Lobelia (Lobelia inflata)

Many of the basic ideas I use to teach people about herbal medicine came from studying the work of Samuel Thomson.  Thomson's number one herb was lobelia and it's one of about ten herbs that I always try to keep on hand.

Lobelia has many common names, names which give clues to its properties and uses: asthma weed, Indian tobacco, wild tobacco, bladder pod, vomit wort, pukeweed and gagroot. Thomson discovered lobelia when he chewed on it and it made him throw up.  Thereafter, he used to give it to friends as a gag.  He never thought of it as a medicine until he gave it to a co-worker one day, who after throwing up, said that he felt much better.

Lobelia contains an alkaloid called lobeline, which relaxes muscles. Due to the presence of lobeline, lobelia is an emetic in large doses. An emetic induces vomiting, a property reflected by several of lobelia's common names and Thomson's personal experience. Fortunately, you don't have to use lobelia in doses large enough to make you throw up to get benefical effects from it.

Lobelia has a paradoxical effect. It first stimulates and then depress the autonomic nervous system. Small doses can ease nausea and vomiting, while large doses cause it. It has been called "the intelligent herb" because it seems to whatever is necessary to promote healing in the body.  That's why Thomson used it on nearly everyone.

Lobeline, the principle alkaloid in lobelia, has a chemical structure similar to nicotine, except that it has the opposite effect.  Both nicotine and lobeline attach to adrenergic and cholinergic receptors in the nervous system. Adrenergic receptor sites are for epinephrine and norepinephrine, the sympathetic neurotransmitters that increase heart rate and blood pressure to energize the body when you are startled or scared.  Cholinergic receptors are for acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter responsible for stimulating muscles to contract.  It is also involved in memory.

Nictoine acts on these receptors to contract blood vessels, increase blood pressure and heart rate and make muscles tense.  Lobelia has the opposite effect.  It dilates blood vessels, decreases blood pressure and heart rate and makes muscles relax.

These actions make lobelia one of the best antispasmodic and relaxing herbs in the plant kingdom. For starters, lobelia eases muscle tension and increases blood and lymph flow.  This can be very helpful for easing any kind of cramping pain, including muscle cramps, menstrual cramps, intestinal gripe (cramping pains in the digestive tract) and constricted breathing. Midwives have even administered lobelia as a muscle relaxant to counteract pelvic rigidity during childbirth.

Lobelia also relieves the cramping of a spastic bowel. I've successfully used a mixture of peppermint glycerite and lobelia extract for severe colic and intestinal cramps, where catnip and fennel wasn't strong enough.  For small children the tincture can be rubbed on the stomach and followed with a few drops of peppermint oil.

Respiratory and Lymphatic Remedy

Lobelia dilates the bronchials and relaxes muscle spasms in the lungs. This makes it one of our most valuable remedies for asthma, bronchitis, whooping cough and spastic cough. I've used lobelia tincture or extract to relieve an asthma attack by giving a small amount (10-30 drops) every couple of minutes until relief is obtained.  Sometimes this will cause the asthmatic to vomit, but this will typically result in an immediate end of the attack. Again, for small children, lobelia can be rubbed into the back and chest.

I've also used small amounts of lobelia along with ALJ and garlic (oil or high potency tablets) to ease congestion in the lungs and help expell mucus and fluid in the lungs. Lobelia really helps to ease the tension when coughing and make it easier for the lungs to cough up the mucus.

Another benefit of lobelia is that it promotes lymphatic drainage.  It combines well with mullein, cleavers and red clover for this purpose. By promoting better lymph drainage, lobelia can reduce swelling in lymph nodes, ease congestion, clear abscesses and help ease mumps and tonsillitis.  For tonsillitis it works well with red root and echinacea.

Another use I've made for lobelia is to ease high blood pressure. Small doses (10-30 drops) repeated every 15 minutes along with deep breathing can rapid reduce high blood pressure.  Lobelia combines well with the tinctures of capsicum and black cohosh for this purpose.

