A practical guide for nutritional and traditional health care.


Among all elements found in the plants, alkaloids are the most powerful as well as very effective. Hence, it is little surprising that the alkaloids have been researched and examined the most by the modern day scientists. The strength or effectiveness of the alkaloids commonly includes everything or all substances that are poisonous in the plants. Therefore, it would be right to state that the exploits of any kind of alkaloids on the human body is naturally traumatic and painful.

Alkaloids are the natural compounds found in all vegetables that include nitrogen and are considered to be disintegration of substances that comprise proteins. They are exuded in particular cells or tubes and can be of great use in safeguard against normal enemies as they have a bitter flavor. Generally, alkaloids are amalgams that do not have any scent and boast of a distinctive outcome on the animals' body mechanism or function. Owing to these properties, alkaloids have significant therapeutic value and form the ingredients of many important medicines. The alkaloids also comprise strong vegetable toxics and sedatives. Substances like caffeine and theobromine that are closely associated with natural purine (substance that can be converted to uric acid in the body) compounds are normally categorized as alkaloids.

Here are a few things to remember. First and foremost, nearly all herbs enclose some or other kind of alkaloids in their structures. This includes even those plants that are considered to be perfectly safe. Here it is the case of the complete plant being more than simply the total of all its parts. Second, medications that contain significant levels of alkaloids have a direct toxic impact and hence when anyone takes these drugs in excess they are bound to lead to symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea or affect the central nervous system. Since plant alkaloids are natural, they often produce menacing effects of the remedies. On the other hand, synthetic alkaloids are designed such that they do not prove harmful beyond a limit. However, many herbalists are of the opinion that the instant annoyance caused by the medications containing plant alkaloids are an important and necessary part of the stimulating action required for healing from any disorder.

All said and done, all herbal medicine practitioners need to be doubly careful while administering any remedy with high content of alkaloids. Alkaloids have a significant characteristic and that is it is soluble in water and also dissipates in alcohol. Since the majority of the conventional herbal remedies like infusions and decoctions were aqueous in nature, it may well be imagined that they had comparatively low alkaloid content. In contrast, present day herbal practitioners, especially in Britain mostly use alcohol or water tinctures and these contain relatively high percentage of alkaloids. Since the infusions prepared by the herbal practitioners in Britain have levels of alkaloid, these alcoholic infusions are definitely more powerful than the conventional herbal remedies. Hence it is advisable to start using herbal remedies in small quantities and in aqueous preparations. It definitely makes a lot of sense.

Although the usage of herbal remedies in aqueous preparations and in measured quantities is of great significance, it is clear that the exploit as well as effects of a tincture prepared in alcohol will be different from the herb's infusion variety. In fact, traditionally, people have been using aqueous herbal tincture preparations, while modern day remedies mostly comprise alcoholic infusions of herbs. Modern day medical expertise is more focused on the alcoholic infusions prepared from herbs rather than the aqueous tinctures and hence it is obvious that the results of the two preparations are bound to be different often leading to perplexity.

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Over the years, many people have tried to define alkaloid in different forms chemically, but none has been satisfactory. The word alkaloid has been initially drawn from the word 'vegetable alkali' and was used to express the baseness or alkalinity of a number of initial alkaloidal segregations. Generally speaking, alkaloids comprise almost all alkaline nitrogenous materials having distinct physiological consequences. All said and done, colchicine and ricinine are not alkaline in nature, while mescaline, ephedrine and muscarine do not enclose nitrogen. This is despite the fact that alkaloids are conventionally known to be delivered from higher plants, and even animals as well as lower organisms are identified as alkaloid producers. Normally, the majority of the alkaloids are heterocyclic (a compound containing a closed ring of atoms of which at least one is not a carbon atom) in nature. But there are others like mescaline, ephedrine and hordenine that are non-cyclic and these are also often known as 'protoalkaloids'.

Besides, being venomous - the primary function of the alkaloids in all vegetation appears to be to protect them from grazing animals and herbivorous insects - so far no one has taken the effort to recapitulate the exploits of alkaloids. In fact, each variety of alkaloid has its own distinct quality and this is yet to be summarized by the herbalists. While there is no brief account available of the alkaloids' actions, record regarding the variety and classification of the alkaloids is obtainable and one can have a fair idea concerning them. There are numerous separate examples of alkaloids and their actions and they generally offer a picture of the substances being poisonous and significantly vigorous. However, these examples do not do justice to the alkaloids as more often than not they are an exaggerated description and paint the alkaloids as infamous substances.

