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Medicinal Uses and Side Effects of Elecampane

Elecampane is a perennial plant that has been used as a medicinal herb due to its anti-inflammatory and expectorant properties for ages. This Buzzle write-up provides information on the medicinal uses and side effects of elecampane.
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Medicinal uses of elecampane
Did You Know?
There are several fables surrounding the origin of the elecampane plant. It is believed that Inula helenium, the Latin name of this plant is derived from the legend of the Helen of Troy. As per folklore, Helen was carrying a bouquet of elecampane when she was being abducted from Sparta. Another fable suggests that this plant sprung up at the place where Helen's tears fell.
Known by various names such as wild sunflower, scabwort, marchalan, horseheal, Xuan fu (Chinese name), elfwort, etc., elecampane is a herbaceous, perennial plant that is indigenous to southern and central regions of Europe and western Asia. However, it has been naturalized in parts of North America. Its botanical name is Inula helenium, and it belongs to the Asteraceae or the daisy family. The parts of the plant that are used in herbal infusions include its root, rhizome, and flowers.

It is believed that this plant was used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans for the treatment of conditions such as upset stomach, menstrual irregularities, dropsy (water retention), and sciatica. It was also used by the Anglo-Saxons for alleviating the symptoms of certain skin diseases. These days, herbalists mainly use it for the treatment of respiratory problems.

Chemical Constituents and Properties of Elecampane

The ingredients that are responsible for the therapeutic properties of this herb include:

Volatile oils that contain sesquiterpene lactones such as alantolactone, isoalantolactone, etc.
Inulin
Helenin
Mucilage
Polysaccharides
Bitter principles
Sterols (sitosterol, stigmasterol)
Saponins
Resins

This herb possesses the following properties:

Expectorant (helps cough up phlegm)
Antitussive (suppresses and relieves coughing)
Diaphoretic (induces perspiration)
Carminative (helps relieve flatulence)
Diuretic (increases the flow of urine)
Antifungal (destroys fungi)
Antiparasitic (destroys parasites)
Anti-inflammatory (reduces inflammation)
Demulcent (has a soothing effect on the mucous membranes)

Medicinal Uses

Elecampane is called 'horseheal', as it has been used to treat skin infections in horses. Similarly, it is called scabwort, as it has been used to treat sheep affected with scabies. In human population, it can be used to alleviate the symptoms of the following conditions.

Respiratory Ailments
This herb is mostly used for providing relief from coughing with catarrh (increased production of mucus) that might be experienced by people affected by bronchitis (inflamed bronchi) or lung infections. The antitussive and expectorant properties of this herb are mainly attributed to alantolactone. It is believed that alantolactone and inulin (a starchy substance or polysaccharide) present in this plant act as a demulcent. Inulin coats and soothes the lining of the irritated bronchial passages or mucous membranes. As an expectorant, it helps in loosening and expelling mucus or phlegm in case of purulent bronchitis. The presence of saponins helps facilitate the removal of mucus from the lungs. It also helps provide relief from coughing in people affected by asthma and whooping cough. It is believed that the herb acts as a bactericidal agent against M. tuberculosis, and might help prevent coughing or other symptoms associated with tuberculosis to some extent. It might also provide relief to individuals affected by pneumonia or pleurisy.

Gastrointestinal Ailments
It is believed that the presence of a bitter principle called helenin in its root helps promote digestion. Helenin is believed to be instrumental in stimulating appetite. As far as the digestive ailments are concerned, herbalists are of the opinion that this herb can alleviate the symptoms of dyspepsia. The volatile oil alantolactone present in the root possesses antihelmenthic properties, which means that the use of this herb might help destroy parasites or worms (roundworm, threadworm, hookworm, whipworm, giardia, or pinworms) that could be responsible for causing gastritis or gastroenteritis. It also acts like a digestive aid. A herbal infusion made from elecampane and licorice might prove beneficial in alleviating symptoms such as nausea, distended abdomen, and flatulence.

Effect on Blood Sugar
Inulin, which is a soluble fiber that is present in this plant, is not only believed to be beneficial for the intestinal flora, but might also help prevent medical conditions associated with blood glucose and triglycerides. Though inulin has a sweet taste, it has a minimal effect on the blood sugar levels, when taken in the right doses.

This herb can be taken in the form of tea, liquid extract, or tincture. As far as the dosage is concerned, 1.5-3 g of rhizome/root can be taken thrice a day. Elecampane tea can be taken twice a day. To make this tea, 1.5-3 g of root can be added to 150 milliliters of boiling water. Let it steep for 5-10 minutes and strain.

Side Effects and Contraindications

When taken in prescribed doses, this herb doesn't cause untoward effects. However, it could cause certain side effects, if taken in large doses. The side effects might include:

Vomiting
Diarrhea
Spasms

This herb is contraindicated in the following cases:

Pregnancy
This herb should not be taken by women during the course of pregnancy, as it is considered to be a uterine stimulant. Moreover, there's a lack of scientific data on its effect on the expectant mother and the fetus. It should also be avoided by nursing mothers.

Allergy
It should be avoided by those who have had an allergic reaction on exposure to plants from the Asteraceae/Compositae plant family, which include chrysanthemums, marigolds, ragweed, daisies, etc.

Though inulin doesn't have a significant effect on the blood sugar levels, diabetics who are using elecampane in any form must monitor their blood sugar levels on a regular basis. Elecampane can interact with central nervous system depressants and sedatives, thereby causing drowsiness. Thus, people who are taking such drugs must avoid its use.

It must be noted that there's a lack of scientific data on the effectiveness of this herb in the treatment of the aforementioned conditions. Most of the data is based on animal studies and anecdotal evidence. Therefore, it is advisable to consult your healthcare provider before you start taking this herb.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert or an herbal practitioner.
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Published: May 30, 2014
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