Herbal medicine is full of plants where our historical records of their applications to treat disease and illness are somewhat lacking in content or accuracy. Its also somewhat concerning but also hardly surprising, just how little we really understand about the therapeutic potential and best ways of using, some of the many plants we are taught about or have been made aware of. The fact that much of the knowledge around use of plants as medicines was traditionally transmitted through an oral rather than written form, and that diseases of concern and our understanding of them in the past were different to now, is contributory to this. I remember for example being surprised at how little written information on Echinacea’s traditional use I could find in books on Native Indian Medicine I looked at when travelling in the U.S. many years ago, although we now know it is a brilliant medicine for numerous infectious and inflammatory conditions, for which it was of course also traditionally used.
Another North American herb that has always held some mystery to me, is Wild Indigo root (Baptisia tinctoria). Native to eastern parts of the U.S. and Canada, Baptisia is a Leguminosae family member, and its young shoots were sometimes eaten for greens and used in soups(1) Its root has a somewhat bitter and acrid taste and was a treasured medicine to some native American Indians(2,3). While having yellow flowers, all parts of Wild Indigo when dried yield a blue dye. Another species, Baptisia australis, which grew well in my garden years ago, has blue rather than yellow flowers and has been said to be able to be used interchangeably(4), although this claim has not been validated.
These indications are reflective of a good antimicrobial phytomedicine. Moderate in vitro activity has been reported for extracts against Staphylococcus aureus(6), and yet surprisingly few other studies into antimicrobial activity or clinical studies appear to have been published on the use of Wild Indigo alone. Clinical trials involving combinations of Baptisia tinctoria root, Echinacea purpurea root, Echinacea pallida root and Thuja occidentalis reported an improvement in cold symptoms earlier than placebo(7, 8, 9). Enhanced phagocytic activity by leukocytes was also reported for a combination of Baptisia tinctoria, Eupatorium cannabinum and Arnica with Echinacea angustifolia, than that measured for Echinacea alone(10).
The fact that large doses can be emetic, may account for some of this relative paucity of scientific studies into the Wild Indigo’s antimicrobial potential. However, early investigations into its use as a fresh tincture by the Eclectic physicians for typhoid, spurred by the fact that excessive doses can produce fever and other symptoms similar to those of typhoid, appear also to have clouded our view of this phytomedicine.
Large polysaccharide fractions were reported by German researchers in 1985 to show significant immunostimulant activities(11) and enhance production of antibodies against sheep red blood cells(12). A contribution of arabinogalactan proteins extracted from polysaccharides found in Wild Indigo root to its claimed immune-stimulant properties has also been reported(13, 14). These are said to be mediated through a specific antigen-antibody reaction rather than non-specific immune system activation. These effects and reported efficacy using low doses of Wild Indigo root for the treatment of typhoid, has attracted the interest of homoeopathic researchers and product manufacturers(15). However, little published evidence of such effects from low doses in human studies appears to exist, and it would seem this impression of Wild Indigo’s therapeutic properties has perhaps contributed to a blurred understanding of how best to use it, and in what dose.
Typhoid (Salmonella typhi) used to be a serious bacterial infection in much of the world until the development of a vaccine 120 years ago, and still remains a serious infectious bacterial disease in third world countries. Successful management of typhoid fever using antibiotics is also becoming increasingly difficult due to emerging and spreading drug resistance(16). As such, and given the strong historical reputation of Wild Indigo, further research into its relevant activities in the management of this and other infectious diseases seems warranted.
Wild Indigo was also sometimes taken in large doses as a purgative. In the 1870’s two chemists Weaver and Greene characterised certain alkaloids including baptisine (baptotoxine), said to be poisonous and likely to contribute to these effects(1). Baptisine was however subsequently shown to be identical with another quinolizidine alkaloid cytisine(17). This is a well-known constituent of various medicinal and somewhat poisonous plants such as the unripe seeds of Laburnum (Cytisus laburnum) and species of Sophora, including those used in traditional Chinese medicine as well as the New Zealand native Kowhai (various Sophora species)(18, 19).
All medicines including plant-derived ones can produce adverse effects, particularly in sensitive individuals or when excessive doses are taken. However, one person’s poison can be another person’s medicine, and while probably contributory to nausea and vomiting when excessive doses of Wild Indigo are taken, cytisine is also used as a medicine. As an alkaloid with nicotinic acetylcholine receptor-agonist properties, it is being increasingly used in small doses for smoking cessation(20). Various clinical trials in New Zealand have in fact found cytisine to have promising potential as an aid to smoking cessation(21, 22, 23, 24).
Case reports of poisoning following ingestion of Wild Indigo mistaken for asparagus have been made, although doses taken were much higher than recommended when used as a medicine (Anderson). As with Wild Indigo poisoning in North America, poisoning due to ingestion of too high a dose of Kowhai (particularly of the high cytisine-containing seeds or aerial parts rather than bark)i, is not uncommon here in New Zealand(25). Notably, the effects of such poisoning or overdose are similar to the most frequently reported adverse reactions of cytisine when used as a drug, and include gastrointestinal symptoms that are mostly reported as either mild or moderate in severity(20).
While its content of cytisine and thus tolerance to different doses will vary between individuals, the use of Wild Indigo bark in smoking cessation treatment is potentially indicated. Analogies to the use of Lobelia inflata, which contains another nicotinic receptor-agonist lobeline, for smoking cessation treatment but invokes emesis in excessive doses (hence its common name ‘Pukeweed’), also spring to mind. Novel nicotinic partial agonists including cytisine also show potential protective effects in animal studies, against Parkinson’s disease(26), depression and anxiety (27).
True Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria)
Native to southern Asia and now naturalised in many countries, the botanically related True Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) was one of the original sources of indigo dye. It is also used in traditional medicine, and was used in India to control epileptic seizures. Dose dependent anticonvulsant effects in animal studies have been shown for an ethanolic extract of the whole plant, effects accompanied by increased brain levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (gamma amino butyric acid)(28). Protection against the negative immunological effects of noise stress, and stimulation of both adaptive and innate immunity, has also been reported in rats(29).
Anthelmintic activity including inhibition of egg hatching has also been reported against gastrointestinal nematodes in sheep (30). Planting of Indigofera tinctoria has also been shown to help control nematode infestations in the soil(31).
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