by Abigail Mikolon
Inula helenium, commonly known as elecampane, is an
herbaceous perennial that belongs to the Asteraceae (aster
family). It is indigenous to central and southern Europe,
parts of temperate Asia, and has been naturalized in North America
(Grieve 1931). Vegetative features of elecampane include an
erect stem that produces include large, toothed, alternate, and
sessile leaves that form a rosette. Reproductive plants produce,
yellow hermaphrodite flower heads about three inches broad that are
bee pollenated. Heads are surrounded by involucral bracts that
ring the receptacle and achenes that are four sided and are
surmounted by pappus hairs that allow for wind pollination (Westfall
2015). Plants bloom from June to August and springs from
a rootstock that is fleshy and large. Elecampane grows best in
yards, parks, and roadsides – typically in moist soil (Lehmuskallio
Elecampane was described as early as 50 A.D. by Roman surgeons Pliny
and Dioscorides, who stated it helped with digestion and caused
“mirth” or joyfulness. In England, it is frequently mentioned
in the Anglo-Saxon writing on medicine as a common remedy for
sicknesses (Grieve 1931). However, for the most part,
elecampane was generally known during the Middle Ages. It was
grown in private herb gardens by which the root was used for
medicine or candied to be eaten. In London, it was common for
the sugar-coated herb to be consumed daily for asthmatic problems
(Grieve 1931). Romans and Greeks used the rhizomes, which
contains high amounts of inulin, to treat intestinal worms, air
passage disorders, and as an antiseptic for treating wounds
(Mountain Rose Herbs 2015). It is known to cleanse toxins from
the body stimulating immune and digestive systems. The root
contains alantolactone which has an anti-inflammatory action and
also reduces mucous secretions (Plants for a Future 2012).
Overall, elecampane has been and is still frequently used to treat
asthma, bronchitis, pulmonary disease, cough, indigestion, and
heartburn where the root and rhizome are prepared as a decoction or
tincture (Web MD 2005-2015).
Along with alantolactone and inulin, elecampane contains
isoalantolactone, chlorogenic acid, and isoheleproline which are
known contribute to its use medicinally (Wang, et al. 2015).
Elecampane rhizomes contain volatile oils, which are mostly composed
of sesquiterpene lactones, including alantolactone (Wichtl 1994).
Elecampane is also very high in inulin and mucilage. Most herbal
texts attribute the actions of elecampane to alantolactone which has
been isolated and used to treat parasites (Newall, et al.
1996). Cough prevention and soothing of the intestinal tract
however, may possibly be due to the inulin and mucilage
content. A number of sesquiterpene lactones from elecampane
have been found as great feeding deterrents for pest insects such as
granary beetles and weevils (Whelan 2011). Also, extracts from
the root are larvicidal to mosquitoes (Natural Medicines 2012).
In vivo studies have been done using mice linking the
sesquiterpenes present in Inula helenium to increased
detoxifying enzyme activity. Active compounds found to be
chemopreventive agents include alantolactone, isoalantolactone, and
5-epoxyalantolactone (Lim, et al. 2007). Isoalantolactone acts
as a potent enzyme inducer by stimulating the accumulation of a
basic leucine zipper protein that regulates the expression of
antioxidant proteins which protect against oxidative damage, Nrf2,
found in the nucleus. All three have been found to be the
major components responsible for quinine reductase induction which
is an important detoxification pathway in Hepa1c1c7 and BPRc1 cells,
both found in the liver (Lim, et al. 2007). Isoheleproline has also
been found as an amino acid-sesquiterpene adduct from elecampane
(Zaima, et al. 2014). Overall, elecampane consists of at least three
active compounds that are linked to inducing detoxifying
Elecampane has been reported to contain many phenolic compounds that
have been shown to protect against neurodegenerative diseases.
Via radical scavenging, the antioxidant capacity of total phenolic
compounds was determined, though the amount was not specified.
Research has shown that total phenolic compounds exert
neuroprotective effects against cell damage done by hydrogen
peroxide and overall, improving mitochondrial function (Wang, et al.
Essential oils in the root of elecampane have been found to show
antistaphylococcal activity along with damaging effects to the
bacterial cell membrane. The most active constituents were
alantolactone, isoalantolactone, and diplophylin (Stojanovic-Radic,
et al. 2012). In vitro studies have shown elecampane
to be 100% effective against the 200 staphylococci that were tested
as well as effective against antibiotic resistant and sensitive
strains. Such compounds could potentially be used in the
future to complement infection control policies and prevent
staphylococcal infection and carriage which results from a
combination of a weakened or defective host immunity and the
bacteria’s ability to evade the host (O’Shea, et al. 2009).
Extracts from elecampane roots demonstrated antineoplastic
activity. Using an MTT assay (a colorimetric test for
determining cell metabolic activity), the botanical extracts showed
highly selective toxicity toward four specific tumor cell lines
(HT-29, MCF-7, Capan-2, and G1). However, they showed very
little toxicity toward healthy human peripheral blood
lymphocytes. The cellular breakdown of the tumor cell lines
resembled necrotic cell death meaning death due to unexpected or
accidental cell damage as opposed to naturally occurring
death. Overall, the root extracts of Inula helenium
show anticancerous potential (Dorn, et al. 2006).
In terms of adverse effects, large amounts of elecampane can cause
vomiting, spasms, and paralysis (Gruenwald, et al 1998). Higher
dosages have been shown to upset stomachs because of the
sesquiterpene lactones present. Also, elecampane might
cause sleepiness and drowsiness. Consequently, taking elecampane
along with sedative medications might cause too much sleepiness, and
concomitant use with drugs with sedative properties may cause
additive effects. Also, topical use of elecampane may lead to
allergic reaction and dermatitis. It should not be used if
pregnant or have diabetes (Natural Medicines 1995-2015).
Overall, Inula helenium contains various active
compounds generally found in the rhizome that act as a cough
suppressant and soothe the intestinal tract. Elecampane has
also been linked to protection against neurodegenerative diseases as
well as antineoplastic and detoxifying enzyme activity.
Research does in fact support its healing properties, however
sesquiterpene lactones present in elecampane may contribute to
stomach upset and emesis. Also, persons with allergies to
other members of the Asteraceae should exercise precaution as a
potential allergen (Mountain Rose Herbs 2015). It is clear,
enough studies have demonstrated elecampane’s medical benefits and
deemed it generally safe.
Dorn, D.C., M. Alexenizer, J.G. Hengstler, & A. Dorn.
2006. Tumor cell specific toxicity of Inula helenium
extracts. Phytotherapy Research, 20.11: 970-980.
Stojanovic-Radic, Z., Lj. Comic, N. Radulovic, P. Blagojevic, M.
Denic, A Miltojevic, J Rajkovic, & T. