Ipecac is an undersized shrub having narrow stems that grow up to about a height of one foot (30 cm). This plant bears a small number of oblong-shaped leaves, diminutive white blooms and its fruits are berries, whose color is purple-black.
According to history, the son of King of France Louis XIV, the Grand Dauphin, was apparently on death bed suffering from serious and prolonged dysentery. Worried and concerned over his son’s condition, the king became frantic, but the doctors at his court could do little to improve his condition. Then, the king’s chief minister Jean Baptiste Colbert received news that a person named Jean Adrien Helvetius was successfully treating similar conditions in Paris using a secret medication. Hence, the king called for Helvetius, who arrived and administered the secret concoction. And, surprisingly, over a period of time, the symptoms related to the horrible ailment vanished. The king was now effusively grateful to Helvetius, who was not only honored by the king’s court, but was also given some fortune for his secret formula. Helvetius was also designated the chief inspector of all hospitals in France. Afterward, Helvetius was appointed the Duke of Orleans’ personal physician. His son was appointed the personal physician of the French queen. During his day, Claude Adrien Helvetius, the grandson of Helvetius, became a great poet and philosopher.
It is interesting to note that the secret remedy that saved the life of dauphin and brought about such a transform in the luck of Helvetius family was nothing but ipecac. He had prepared a remedy from the dehydrated rootstock of ipecac, a small shrub which is found growing extensively along the humid forests of the Amazon in Brazil as well as Bolivia - the regions that usually get more than 80 inches rainfall every year. The native Indians had been traditionally using the rootstock of ipecac, probably for several hundred years, for treating amebic dysentery. Even to this day the ipecac rootstock continues to be used for treating this condition across the globe. People in India and neighboring Pakistan use ipecac for treating additional severe parasitic ailments, counting bilharziasis, attributable to a flatworm. Ipecac contains an alkaloid known as emetine, which is mainly responsible for neutralizing the pathogens that invade our body. When administered orally in small measures as a constituent of syrup, ipecac also works in the form of an expectorant and helps in treating chronic coughs.
Ipecac also possesses potent emetic properties. The syrup prepared from ipecac has traditionally been an important thing of the family first aid kit. This syrup is employed to encourage vomiting, particularly in individuals who have consumed specific poisons. While the therapeutic use of ipecac continues till today, this plant has actually become a topic of controversy. Studies have revealed that ipecac contains an emetic substance called cephaeline, which is a potent irritant possessing the ability to result in poisoning. Hence, it is essential that ipecac syrup should only be given in measured doses and only by a qualified medical practitioner.
Commercially, ipecac is cultivated in many regions across the globe having tropical climatic conditions. However, people in South America gather ipecac from the wild. Native Indians go to places where ipecac grows equipped with pointed sticks and digging tools during the month of November and encamp. They gently poke the rootstock of each plant using the pointed sticks and cut a sizeable portion of those that have a musty odour, leaving behind just a portion that is sufficient to enable the plant to survive as well as produce a new yield. They continue with their work till January or even February when bunches of tiny, globular, white blossoms having the shape of funnels bloom in the midst of deep green hued leaves. The harvesters leave much before May when the tiny, oval-shaped, dark purple color fruits of the plants mature.
Conventional as well as herbal medicine continues to make use of ipecac and the herb is itemized in nearly all national pharmacopeias. Ipecac is considered to be among the surest emetic and even giving a restrained dose of the remedy will encourage vomiting till the stomach is cleared of all its contents. In effect, ipecac is especially effective when any drug is taken in excess. When used in small doses, ipecac works in the form of a potent expectorant. Many patented remedies for cough usually contain ipecac and it is also employed in treating whopping cough and bronchitis. In addition, ipecac continues to be employed for treating amebic dysentery successfully. Ipecacuanha or the dried up root of ipecac promotes the production of saliva and, at the same time works as an expectorant by stimulating the secretion of mucus and subsequently removing it.
During the period between the 18th century and the early part of the 20th century, ipecac has been used both in the form of an expectorant as well as a constituent of cough mixtures. In effect, opium and ipecac were employed to prepare Dover’s powder, which was eventually used in the form of syrup.
