • Ringworm

Scientific studies do not support all of these benefits, however (either for lobelia or a compound it contains called lobeline).

Here's a sense of the limited research related to some of the more popular benefit claims.

Alcoholism

In a preliminary mouse study published in Physiology & Behavior, lobeline was found to reduce alcohol preference and lower alcohol consumption. To date, however, there are no human studies to prove that lobeline can help treat alcoholism.

Smoking Cessation

Lobelia has been promoted to help people fight the effects of nicotine withdrawal by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain (which has an effect similar to cigarettes). Analysis of both short- and long-term research, however, determined that lobelia appears to offer no benefit in smoking cessation.

Lobeline was once a common ingredient in over-the-counter products used to alleviate symptoms associated with nicotine withdrawal. However, in 1993, the FDA issued a ban on the sale of anti-smoking products containing lobeline due to a lack of evidence of the ingredient's effectiveness as a nicotine substitute.

Depression

Preliminary mice studies show that lobeline may help alleviate depression by influencing certain brain chemicals involved in regulating mood. There are no sufficient human studies on this.

Respiratory Disorders

Lobelia is often touted for its use in such respiratory conditions as asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia. This is because the herb is said to act as an expectorant, helping to thin mucus (phlegm), cause a more productive cough, and help you to breathe better. Unfortunately, here too, there is not a sufficient amount of research to back up these claims.

ADHD

A small human study found that lobeline helped to improve working memory in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but few improvements were found in attention.

Since lobelia has been shown to improve the release and uptake of dopamine in the brain, it may play a role in the treatment of ADHD symptoms. To date, however, more human research is needed to determine its effectiveness. 

Possible Side Effects

Use of lobelia is not recommended. If you're still considering using the herb, talk with your primary care provider first. 

Lobelia may cause the following side effects, which can range from mild to severe:

  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Confusion
  • Profuse sweating
  • Tremors
  • Rapid heartbeat

More research is needed to determine whether it is safe to apply lobelia to skin.

There's also some concern that moderate-to-large doses of lobelia may cause serious adverse events like seizures, coma, and possibly even death (taking 4 grams may be fatal).

It's especially important for individuals with epilepsy, heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, liver disease, or a gastrointestinal disorder to consult a medical professional prior to using lobelia. Children and pregnant and nursing women should never take lobelia.

Aside from concerns with taking the herb itself, self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

Interactions

Not much is known about how lobelia affects other drugs you may be taking. However, it has been found to interact with the following:

  • Psychiatric medications: Antidepressants, lithium, anti-anxiety agents, stimulants
  • Smoking cessation medications and aids: Nicotine patches, gum, Chantix (varenicline)

Always advise your doctor about any supplements or herbs you may be taking.

Dosage and Preparation

You may find lobelia sold as a cream, tea, oral supplement, or liquid extract. Due to a lack of supporting research and serious health risks, no standardized dosage or recommendations exist.

Remember, too, that supplements, in general, are largely unregulated. The content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label.

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