You may have seen it before. It is a plant one and a half meters tall with round leaves and dark berries. Its flowers form bells painted green and purple, inconspicuous colors that help it hide in the dim light. Belladonna (Atropa belladonna) grows in practically the entire northern hemisphere in dark and humid areas, among the undergrowth and under leafy trees. It doesn’t seem like much, one more grass in the forest, however, the history of the belladonna has walked hand in hand with us from before the first civilizations to the present day. It has gone from being used as a recreational substance to giving birth to some of the most relevant drugs of our time.
Orgies, wars and witchcraft
Normally, belladonna ballets have adapted to be devoured by birds. It is a perfect messenger, capable of sending them far without chewing or damaging them. In fact, the gastric juices of birds help them to germinate, weakening the hard exterior of the seeds. Unfortunately for them, its flavor is sweet, which has made them an interesting delicacy for other somewhat more destructive animals, like us, without going any further.
Going back in time we can find belladonna berries in prehistoric settlements, but their use began to become popular with civilization. The effects of the drug convinced the ancient Egyptians that they started using it to “relax” as a narcotic. Later, the Greeks revolutionized its use, introducing it to Dionysian orgies, fulfilling a presumably aphrodisiac function. Its use instilled value in warriors and in some places it was interwoven with religious rituals and with spirituality itself. The belladonna was here to stay and it wasn’t hard for him to make his way until the 16th century.
Alchemists used to use it and after them the supposed witches took over. All this from obscurantism, trying that their supposed knowledge did not leak to the rest of society, which was using it for very different purposes. It was precisely at that moment when the drug received the name with which we know it now: belladonna. Her herbal teas had become popular among women. Atropine, one of the active ingredients of belladonna, dilates the pupils and blushes the skin, producing natural blushes. The origin of the name is precisely this, from the Italian “beautiful woman”. Until then it was called atropa, by Átropos, one of the three Morias that in Greek mythology wove and cut people’s lives. Atropos was the last to act, the one who cut the thread, ending the life of its owner. An analogy that gives us clues about the next step that this drug took in civilization.
A dark turn of events
Of course, as popular as it was, belladonna is a drug, like tobacco, alcohol, and even coffee. Not all its effects are so pleasant and its excessive consumption can even lead to an overdose death. In fact, the more the substance was known, the more cases of death of belladonna occurred, some due to carelessness, others not.
The symptoms are very varied: dry mouth, eyes, dilation and paralysis of the pupils, loss of muscle control, hallucinations, drowsiness, increased heart rate and of course, that redness that seemed so attractive in its cosmetic use only that accompanied by an intense fever. Complications that begin in a few minutes, but that can take days to make them disappear.
With just 10 berries in adults and 2 or 3 in children, a fatal overdose can be achieved. It may sound highly dangerous, but think about it. It means that there is a margin that we can use. Having seen how many organs it affects, it is normal to think that belladonna may have interesting properties for medicine, and indeed, that is the case.
When we talk about belladonna as a drug, we are referring to a cocktail of substances that accumulate in different concentrations in its leaves, stems, seeds and roots. Among them there are two that have caught the attention of pharmacologists: atropine and scopolamine.
These are two molecules capable of acting directly on our autonomic nervous system, the network of nerves that regulates many of our body’s unconscious functions, such as the movements of the digestive tract or the contraction of the heart. Normally, we are in a balance between the two parts of the autonomous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. While the first puts us in tune to fight or flee, the second allows us to relax and dedicate ourselves to fulfilling our basic vital functions. Both scopolamine and atropine block the activation of the parasympathetic system, which means that they inhibit it, unbalancing the balance and causing the sympathetic to overcome.
That is why the pulsations increase and the pupils dilate, allowing more light to enter to prepare us for possible danger. Only with this the substance already seems interesting, but there is more, because they fulfill a key quality, and that is that (to a greater or lesser extent) they are able to cross the barriers that separate the brain from the rest of the body, such as the blood-brain barrier. This allows the drug to reach the brain by acting centrally over the entire body.
For all these reasons, we can use atropine to prepare the patient for anesthesia, or in the event of airway closure, cardiopulmonary arrest and poisoning by other drugs. And taking this into account, we could think: if all these benefits were already in the plant, why do we need a pharmaceutical company to sell it to us in pills?
Russian roulette of nature
The so-called alternative medicines, which have little medicine, are a health hazard, and among them are herbal medicine, naturopathy and herbalism. Although they have their differences, all three maintain the fallacy that everything natural is better and propose false herbal treatments. We cannot deny that belladonna in correct doses can have a positive effect on the body, however who controls those amounts?
Unfortunately, plants are not laboratories full of precision scales and micropipettes, and the concentration of substances inside is a true Russian roulette. An example is peppers. Its itchiness depends on the concentration of a molecule called capsaicin, which, in turn, is greatly influenced by the way we have watered the plants. Temperature, nutrients, light and so many other factors that we may well call “randomness” make substance concentrations unpredictable.
In fact, this unpredictability is what produces so many overdoses due to the consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms and the reason why herbalists have put more than one life at risk, triggering, among other things, sudden liver failure. When a pharmacist synthesizes a drug, it measures with incredible precision how much it is supplying, and therefore can assure you of a minimization of its side effects that no honest naturopathy store can promise you.
On the other hand, in the laboratory, only the compounds that interest us can be isolated from all those produced by the plant. This is especially important, because when belladonna began to produce atropine, it did not do so because it was an advantage to help us with our heart problems, it did so to have a poison, with which to defend ourselves, and that means that the cocktail of substances that contain its seeds have many unpleasant properties that we had better avoid.
This is how atropine has traveled with us from a stormy past full of excesses and lack of control to save our lives in the present. They say that nature is a pharmacy, but it is also a scam, a camel and a seller of poisons. We have seen how atropine is much more than nature or belladonna have made it. It is what we have done with it at every moment of our history.
DON’T NECK IT:
- Herbal preparations are not a substitute for true pharmacological treatments; in fact, they can be counterproductive, poison your consumers and, in extreme cases, lead to death.
- It is true that real medicines also have side effects, but they have been minimized in such a way that we can assure that the option that combines a greater beneficial effect with the least possible damage.
- Çaksen, Hüseyin et al. “Deadly Nightshade (Atropa Belladonna) Intoxication: An Analysis Of 49 Children”. Human & Experimental Toxicology, vol 22, no. 12, 2003, pp. 665-668. SAGE Publications
- Berdai M, Labib S, Chetouani K & Harandou M. “Atropa Belladonna Intoxication: a case report.” Pan Afr Med J. 11:72. 2012