Herbal Information Sheet: Lobelia


(Lobelia inflata)


Excerpted from: 

The Book of Herbal Wisdom, Using Plants as Medicines

By Matthew Wood


“Herbs are so darn peculiar!  I have long enjoyed the homeopathic model.

By placing the emphasis on the single remedy,

it helps us to get exact, concrete information about the materia medica.

However, the homeopathic concept of provings,

case-taking, and use of the single remedy in single doses

is also wooden and stiff compared to the wild, strange world of the herbs themselves.

They like to do all sorts of things.  They really do have a magical level of action

and this goes far beyond the artificial constructs of the human mind.

They are multidimensional.”


“How can we explain Lobelia?  To what can it be compared?  Dr. Christopher said it had brains.  Let’s agree with that and add:  it is smarter than any human being.  The brains of Lobelia are the intelligence of the life force itself.  As Dr. Christopher said, Lobelia knows where to go in the organism, and it goes there.  When it arrives, it can produce opposite kinds of reactions – arousing or sedating – depending on what is needed.  It is an important and powerful remedy, but one whose actions can never be predicted.  When correctly indicated, Lobelia does things that nothing else can do.  In completing its work, it will sometimes produce bizarre side effects and aggravations.  Like the life force itself, Lobelia must really be witnessed to be understood.  It is the wildest and craziest article in the herbal materia medica, one that every herbalist must strive to understand, yet one that can never be mastered.  


“The ethnobotany of Lobelia took a wild gyration from obscurity to infamy about 1800 when Samuel Thomson, an uneducated ‘root doctor’ from New Hampshire, introduced it into practice as a powerful antispasmodic and general panacea.  By 1809, he had attracted notoriety and condemnation from the medical establishment for his cures of asthma and other serious complaints by the use of this powerful agent.  In that year, he was imprisoned on the charge of murder by the use of Lobelia.  The case was brought to court, the charges were shown to be fabricated, and he was released without being able to stage a defense.  Despite these facts, the charge that Thomson killed a man with Lobelia was repeated for the next hundred years by almost every allopathic author on materia medica and many of the homeopaths as well.  At the same time, the use of Lobelia as an antispasmodic for the paroxysm of asthma was adopted by the allopathic profession without giving Thomson credit for the discovery.  The resulting misunderstandings and literary free-for-all have never been resolved, and even today, Lobelia is a poorly understood medicine in the literature of all schools, except among Thomson’s own followers.  The late Dr. Christopher was a member of that school, and his writings preserve the traditional Thomsonian view.


“Thomson conceived of the vital force as an actual substance spread out evenly throughout the healthy organism, circulating from the center to the circumference.  Disease resulted from a shortage or blockage in this continuous flow of substance.  From experience, Thomson learned that some herbs act primarily through what we would call the nervous system, making a strong impression noticed by the senses, while other herbs act slowly and imperceptibly through the tissues.  The former agents were called ‘diffusives’ by Thomson’s followers.  These diffusives cleared blockages in the flow of the life force, the nerve force, or the blood.  If there was inactivity, they stimulated; if there was tension, they relaxed.  Overall, they equalized conditions and brought the organism back into a homeostatic balance. 


“Chief among the diffusives was Lobelia.  Thomson saw it as the great equalizer for disturbances in the hegemony and homeostasis of the life force, writing ‘it produces an equilibrium in the system, and will be felt in the fingers and toes, producing a prickling feeling like that caused by a knock on the elbow.’


“Turning to our own senses, we observe that Lobelia makes an impression on the tongue and nervous system which is sharp, shocking, and highly diffusive.  A drop of a strong preparation, placed on the wrist, will shortly be felt as sharpness at the back of the throat.  Lobelia seems to travel the nerves as fast as possible.  Because it is both a stimulant and a relaxant, the therapeutic potential of the plant is extensive, but contradictory and complex.  ‘Excellent but nasty, capricious, and fleeting’ would be a good summary of Lobelia.


“In order to offer the best possible overview of this remedy, I have divided the conditions for which it is remedial into six basic groups:


Spasm.  There are different kinds of spasm.  The spasm suited to Lobelia is extremely intense, even life-threatening if the throat, heart, or lungs are involved.  What is characteristic about it is that the muscles tend to ‘torque up.’   The torsion in one muscle spreads to another, and on throughout the whole system, until the entire body is bent out of shape.  As a diffusive, Lobelia ‘equalizes the charge on the muscles.’  It relaxes the entire edifice of torqued muscles so that the whole organism can resolve itself back into place.  In severe cases of some duration, it will be necessary to give the remedy for a while until the entire frame gets relaxed.  This produces an overall feeling of prostration, which, however, is followed by unkinking and unwinding.   


Suppressed secretions.  The usual symptoms are a slight edema and a doughy skin, from suppression of perspiration.


Hyper-secretion.  Lobelia is suited to conditions where the ‘periphery collapses’ and there is profuse, continuous sweating, with or without fever.


Severe inflammation and dehydration.   Lobelia is a remarkable agent in severe fever, where the fluids are drying up, the muscles are affected due to lack of lubrication, and there is tension and heat. 


Action on the vagus nerve.  Due to this affinity, Lobelia has a relationship to conditions of spasm in the bronchial tubes, diaphragm, and stomach.  It is remedial for some forms of bronchial asthma, bronchitis with wheezing, heartburn, nausea, spasm in the stomach and esophagus, and hiatal hernia. 


Antidote to tobacco.  Lobelia has been used as an antidote to the tobacco habit.  I have known dozens of people who have used Lobelia to help them quit smoking.  It seems to be an antidote to both the craving and the withdrawal symptoms.  It does not work in all cases and causes unpleasant symptoms in some.  The active ingredient in the herb is lobeline.  ‘A curious cross-tolerance exists between nicotine and lobeline, in which animals tolerant to the former also exhibit tolerance to the latter.  Based on this phenomenon, a suggested use for lobeline is as an aid in breaking the tobacco habit.’ 