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Hence, the best way to know alkaloids is to study them in groups along with ordinary biosynthetic (a synthetic processes that rely on biological reactions in order to manufacture a product) origins. In fact, there are several supplementary clusters, but these are the more noteworthy substances. It is found that many varieties of alkaloids have specific effects on the central nervous system, especially on the synapses (the gaps between nerve cells) in the conduits of the nervous system. The universal solubility of alkaloids in lipids is pertinent in this type of exploits.

Pyrrolidine alkaloids

Alkaloids are basically derived from the amino acid called ornithine. This cluster of amino acid comprises the tropane alkaloids, atropine, hyoscine and hyoscyamine from the family of nightshade. For instance, the nightshade family includes henbane, belladonna, datura (thornapple), and bittersweet. Acting as a cluster these alkaloids impede the activities of parasympathetic nerve (originates in the lower part of the spinal cord and brain stem, stimulates digestive secretions, opposes physiological effects of the sympathetic nervous system, constricts the pupils; slows the heart, dilates blood vessels). Incidentally, the pyrrolidine alkaloids also comprise the 'truth medication' scopolamine (also known as hyoscine) and cocaine.

Pyridine and piperidine alkaloids

Pyridine and piperidine alkaloids are a mono carbon hoop including one nitrogen atom and this group of alkaloids comprises numerous species of toxic plants that include venomous hemlock (Conium maculatum), tobacco (Nicotiana tobacum) and lobelia. Incidentally, while tobacco is a member of the nightshade family, scientifically known as Solanaceae, poison hemlock is a member of the carrot family or Apiaceae. Coniine, a single ring compound produced in the plant from octanoic acid is a toxic alkaloid present in poison hemlock that is responsible for paralysis, asphyxia (suffocation) and ultimately death. According to history, legendary Greek philosopher, considered by his rulers as an enemy of the people, was provided with an extract of the poisonous hemlock in 399 B.C. and, thus, condemned to death through poisoning. Water hemlock or Cicuta douglasii, which is closely linked with poisonous hemlock, includes cicutoxin - a terpenoid resin. Incidentally, water hemlock is one of the most convulsive or most aggressively lethal indigenous plants found in North America. Ironically, this plant is often mistaken for a parsnip root and in this case the chemicals present in the plant effect the central nervous system directly and most often leads to death.

Pyrrolizidine and quinolizidine alkaloids

Pyrrolizidine and quinolizidine are a complicated group. Incidentally, this group of alkaloids has always proved to be of immense pharmacological interest for researchers and clinical examiners. All these alkaloids are known to have lethal features and may prove to be fatal. While pyrrolizidine is obtained from ornithine and is known to be injurious for the liver, quinolizidine is obtained from amino acid called lysine.

Pyrrolizidine is generally found in ragworts, which is a problem for the grazing animals, comfrey, borage and coltsfoot. In the last instance, the evidence for toxicity is smaller and still unclear.

Indole alkaloids

Indole alkaloids comprise serotonin chemically know as 5-hydroxyltryptamine or 5-HT and others of their kind. These comprise the anesthetizing alkaloids of the passion flower, ophthalmic alkaloids associated with the physostigmine derived from the calabar bean as well as the uterine tonics such as ergotamine. This variety of alkaloids also comprises the Indian snakeroot or the Rauwolfia serpentaria that consist of reserpine. It may be mentioned here that reserpine contains potent hypotensive and when isolated from the entire plant possess depressive consequences. Among the numerous central nervous stimulants such as strychnine, psilocybin and johimbine, indole alkaloids comprise indole carbon-nitrogen loop. Indole carbon-nitrogen ring is also present in the fungal alkaloids ergine and psilocybin, the neurotransmitter serotonin as well as the mind jerking medication LSD. Researches have shown that these alkaloids may often impede, obstruct or even contend with the action of serotonin in the brain.

Interestingly, one of the strange aspects of alkaloids that occur naturally in the fungi includes ergot, scientifically known as Claviceps purpurea, which is basically a rust fungus that contaminates grains. Incidentally, the alkaloid of ergot is also known as ergine or d-lysergic acid amide. It is popularly known as the natural LSD. Synthetic LSD or d-lysergic acid diethylamide is more powerful than the natural LSD. Two genus of Mexican morning glory vines also contain natural LSD and these vines are consumed by the native Indians there during significant therapeutic as well as religious ceremonies.

