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Herbs & Botanicals

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Inula (xuan fu hua)

What is inula?

Inula, also known as elecampane, is a yellowish flower similar to a dandelion in appearance. It is a thick, sturdy plant found throughout Asia; in some areas, it can reach a height of six feet. A perennial plant, the medicinal parts of inula are its roots and rhizomes, which are collected in the early fall or winter for herbal preparations. The rhizome has a strong odor and a bitter, pungent taste.

Why do we need inula? What is it used for?

Inula roots and rhizomes contain a volatile oil that consists of several chemical compounds, most notably esquiterpene lactones (including alantolactone), inulin and mucilage. Many scientists feel the mucilage and inulin content may be responsible for the plant's healing properties.

Traditionally, herbalists have used elecampane to treat coughs, particularly those associated with bronchitis, asthma, and whooping cough. It has also been used historically to treat poor digestion and general intestinal disorders; however, there is little scientific evidence to justify its uses for these conditions.

In traditional Chinese medicine, inula is used to remove obstruction and dissolve phlegm sometimes seen with a stuffy chest, cough or shortness of breath. It is also used in combination with other herbs to treat excess belching that may be caused by a deficiency of qi in the spleen or stomach.

How much inula should I take?

The German Commission E monograph states that the historical application of inula been adequately proven to recommend its use, based in part on its known side-effects if taken in large doses. Traditionally, inula is consumed as a tea by pouring boiled water over 1/2 teaspoon of ground root, leaving the mixture to steep in water for 10-15 minutes, then straining out the root. One cup of this tea is taken 3-4 times a day. Some herbalists recommend taking 1/2 - 1 teaspoon of an inula tincture three times daily.

What forms of inula are available?

Inula is available in dried root and rhizome forms, extracts and teas. It should be stored in a cool place, protected from light, and should not be stored in plastic containers.

What can happen if I take too much inula? Are there any interactions I should be aware of? What precautions should I take?

The lactones in inula, in particular alantolactone, can irritate the body's mucous membranes and intestinal tract. Taking excessive amounts of the herb can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, spasms and paralysis. If these symptoms occur, people should contact a poison control center. Women who are pregnant or nursing should not take inula. There are no well-known drug interactions with inula.

References

  • Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, et al. (eds). The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin: American Botanical Council and Boston: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998, 328–9.
  • Carabin IG, Flamm WG. Evaluation of safety of inulin and oligofructose as dietary fiber. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol 1999;30:268–82.
  • Gay-Crosier F, Schreiber G, Hauser C. Anaphylaxis from inulin in vegetables and processed food. N Engl J Med 2000;342:1372.
  • Gruenwald J, Brendler T, Jaenicke C, et al. (eds). PDR for Herbal Medicines. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics, 1998, 912–3.
  • Pazzaglia M, et al. Contact dermatitis due to a massage liniment containing inula helenium extract. Contact Dermatitis Oct 1995;61:267.

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