“Lobelia may also be an antidote to other substances.  Lobelia tends to heighten the effects of other medicines and substances.  Thomson used Lobelia in compounds with other herbs, in order to bring out the effects of the more dormant remedies.  Lobelia directs the other remedies to where they have to go in the body.  Not only does Lobelia help other herbs find their appropriate points of applications throughout the organism, but also it seems to work best when used in small quantity in combination with other herbs.  Compounding seems to take the edge off this unpredictable plant.  Lobelia causes less trouble when used this way.  It seems as if Lobelia likes to have other remedies to boss around and becomes more fully engaged in a compound.


“Thomson often used the diffusive herbs as activators, to stir up the other herbs in a formula and direct them to the desired tissue or organ needing therapy.  Lobelia was especially used in this manner.  It is used as an activator for problems involving the musculature and respiration.  Cayenne is used to stir and direct the blood, Bayberry for its action on the lymphatics, and Prickly Ash bark for its action on the mucosa. 


“The activators used by Thomson generally have a strong effect on the nerves.  In addition to Lobelia, he used Cayenne, Bayberry, Prickly Ash, and Goldenseal, all of which show their strong affinity to the nerves by causing tingling or burning.  Each has its own sphere of influence.  Lobelia acts especially on the nerves of the muscular system, Cayenne on the vasculature, Bayberry on lymphatic tissues and boggy membranes, Prickly Ash on the nerves of the mucosa and the nervous system generally, and Goldenseal on the nerves of the mucosa.  To this group could be added Echinacea.  It also causes the same tingling reaction on the tongue, acting as an accelerator for the lymphatics and venous side of the circulation. 


“Not all activators have to cause tingling, however.  Wood Betony, for example, has a general, stimulating effect on the stomach through the solar plexus.  It probably activates other herbs directed to the stomach. 


“Some plants just work together well, like Lobelia and Black Cohosh, or Agrimony and Solomon’s Seal, or Burdock, Dandelion, and Yellow Dock. 


“Lobelia is currently on the list of ‘suspect’ herbs maintained by the FDA.  It can be used in a homeopathic dilution, if one wants to avoid using such a plant, but it is difficult to say if it is as effective.  The seedpods are the most potent part of Lobelia.  These and the stems are considered the officinal parts in Herbalism and Homeopathy.  Thomson speaks of great fluctuation in the size of the crop from year to year.  The quality and properties of the crop also vary greatly so that it is difficult to find any two batched which have the same intensity.  Some are relatively inert.  This is just the sort of uncertainty we would expect from Lobelia, but it makes it hard to use.  The bulk herb should be so active that it causes irritation at the back of the throat when the container is opened.  The tincture should also convey this prickly sensation when dropped on the tongue. 


“Lobelia is a very tricky remedy when the question of dosage is raised.  Thomson and his followers used the famous ‘emetic’ dose, but it is not necessary to produce vomiting to get the curative effects of Lobelia.  Even if it used as an emetic, the dose should still be moderate.  Scudder writes, ‘To obtain the curative effects of a Lobelia emetic, the remedy should be given in small quantities frequently repeated, as it can be absorbed from the stomach, so that emesis, when it does occur, shall be from the general influence of the remedy in the blood, and not from its local irritant influence upon the stomach.  Many physicians fail to obtain the benefit they have reason to expect because of its improper administration; it is not absorbed, but simply irritates the stomach.’  Scudder used ‘one drop or less’ as a stimulant dose. 





It is virtually impossible to know in advance how a given person will react to Lobelia, and what dosage will be appropriate.  Lobelia works best if the patient can figure out the dosage for him- or herself.  Using one to two drops per dose will seldom bring on nausea or emesis, and is to be preferred when an emetic is not desired.  I would sit quietly for ten or fifteen minutes after the first dose of Lobelia.”


Excerpted from:

The Earthwise Herbal, A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants

By Matthew Wood


“This is the remedy that won Samuel Thomson such fame and infamy, and it is to him that credit for its use in medicine must be given.  Lobelia is an almost pure relaxant, and thus able to open obstructions to the skin, circulation, nervous system, muscles, and all internal organs that depend to any extent on nerve impulses. 


“Lobelia was most famous as an emetic – a large dose can easily provoke vomiting – and Thomson used it to cleanse the stomach.  However, he also emphasized that it was not necessary to bring on emesis.  Persistent small doses are relaxant to all structures and bring out latent tensions; in fact, continued small doses relax the entire frame to such an extent that the patient falls into a state of ‘suspended animation.’  The entire sympathetic nervous system is completely relaxed and the parasympathetic takes over, so that the patient, though awake, is incapable of movement.  This allows free secretion, removal of all obstructions, and complete relaxation, so that the organism is free from offending substances.  With this method, Thomson and his early followers were able to expedite miraculous cures.  It is not so used today, this being a less heroic age, and it is possible that the full healing powers of Lobelia are thus lost for the time being. 


“Samuel Thomson writes, ‘It clears all obstructions to the extremities, without regard to the names of disease, until it produces an equilibrium in the system, and will be felt in the fingers and toes, producing a prickling feeling like that caused by a knock of the elbow; this symptom is alarming to those unacquainted with its operation; but is always favorable, being a certain indication of the turn of the disorder.’


“Lobelia acts in contradictory ways; in fact, it is impossible to predict its behavior and it will seldom (in my experience, never) act the same way twice.”



Lobelia Herb cut

Lobelia Herb and Seed Liquid Extract

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