It may be mentioned here that during the Middle Ages, hundreds and thousands of people in Europe were badly affected by a malady known as ergotism. The main symptoms of this disease included festering extremities, spasms as well as insanity. These people suffered from the malady as they consumed bread prepared from rye that was infected with fungus enclosing ergine and various other powerful vasoconstrictor alkaloids that distressed the blood vessels. Ergotism was also known as 'St Anthony's Fire' and was a deadly malady dreaded by all. Incidentally, the Mecivan peyote cactus or 'Lophopora williamsii as well as San Pedro cactus or 'Trichocereus pachanoi' found in South America contain a different hallucinogenic alkaloid known as mescaline. Incidentally, this variety of alkaloid - mescaline - has a chemical arrangement that is extremely comparable to the brain neurotransmitter dopamine.

Bufotenine, another enthralling indole alkaloid is widely present in Yopo or Parica or 'Anadenanthera peregrina' seeds. The Yopa is a South American leguminous tree found in the Orinoco River basin and is different from the leguminous species Andenanthera. Native Indians in the Orinoco River basin collect the Yopo seeds, make their powder and use them as a hallucinogenic snuff. Bufotenine is also of the 5-hudroxyldimethyltryptamine or 5-HT variety and is generally obtained from the indole alkaloid called tryptamine. In fact, tryptamine is again derived from the indispensable amino acid called tryptophan. Talking about tryptophan, it comprises one of the eight necessary nutritional amino acids for the human beings and is also extensively found in the animal kingdom. Significantly, tryptophan cannot be synthesized by the humans. Another interesting fact is that bufotenine is also found in the skin discharges of particular toads of the Bufo species and this offers an explanation regarding the practice of licking toads by some people.

Reserpine, an indole alkaloid, is obtained from the roots of a shrub known as snakeroot or 'Rauvolfia serpentina' commonly found in India. Reserpine belongs to the dogbane family of 'Apocynacear and the species are also often spelled as 'Rauwolfia'. As far as the chemical properties of reserpine is concerned, it is alike serotonin and has been often used to cease schizophrenia-like indications from LSD as well as the brain reducing activities in the case of patients suffering from the schizophrenic malady. As mentioned earlier, though snakeroot is commonly found in India, other genus of Rauvolfia from other tropical regions of the globe also forms probable sources of this variety of alkaloid (reserpine). A highly venomous alkaloid known as strychnine is yet another indole alkaloid that is obtained from the seeds of Strychnos nux-vomica. Strychnos nux-vomica is a petite tree found in Asia and belongs to the logania family or the 'Loganiaceae'. It is interesting to note that the Amazonian Indian cover their bow gun nips with a poisonous extract from the bark and stems of a Strychnos genus known as curare. A highly poisonous extract from the venomous vine Chondodendron tomentosum, which is scientifically known as 'Menispermaceae', and called isoquinoline is present in curare and this makes the bow guns of the Amazonian Indians fatal.

Vinblastine and vincristine are two more varieties of indole alkaloids that are found in the Madagascar periwinkle. These varieties also known as 'Catharanthus roseus' are commonly cultivated in the area as a bedding plant belonging to the dogbane family or the 'Apocynaceae'. Commonly known as spindle poisonous, these alkaloids have proved to be very effective in the treatment of chemotherapy for patients suffering from leukemia as well as the Hodgkin's disease that refers to the 'lymph node and spleen cancer'. Researches have established that this variety of alkaloids helps in terminating or 'depolymerization' of protein microtubules that form the mitotic spindle in cell division. This process efficiently helps in terminating the tumor cells from separating or dividing and, henceforth, resulting to reduction of cancer. It may be noted here that before the periwinkle alkaloids were used by medical practitioners as a treatment there was nearly no hope for relief or survival for patients suffering from Hodgkin's malady. However, researches have established that since the medicos have started utilizing this alkaloid for treating the disease, there is 90 per cent possibility of survival for patients suffering from Hodgkin's disease.

Hence, this is an ideal example to convince people to conserve the varied flora (vegetation) and fauna in natural ecosystems for we are yet to learn about the medicinal benefits of the plant kingdom to cure the various ailments plaguing the humans. Who knows which species found in the tropical or other geological regions may help mankind to cure the dreaded diseases confronted by the humans? It is possible that the remedies to our sufferings may be discovered in the numerous species found in the tropical rain forests or other natural environments. Deviating from the point, other spindle poisonous used by medical practitioners in cancer chemotherapy comprise podophyllotoxin. Podophyllotoxin is an anti-neoplastic glucoside obtained from rhizomes of may apple, scientifically known as 'Podophyllum peltatum'. 'Podophyllum peltatum' belongs to the barberry family or 'Berberidaceae' and colchicines - an amine alkaloid from the corms of autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). It may be mentioned here that the 'Colchicum autumnale' belongs to the lily family, which is botanically also known as 'Lilaceae'.

