In the world of medicinal herbs, there is simply nothing like aconite, which is also known as Monkshood or Fu Zi. On the one hand it is so poisonous that improper use can cause human respiratory paralysis, cardiac arrest, and even death; on the other hand it is so indispensable medicinally that numerous herbalists, from medical sage Zhang Zhongjing to modern TCM masters, believes that it can even resurrect the dead. In modern clinic, aconite root is commonly used in the treatment of acute myocardial infarction induced shock, hypotension, coronary heart disease, rheumatic heart disease, and a variety of other ailments. According to statistics, the frequency of aconites used in 500 known Chinese herbal formulas is 13.20%. That’s to say, this herb is such an important integral part of TCM that there’s no getting round it if you want to learn how TCM treats severe and incurable diseases. So, can aconite kill you? What is it used for?
What is aconite?
From the perspective of TCM (Traditional Chinese medicine), aconite herb refers to the processed daughter root of Aconitum carmichaeli Debx. or Aconitum carmichaelii syn. A. fischeri, in the family Ranunculaceae. It has some other common names, including Radix Lateralis Aconiti, Helmet Flower, Aconit, Radix Aconiti Lateralis Praeparata, Aconiti Tuber, Prepared daughter root of Common Monkshood, Aconitum napellus, Radix Aconiti Praeparata, Monkshood Tuber, Aconitum Angustifolium, Prepared Aconite Root, Aconitum kusnezoffi, Prepared Common Monkshood Daughter Root, Wolfsbane, and so on. And the tuberous mother root is known as Wutou (With lateral root) or Tian Xiong (only root tuber without daughter root). It is generally acknowledged they are slightly different in efficacy due to they come from different medicinal parts. Because different processing medium adopted and techniques applied, the raw aconite, called Ni Fu Zi, can be made into three different varieties – Hei Shun Pian (the processed lateral root of Aconitum carmichaelii Debx), Yan Fuzi (Salted Prepared Aconite Root), and Bai Fu Pian (white aconite daughter root).
Aconite plant is a perennial herb, 60 to 120cm in height. 2 tuberous roots are usually adhesive, from fusiform to obovate, and with dark brown skin. Cultivated species comes with corpulent branch root in diameter of 5cm. Stems are erect or slightly inclined, glabrous in the lower part and covered with scattered appressed pubescence in the upper part. Leaves are alternate, leathery, and with a handle. Inflorescence is racemose panicles, with appressed pubescence on rachis. Follicles are oblong, with transverse veins and pointed persistent style. It flowers from June to July and fruits from July to August.
Main chemical constituents include aconitine, mesaconitine, hypaconitine, talalisamine, higeramine or demethylcoclaurine, coryneine chloride, isodelphinine, benzoyl mesaconitine, neoline, fuziline, beiwutine, karakoline, deoxyaconitine, fuzitine, songorine, uracil, jiangyouaconitine, neojiangyouaconitine, salsolinol, and so on.
Nowadays it is commonly used in homeopathic remedies for the purpose of strengthening adrenals and kidneys. And it can be consumed in many ways, like aconite supplement, tincture, essential oil, ointment, pills, powder, tablets, tea, extract, and more. Since aconite is known as “the queen of poisons” in ancient Greeks, why people still risk their lives to turn to this deadly poison for health benefits? Here is the aconite mechanism of action.
Modern pharmacological actions of aconite
1. Cardiotonic effect. Its decoction and other water-soluble parts showed strong cardiotonic effect to the heart to frogs, toads, and warm-blooded animal no matter they are in normal or failure states;
2. Ventricular fibrillation prevention. Its normal butyl alcohol extraction, ethanol extract and aqueous extract have a preventive effect to chloroform-induced ventricular fibrillation in mice;
3. Anti-inflammatory effect. It can significantly inhibit rat voix pedis swelling induced by egg whites, carrageenan, formaldehyde, and more. What’s more, it can still inhibit acetic acid induced excessive capillary permeability, formation of granuloma, and adjuvant-induced arthritis;
4. Analgesic activity. Mesaconitine, aconitine and hypaconitine have analgesic effects;
5. Anti-aging effects. Recent studies showed that it can enhance the antioxidant capacity, and thus slow down aging.
Traditional aconite homeopathic remedy
It is generally acknowledged that it is acrid and sweet in flavor and hot and toxic in properties. It covers meridians of heart, kidney, and spleen. Basic functions are rescuing from collapse by restoring yang, tonifying fire and helping yang, and relieving rheumatism chills and pains. Its main uses and indications are yang depletion induced collapse, faint pulse and cold extremities, ED (erectile dysfunction), cold of uterus, crymodynia in heart and abdomen, deficiency-cold vomiting, diarrhea and lingering dysentery, chill edema, yang-deficiency external infection, wind-cold-dampness type of arthralgia, dorsal furuncle, skin and external diseases, and more. Recommended aconite dosage is from 3 to 9 grams in decoction.
