Toxicity of Alkaloids

Alkaloids are organic compounds, mainly derived from amino acids and containing nitrogen, found in plants. Alkaloids are water-soluble, bitter in taste and have powerful physiological properties. They protect plants against plant-eating animals and attack by insects, parasites, and competitors.

Major alkaloid groups of concern from the standpoint of human consumption include pyrrolizidines, xanthines and solanines. Others are mainly consumed by grazing animals and can be potentially transferred to humans through milk.

Hepatotoxic effects have been reported for some Chinese herbal medicines (such as Jin Bu Huan, Ma-Huang and Sho-saiko-to), pyrrolizidine alkaloid-containing plants, germander (Teucrium chamaedrys), chaparral (Larrea tridentata), Atractylis gummifera, Callilepsis laureola, and others. Severe liver injury, including acute and chronic abnormalities and even cirrhotic transformation and liver failure, has been described after the ingestion of a wide range of herbal products and other botanical ingredients, such as mushrooms. It is concluded that in certain situations herbal products may be just as harmful as conventional drugs.


Creosote, pyrrolizidine alkaloid-containing plant

Other pyrrolizidine alkaloids, such as monocrotaline may cause pulmonary hypertension and right heart congestive failure.

At least six species of plants including threadleaf groundsel (Senecio longilobus), Japanese butterbur (Petasites japonicus), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), comfrey ( blackwort) (Symphytum officinale), giant leopard plant, giant ligularia (Farfugium japonicum), and Aleutian ragwort (Senecio cannabifolis), have been shown to induce the following types of cancer: liver cancer, skin cancer, cancer of intestinal tract and lungs. Solanum alkaloids, including solanine, chaconine, and tomatine, are found in potato, eggplant, and tomato, among others.