Quinoline alkaloids

Quinoline alkaloids include twofold carbon rings comprising one nitrogen atom (N) and they enclose quinine from the bark of Cinchona ledgeriana. Incidentally, Cinchona ledgeriana is a South American tree in the coffee family (Rubiaceae). The alkaloid quinine is poisonous to Plasmodium vivax and three supplementary classes, including the single-celled organisms or protozoans that cause malaria.
The microbes attack the red blood cells where they multiply, finally escaping from the split cells. The ailment is differentiated by interludes of high temperature and chills, linked with the concurrent break of red blood cells. Malaria is certainly one of the most widespread ailments all over the humid expanses of the globe, and it is spread through the bite or blood meal of the female Anopheles mosquito.

It may be mentioned here that during the 1600s, Spanish Jesuits in Lima, Peru, came to know that bark drag outs from a neighboring tree called "quina" (scientifically known as the C. officinalis) had the capability to heal malaria. Henceforth, these Spanish Jesuits in Peru successfully used this extract on Countess Chinchon. A report published by O. Tippo and W.L. Stern in Humanistic Botany in 1977 says that the genus was named by Linnaeus in admiration of the countess, but spelled it Cinchona rather than "Chinchona.".

Although many synthetic anti-malarial drugs such as atabrine, chloroquine and primaquine have been developed, currently, quinine trees are grown in plantations. Some species of plasmodium are opposed to many of the synthetic quinine analogues and hence natural quinine is still used even to this day. In fact, there are people who still take prophylactic doses of bitter quinine water (tonic) in the evenings, habitually mixed with vodka or gin.

Isoquinoline alkaloids

Isoquinoline alkaloids are associated with quinoline alkaloids and constitute an important division of the alkaloid family. Isoquinoline alkaloids can be divided into several sub-classes and among others, comprise elements such as simple isoquinolines, benzylisoquinolines, phthalideisoquinolines, protopines, morphine alkaloids, protoberberines as well as ipecac alkaloids.

For instance simple isoquinolines are the alkaloids of mescaline cactus or Lopophora willamsii such as mescaline, while benzylisoquinolines are antecedents of many alkaloids that comprise opium poppy's papaverine. On the other hand, phthalideisoquinolines encompass all narcotine, protopines are restricted to the poppy family comprising protopine and protoberberines include berberine, hydrastine, canadine among others. Protoberberines are derived from Berberis ssp., as well as golden seal. Morphine alkaloids include morphine, codeine and thebaine all from the opium poppy family, whereas ipecac alkaloids comprise emetic alkaloid emetine obtained from ipecacuanha.

Isoquinoline alkaloids comprise two-fold carbon loop that contains one nitrogen atom (N). This form of alkaloid comprises the narcotic alkaloids generally present in particular members of the poppy family or Papaveraceae like the opium poppy or Papaver somniferum. In fact, when we use the term narcotic, it is generally points to the pain-relieving and sleep-inducing qualities of these intensely addictive alkaloids that include substances like morphine, codeine and thebaine. Incidentally, morphine has derived its name from the Greek God of sleep Morpheus, while the particular soubriquet of the opium poppy or Somniferum literally translated to Latin means 'to sleep'.

All these powerful alkaloids are derived from the milk-like latex juice of ripened seed container of the opium poppy. The procedure of collecting the sap is simple. The unrefined opium juice trickles from newly cuts into the pericarp of the seed containers and when it comes in contact with the air, the juice is oxidized and takes a solid form turning black in color. Later, morphine is chemically reacted upon to form diacetylmorphine which is popularly called heroin. Interestingly, the poppy seed used on bagels and rolls are also derived from the opium poppies and seldom have any narcotic effect on the people having them during the coffee breaks. However, these can also activate a positive reaction in very responsive urine examinations for drugs. Besides Papaver, opiate alkaloids that are found in the nature too are found in the Argemone and Dicentra genera. It is an irony that while the opium poppy have led to sufferings and destructions in the lives of people addicted to the drug and their family members, these alkaloids have provided immense relieve to people suffering from pain throughout the ages. Although Demerol is a very powerful synthetic opiate, there are many others like natural morphine which is one of the best pain relievers available anywhere till date.