Smoking and Anxiety

Because lobeline has a similar chemical structure to nictotine, lobelia has been used to help people quit smoking. Lobeline was once approved as an over-the-counter anti-smoking medicine by the FDA, but I find the whole herb works better. Lobelia can be taken (preferably in liquid form) three to four times per day, plus anytime smokers have the urge to smoke.  It eases craving for nicotine, counteracts some of the harmful effects of smoking and aids the lungs of smokers. Lobelia can actually make smokers feel nauseous when they smoke.  

Lobelia combines well with Nutri-Calm and chamomile as a program for quitting smoking.  You can also use the homeopathic Tobacco Detox with lobelia.

I've also used small, frequently repeated doses of lobelia to ease anxiety and panic attacks. Again, coach the person to breath slowly and deeply and administer a small dose of lobelia extract (kava kava extract also works) every 3-5 minutes until the attack subsides.

Topical and Other Uses

Lobelia can be used for a variety of conditions involving pain, especially when applied topically.  I've warmed the extract and used it in the ears to ease earaches.  I've mixed equal parts of lobelia extract with capsicum extract and massaged it into sore, tense muscles, then followed it with Tei Fu oil.  Massaged into the back, these three remedies have been used as an herbal back adjustment to ease back pain and help vertebrae realign easily. This combination also works well on sprains, arthritic joints, sore throats and general aches and pains.

Lobelia has also been used topically for insect bites and stings.  It reduces swelling and eases pain.

Thomson used lobelia for heavy metal poisoning from mercury and lead.  It seems to help counteract poisons in general and can be used to induce vomiting in food poisoning or other internal poisoning where throwing up would be beneficial. In this instance, lobelia can be used as an alternative to ipecac.

Safety Concerns and Usage

Because of the herb’s strength and possible toxicity, lobelia is often listed as poisonous. It is said to produce convulsions, coma and death.  However, no one has every died from taking lobelia and herbalists have used safely and confidently employeed this remedy with newborn infants, weak and sickly people and the elderly for over 200 years.  The assertion that lobelia is toxic probably comes from research done on lobeline, but because lobelia induces vomiting it would be nearly impossible to administer enough lobelia to cause a toxic reaction.

We've already made it clear that large doses of lobelia induce nausea and then vomiting.  However, the amount needed to achieve this affect varies greatly from person to person.  Sometimes only a small dose is needed and sometimes larger doses will only produce nausea and perspiration, but no vomiting. If enough lobelia is taken, it can cause the muscles to relax to the point that the person can't move (something that can also happen with large doses of kava).  Although this could be frightening, it wears off and the person is in no danger.

Lobelia is generally not taken on a daily basis, except for asthmatics or quitting smoking.  Usually it is reserved for acute ailments where there are obstructions in the body. In capsule form, one or occasionally two capsules is a sufficient dosage for most such problems. The dosage may be repeated every one or two hours until relief is obtained. The best way to use the herb is in the form of an alchohol tincture or glycerine extract.  Typical dose for an adult is 10-30 drops, which can be repeated as often as every two to three minutes until relief is obtained.  If nausea or vomiting occur, peppermint tea or liquid chlorophyll (which contains peppermint oil) can be used to settle the stomach.

Selected References

      A Handbook of Native American Herbs by Alma R. Hutchens
The Energetics of Western Herbs
by Peter Holmes

The Illustrated Herb Encyclopedia
by Kathi Keville
Lobelia” by Dr. John R. Christopher, M.H. in Herbalist (Vol. 1 No. 2, 1976).
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West
by Michael Moore

Nutritional Herbology
by Mark Pedersen
Weiner’s Herbal
by Michael A. Weiner, M.S., M.A., Ph.D., and Janet Weiner

The Wild Rose Scientific Herbal
by Terry Willard, Ph.D.

Comments (8)

Christine Takerian
Said this on 4-25-2011 At 09:08 pm

I love Lobelia - if I was given only 1 herbal item to take with me to a desert island, it would be this.  It works wonderfully for so many different types of issues....muscles aches, respiratory issues, cramping, anxiety, obstructions from the lungs to the bowels...Don't miss this great herb of nature.  And, yes, when taken internally, it sometimes makes you feel a bit nauseous...but if you can accept that as being the signal that it is beginning to work - it passes quickly and works magically!