When it comes to aconite drug, one thing has to be mentioned is Huo Shen Pai (Fire Spirit School) and its representive practitioners, such as Zheng Qin-An (the founder of the Huo Shen school from Sichuan), Wu Pei-heng, Zhu wei-ju, Tang Bu-qi, Li ke, and so on. Because of their efforts, aconite root uses has been brought to a climax. As a result, this herb lives up to its fame as The First Leading Herb for restoring yang to rescue patient from collapse thanks to the herbalists’ really impressive attainments. As you know, the aconite dose shouldn’t exceed 9 grams due to its highly toxic, according to the Traditional Chinese Medicine Dictionary. However, Fire Spirit School thinks out of the box and frequently extends the limits to a whopping dozens of grams, if not more than one hundred. Surprisingly such large dose of aconite didn’t kill but bring the dying back to life. In turn this herb helps them establish the core value and form a unique TCM school.
1. Fu Zi Li Zhong Tang. It comes from Qi Xiao Liang Fang (Effective and Good Prescriptions). It is primarily designed for spleen-kidney-yang deficiency, cold-dampness epigastric and abdominal cold pain, loose stools and diarrhea, etc. Other herbal ingredients are Ren Shen (Ginseng), Bai Zhu (White Atractylodes), Gan Jiang (Dried Ginger Root), and Zhi Gan Cao (Honey Fried Licorice Root).
2. Gancao Fu Zi Tang. It is from Shang Han Lun (On Cold Damage) and basically formulated for arthritis aggravated by cold and any other joint pains caused by the combination of pathogenic wind, cold, and damp. Other major herbs include Licorice Root, White Atractylodes, and Gui Zhi (Cinnamon Twig).
3. Fu Zi Gui Zhi Tang. This formula, from On Cold Damage, is mainly used for yang-deficiency induced arthralgia syndrome. Other two herbs are Cinnamon Twig and Licorice.
4. Fu Zi Geng Mi Tang. This prescription comes from Jin Gui Yao Lue (Essential Prescriptions of the Golden Coffer). And it is an important one for abdominal fullness and distention due to deficiency-cold in spleen and stomach and water and dampness retention. The rest herbs include Ban Xia (Pinellia Rhizome), Licorice, Da Zao (Jujube), and Geng Mi (Rice).
5. Hui Yang Ji Jiu Tang. This formula comes from Shang Han Liu Shu (Supplement of Treatment of Febrile Diseases). It is an effective one for cold limbs, aversion to cold, curled up on the bed, stomachache accompanied with vomiting and diarrhea, and weak deep retarded pulse or pulselessness. The rest vital herbs are Ginseng, Rou Gui (Dried Cinnamon Bark), Dried Ginger, and so on.
Potential aconite side effects and contraindications
Aconite root contains a variety of aconitine compounds, which have a strong toxicity, in particular manifesting as cardiac toxicity. So, the adverse reaction and aconite interactions are often reported. However, aconite toxicity would be greatly reduced after the hydrolysis. The aconitine structure belongs to diterpene alkaloids. That’s to say, it comes with curare-like effect that can block neuromuscular transmission and aconitine effect that is manifested as arrhythmia, hypotension, hypothermia, respiratory depression, muscle paralysis and central nervous system dysfunction. Large doses of crude aconite alkaloids can cause systemic and respiratory paralysis symptoms in a variety of animals, which are likely to show as respiratory arrest prior to circulation disorders. Aconite poisoning mainly comes from mistakenly eating, individual differences, or careless medication, for example overdose, improper decoction or compatibility, and so on. Death may occur in severe cases. Therefore, the use of aconite should be strictly processed, cooked, and used based on the prescribed dosage. And general aconite antidotes include emetic in early poisoning, respiratory stimulant (for symptom of respiratory paralysis), atropine (for symptoms of slow, weak heartbeat), and lidocaine (for ventricular arrhythmia).
TCM wise, aconite root should not be used during pregnancy and in case of yin deficiency and yang excess. In addition, this herb is incompatible to Ban Xia (Pinellia Rhizome), Gua Lou (Trichosanthes Fruit), Bei Mu (Fritillaria Bulb), Bai Lian (Radix Ampelopsis Japonicae), and Bai Ji (Bletilla Rhizome).