A major source of a powerful isoquinoline alkaloid utilized in curing deadly poisons is Chondodendron tomentosum, a member of the Menispermaceae family, which is an extract from the barks and stem of a vine indigenous to South America. Indians in the Amazon area use this sticky derivative to cover the venomous nips of their blowguns - their amour against enemies as well as for hunting. Alkaloid D-tubocurarine possess a special healing power as it actively obstructs the acetylcholine receptor spots at the neuromuscular intersections enabling muscles to unwind as well as protect them from paralysis. This variety of alkaloid is also effective in relaxing as well as preventing the paralysis of the muscles in the respiratory tract as well as the heart. Significantly, D-tubocurarine alkaloids have been extensively used to unwind the muscles of the heart during open heart surgeries. In addition, this variety of alkaloid has also been used by medicos in curing spastic or convulsive paralysis of tetanus venom that causes unmanageable retrenchment of muscle all over the body.

Purine alkaloids

Purine alkaloids normally include caffeine, theophylline, theobromine and aminophyline which are obtained from cocoa, tea and coffee. These substances are collectively named xanthines as they are obtained from the purine nucleotides adenine and guanine. They are medicinally beneficial as they are active in extending the effectual life of a number of hormones such as adrenaline.

By the by, purine alkaloids contain a molecular arrangement amazingly analogous to the nitrogenous purine base adenine that is generally present in DNA, RNA and ATP. Purine alkaloids comprise a two-fold carbon sphere containing four nitrogen atoms (N). Predominantly among the purine alkaloids are moderate invigorators like coffee or Coffea Arabica in the coffee species or Rubiaceae. Tea or Camellia sinensis in the tea family or Theaceae, yerba mate or Ilex paraguariensis a member of the holly species or Aquifoliaeae, guarana or Paullinia cupana in the soapberry species or Sapindaceae and cola or Cola nitida in the chocolate species scientifically known as Sterculiaceae. Incidentally, the most important origin of theobromine is from the seeds or beans of cacao scientifically known as Theobroma cacao. In fact, Theobroma cacao is one more member of the chocolate family that is scientifically called Sterculiaceae.

By the way, although coffee is indigenous in the mountainous regions of Ethiopia, the shrub or small tree is now commercially cultivated all over the world - especially in the tropical regions. Mocha in Yemen was an ancient hub of coffee trade. It was initially roasted and consumed as a beverage in Arabia and by 1600, it became popular in England and was extensively served during political deliberations and at meeting places. Initially, Sri Lanka or Ceylon was the primary source of coffee import for England. However, following a serious fungal infection or disease (Hemileia vastatrix) to the coffee plant in the island nation that destroyed the cultivation in 1869, England turned to Ceylon tea which till date happens to be the main brewed beverage of the nation.

However, currently more than half of the world's coffee output comes not from Sri Lanka, but from South American nations such as Brazil and Colombia. Well, to describe coffee fruits - they are plump berries, which comprise two seed that are stuffed together in such a manner that the inner or adjoining sides of each of them are compressed. The coffee seeds also known as coffee beans are isolated from the coffee cherries or berries and then roasted to prepare the coffee beverage. Coffee beverage is consumed in various forms and one of them is espresso coffee. In fact, espresso coffee is generally prepared by passing steam through deeply roasted or dark-roast coffee beans.

By removing caffeine from coffee beans or seeds one can prepare decaffeinated coffee. This can be done through either water extraction or solvent extraction of the coffee beans. Normally, in pure form, the coffee beverage is bitter to taste. Incidentally, there are a variety of coffee that comprise contaminants like ground chicory roots or Cichorium intybus that actually lessen the unpleasantness in the beverage and enhance its essence. In the United States, chicory, which belongs to the vast sunflower species that is scientifically known as Asteraceae, is generally found along the roadsides and is common elsewhere too. Here is an interesting fact. Substitutes of coffee like the Postum are also prepared from the molasses as well as the roasted muesli grains like wheat, barley as well as rye.

Terpenoid alkaloids

Generally speaking, terpenoid alkaloids are an assortment of amalgams or compounds that are obtained biosynthetically through different procedures that produce a number of group of terpenes like sesquiterpenoids, montoterpenoids, diterpenoids as well as steroids. Incidentally, this variety of alkaloids is found in an irregular manner in the plant kingdom. For instance, the monoterpenoid alkaloids like gentianine are usually found in the plant family Gentianaceae. Sesquiterpenoids, for instance, dendrobine are generally found in the Orchidaceae or cassinine in the Celastraceae, diterpenoids like aconitine are found in the Ranunculaceae family and steroidal alkaloids. Similarly, buxamine is found in discrete plant families like Buxaceae, protoverine is located in the Liliacea and solanidine in the Solanaceae. Interestingly, a number of terpenoid alkaloids also display anti-feedant and anti-fungal features. And most importantly, the fascinating alkaloids in this sub-group are present in the genus Veratrum and they are normally beneficial for curing hypertension (high blood pressure), neuralgia as well as rheumatism.

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