There was a time when pediatricians suggested that people should keep ipecac in their home in the form of an emetic that is ready to use in the instance of any accidental poisoning. However, the latest guidelines issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics vehemently advises against doing so and suggest that people should dispose of all syrups containing ipecac that may be present in people’s homes. Besides, several toxicological organizations too have brought out position papers that recommend against using ipecac in the form of a standard treatment for most cases of ingesting poisons, since there is no scientific evidence that says that ipecac syrup facilitates improvement in instances of poisoning. In addition, if ipecac is given at home without the supervision of a qualified medical practitioner, it may also result in accidental poisoning. On the other hand, when cases of poisoning are handled in hospitals, it is often difficult to get a differential analysis, especially when the ipecac syrup has been already administered to the patient. This may, in effect, result in additional symptoms.
Other medical uses
Habitat and cultivation
Ipecac is native to South America, primarily in Brazil. This is a small shrub that has a preference for damp, shaded woodlands. Although people in South America have tried to cultivate this plant, so far, they have been partially successful in their endeavour.
Ipecac also has a preference for a humus-rich, well-drained soil and grows well in shade where the air has enough moisture and humidity and the minimum temperature is in the range of 59°F and 64°F. Ipecac is generally propagated by means of its greenwood cuttings during the latter part of spring. These cuttings are plant in mix of sandy soil at a temperature ranging between 70°F and 75°F. As an alternative method, you may also propagate ipecac with its root cuttings undertaken during the harvesting season.
The rootstocks of plants that are about three years old are harvested all through the year. However, the local Indians only harvest the roots during the period between the middle and late winter when the plant is in bloom. The roots are generally dried up and stored for future use. Only dry roots of ipecac are used for therapeutic purposes.
A study undertaken by a scientific panel that was funded by HRSA in 2005 arrived at the conclusion that vomiting by itself is not sufficient enough to eliminate poisonous substances from the stomach. Therefore, the study recommended that using ipecac syrup for the purpose was not adequate for this purpose and the patients ought to be treated more effectively applying safer methods. Moreover, the use of ipecac may potentially cause side effects like stupor, which may be mistaken with the effects of the poison, thereby making diagnosis more complicated. In addition, using ipecac syrup may possibly also holdup administering other treatments or even diminish the efficacy of these therapies, for instance, using activated charcoal, oral antidotes or whole bowel irrigation.
Chemical analysis of the ipecac root has shown that it encloses tannins, isoquinoline alkaloids and glycosides. The alkaloids contained by the plant’s root possess expectorant attributes and, when used in higher doses, they may result in vomiting as well as diarrhea. In addition the alkaloids are also potently amebicidal (having the ability to destroy ameba).
Besides being used in the form of syrup, ipecac may also be used as an infusion. Since ipecac infusion is extremely potent, you need to use just a small dose of it, for instance. 0.01 gram to 0.25 gram of this herb is used to prepare the infusion. To prepare this infusion, add a cup (250 ml) of boiling water to a little amount of ipecac (just about the amount equivalent to a pea) and allow it to permeate for about five minutes. You may drink this infusion thrice daily. In case you require using a potent emetic, take 1 gram to 2 grams of the herb (one-fourth to half teaspoonful) while preparing the infusion.
Side effects and cautions
While using ipecac, it is advisable that you exercise additional caution. When you have used the herb in the form of an emetic, you need to drink plenty of water to enable the medication to reach the stomach and begin working. Ipecac may possibly interact with other medications that you may be using. Hence, it is important to consult your physician prior to using this herb.
How it works in the body
The actions of this herb inside the body are primarily attributed to those of its major constituents - alkaloids, cephaeline and emetine (methylcephaeline). These chemicals work locally by means of causing irritation to the gastric mucosa and also centrally by means of invigorating the trigger zone of medullary chemoreceptor to promote vomiting.
Collection and harvesting
The root of ipecac, a small shrub native to South America, is harvested all through the year. However, the local Indians only gather the roots during January and February when the plants are in bloom.
To cure bronchial problems, you may combine ipecac with other herbs like coltsfoot, horehound and grindelia. To treat amebic dysentery, it is advisable that you use this herb in combination with Echinacea or American cranesbill.