Said this on 6-13-2013 At 04:46 am
hi there can someone tell me where can i get lobelia i'm staying in south africa can you please tell me where i can get it at chemist or doctors at supermarkets please let me know thank you
Said this on 7-25-2012 At 01:39 pm
Thank you very much for this detailed article on Lobelia. I have purchased the tincture as well as the dried herb and could not find information on how much I could/should use per day. I now understand that you the guideline is to take in a liquid form 3 times a day PLUS anytime I felt the urge to smoke. I was concerned I was taking too much throughout the day but it never made me sick or vomit. It seems to hype me up a little bit when first taken and then it calms me down and makes me sleepy/content.
Said this on 2-15-2013 At 08:08 am
I do not immunize my children. My nine year old son recently broke out in a skin rash that looks similar to chicken pox. My questions is, can liquid lobelia ever cause a rash without coming into contact with the actual leaf?
Said this on 11-4-2013 At 12:29 am
I am feeling lucky to stumble upon this page, Steven.It's so elaborate and informative.

My 4 years son is asthmatic since his age of 1 yr and 3 months and is undergoing conventional (allopathic) treatment for last 3 years.But only a minimal improvement has been noticed.So, I have started thinking of alternative treatment.One herbal medicine, whose ingredients were not disclosed to me by the herbalist, caused certain toxicity. My son's face swelled like having mumps and also his body weight grew by 1 kg in 20 days which is very abnormal.We stopped the herbal medicine under advice of the allopath according to whom the herbal medicine contained high dose of steroid.High dose of steroid may have irreversible damage to body if used long term.

Thereafter I turned to a reputed homeopath who prescribed "Lobelia co pill"(daughter of my nephew, has been cured of asthma under treatment of this very Homeopath a few years back when she was 6 yrs of age). .On searching the term "Lobelia co pill" on google I stumbled upon your page.I have not yet started "Lobelia co pill" on my son.Steven, from your article I think my son can take it since the dose is just 4 (homeopathic) pills 3 times daily.
Cathlyn McCullough
Said this on 2-28-2014 At 10:06 am
I submit this message as a caution regarding the inherent bodily structure of certain persons in whom lobelia is a nerve poison. I am one of those people. I have a unique genetic structure. Lobelia does not have the effect on me that is described. I have a structure that is similar to those with autism. There is a natural low blood pressure that my immune system has. I have to assume that it preserves my life and performs its actions for a real and useful purpose.

That being said, here is what happened: I was trying to quit smoking. A friend purchased a Lobelia tincture of a reliable brand from a respected herbalist. I normally use only those products that act as functional foods and cannot tolerate drugs. I was desperate to quit smoking. So, I tried the lobelia.

To the best of my recollection, I used 3 drops and then 3 hours later 3 more drops. The first dose did not take away my desire to smoke. The second dose caused an extreme reaction. It seemed that all of the dopamine in my system vanished, I was plunged into what I can only describe as a kind of hell. So much so, that I immediately forgave all of those who had ever wronged me, those that may wrong me in the future (if there was to be a future for me) apologized to all those I had ever hurt and I shouted to the universe that I was ready to be annihilated if that were my destiny.

The effects began to dissipate in a short time. the lobelia did not make me feel like throwing up in the slightest, it just had this effect as a nerve poison producing what I would call a spiritual experience. Also, I am a person who never throws up. I can't. For a person with naturally low blood pressure or autism in their family heredity, I would say that they should not take lobelia. Another anomaly is that every time I try to quit smoking it results in severe depression and uncontrollable crying... I hope this is of some use to someone.
Said this on 2-28-2014 At 02:59 pm
I'm taking Dr. Christopher's Herbal Calcium Formula which list Wildcrafted Lobelia Herb as one of it's ingredients. It has to be taken a few times a day but the % of Lobelia is not listed. 2 capsules are 800 mg of the ingredients but it's not broken up to what % of each ingredient is in each capsule. (Shavegrass, Nettle leaf, Oatstraw and Lobelia are total ingredients)

You say not to take Lobelia every day so, is there a problem with this supplement?
Said this on 3-12-2014 At 03:40 pm
I have been using the liquid lobelia for 2 months for bronchitis. I has worked a miracle. No more antibiotics or sprays. Fenugreek seed and olive leaf extract also works well with lobelia.
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