Lobelia (Lobelia inflata), also called Indian tobacco, has a long
history of use as an herbal remedy for respiratory ailments such as asthma,
bronchitis, pneumonia, and cough. Native Americans historically smoked lobelia
as a treatment for asthma. In the 19th century, American physicians prescribed
lobelia to induce vomiting in order remove toxins from the body. Because of
this, it earned the name "puke weed." Today, lobelia is considered an effective
expectorant, meaning that it helps clear mucus from the respiratory tract.
Although few studies have thoroughly evaluated the safety and effectiveness of
lobelia, some herbalists today incorporate lobelia into a comprehensive
treatment plan for asthma.
An active ingredient in the lobelia plant, lobeline, is similar to nicotine
in its effect on the body. Like nicotine, it stimulates nerves in the central
nervous system. In fact, lobeline has been used as a nicotine substitute in many
anti-smoking products and preparations designed to break the smoking habit. In
1993, however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibited the sale
of lobeline-containing smoking products because, according to the FDA report,
they lacked effectiveness in helping people quit or reduce smoking.
It is important to note that lobelia is a potentially toxic herb. Lobelia can
be safely used in very small doses (particularly homeopathic doses), but
moderate to large doses can cause serious adverse effects ranging from dry mouth
and nausea to convulsions and even coma (see
Precautions). Under the guidance of a
qualified healthcare practitioner, however, lobelia, in combination with other
herbs that affect the respiratory system, is considered relatively
Lobelia is an attractive annual or sometimes biennial (replanted every year
or two) herb that grows to a height of three feet. Its erect, hairy stem is
angular, branching at the top, usually green with a tinge of violet. The pale
green or yellowish leaves have a sharp taste and a slightly irritating odor. The
sparse flowers are pale violet-blue outside and pale yellow inside.
The above-ground portion of the lobelia plant (namely the leaves and seeds)
are used for medicinal purposes.
Medicinal Uses and Indications
Lobelia has not been extensively studied in animals or in people. However, a
qualified healthcare practitioner may recommend this herb (usually in
combination with other herbs) for the treatment of the following respiratory
tract disorders or symptoms:
Lobelia is available in liquid extracts, tinctures, and as a dried herb in
How to Take It
Therapy should begin with lower dosages and increase gradually, depending
Adjust the recommended adult dose to account for the child's weight. Most
herbal dosages for adults are calculated on the basis of a 150 lb (70 kg) adult.
Therefore, if the child weighs 50 lb (20 to 25 kg), the appropriate dose of
lobelia for this child would be 1/3 of the adult dosage.
The following are recommended adult doses:
Dried herb (infusion or decoction): ¼ to ½ tsp herb in 8 oz of water,
preferably mixed with other herbs; steep 30 to 40 minutes. Take 2 oz four times
per day. (This method is not preferred because of lobelia's acrid taste.)
Liquid extract (1:1 in 50% alcohol): 0.2 to 0.6 mL (4 to 18 drops)
three times per day
Tincture of lobelia: 0.6 to 2.0 mL (18 to 60 drops) per day
Vinegar tincture of lobelia (1:5 in dilute acetic acid): 1 to 4 mL (20
to 120 drops) three times per day
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and
treating disease. Herbs, however, contain active substances that can trigger
side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For
these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a
practitioner knowledgeable in the field of botanical medicine.
Lobelia is considered a potentially toxic herb. Active substances in lobelia
bind to nicotine receptors in the nervous system and can cause serious symptoms
such as profuse sweating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, rapid heartbeat,
mental confusion, convulsions, hypothermia, coma, and even death. A total of 20
mg lobelia per day should not be exceeded. Doses higher than 500 mg are highly
toxic and, again, could be fatal.
People with high blood pressure, heart disease, tobacco sensitivity,
paralysis, seizure disorder, and shortness of breath as well as those recovering
from shock should not take lobelia. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also
avoid this herb.
There are no known scientific reports of interactions between lobelia and
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Review Date: April 2002
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Jacqueline A. Hart, MD,
Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Harvard University
and Senior Medical Editor Integrative Medicine, Boston, MA; Gary Kracoff, RPh
(Pediatric Dosing section February 2001), Johnson Drugs, Natick, MA; Steven
Ottariono, RPh (Pediatric Dosing section February 2001), Veteran's
Administrative Hospital, Londonderry, NH; R. Lynn Shumake, PD, Director,
Alternative Medicine Apothecary, Blue Mountain Apothecary & Healing Arts,
University of Maryland Medical Center, Glenwood, MD; David Winston, Herbalist
(January 2000), Herbalist and Alchemist, Inc., Washington, NJ. All interaction
sections have also been reviewed by a team of experts including Joseph Lamb, MD
(July 2000), The Integrative Medicine Works, Alexandria, VA;Enrico Liva, ND, RPh
(August 2000), Vital Nutrients, Middletown, CT; Brian T Sanderoff, PD, BS in
Pharmacy (March 2000), Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Maryland
School of Pharmacy; President, Your Prescription for Health, Owings Mills, MD;
Ira Zunin, MD, MPH, MBA (July 2000), President and Chairman, Hawaii State
Consortium for Integrative Medicine, Honolulu,
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guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information
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regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications
before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed