Daily MOS: The Poison/Medicine of Belladonna
Once upon a time in a land called 2014, I started writing about bullshit artists. One of my favorite subjects to have a go at was the pseudoscience of sugar pills: homeopathy. People bought it because it was “safe,” as you would expect of something that contains no fucking medicine.
Then children started becoming sick when using ‘teething tabs’ from a homeopathy company. There were reports of seizures, because it turns out that people who specialize in medicine-less medicine are bad at measuring a belladonna dosage appropriate for infants.
And don’t you just hate it when some asshole sullies the good name of your favorite nerve agent treatment?
Today’s Moment of Science… the life saving qualities of deadly belladonna.
From the Italian meaning ‘beautiful woman,’ eyedrops made from belladonna were used by women in Renaissance Italy to get a more seductive look by dilating their pupils. It’s also referred to as ‘deadly nightshade,’ not to be confused with the entire nightshade family of plants that include some much safer offerings. For centuries, the extract was a poison of choice for assassins. It’s rumored that they could build up a tolerance to it as a convenient way of Dread Pirate Roberts-ing someone to death, but please don’t try this at home.
Belladonna contains three medicinally nifty chemicals: atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. The plant was used to various degrees of success for goddamn near everything for centuries before the components were isolated and identified in the 1800s.
Atropine was used in anesthesia and pain relief. Hyoscyamine relaxes stomach muscles, reduces gastric acid production, and is now used for a variety of gastrointestinal ailments, including IBS. Scopolamine was part of the ‘twilight sleep’ cocktail used in the early 20th century that induced a type of amnesia from the pain of childbirth. It makes sense that a plant with this combination was successfully used as an anesthetic and for sleeplessness.
At the core of toxicology is the principle that the dose makes the poison, and in few chemicals does that feel so deeply true as with the alkaloids in belladonna.
Though nature provided a bounty of medicinal products in this plant, that comes with drawbacks. If you’re combining drugs, you want to decide the ratio of atropine to scopolamine for yourself, not say “I’m feeling lucky” and chomp into the nearest leaf. Though they have differing pharmaceutical applications, both have anticholinergic effects, meaning they block the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. A bit too much of that and you have yourself anticholinergic toxidrome, which can come with a side of hallucinations, delirium, fever, seizures, memory loss, tachycardia, and coma.
Don’t combine drugs, kids.
Funny thing though about atropine and that line between poison and medicine?
Atropine is both highly capable of fucking up your day and it’s part of the cocktail that’ll save your ass from nerve agent.
While atropine has anticholinergic effects, nerve agents and organophosphate pesticides are cholinergic agents. Generally they inhibit the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, allowing it to build up and run wild in between your synapses. The symptoms of being poisoned with nerve agent blow Putin’s herpetic taint, and include confusion, lacrimation, bradycardia, defecation, salivation, and seizures.
At least that’s what they told me in the employee handbook.
The cool part? If you want to unpoison yourself from nerve agent, you just gotta trust science and take that precisely measured dose of atropine from your doctor (and some 2-PAM). Because keeping a human alive is a balancing act of neurotransmitters, electrolytes, amino acids, and all their various receptors, and sometimes you gotta take a little poison to shut a lot of poison down.
Or in the case of homeopathic products with belladonna, you just gotta say no to an unknowable amount of poison.
This has been your daily Moment of Science, suggesting that you don’t seek out medicine that requires you to do fuzzy math to find out if it contains any medicine.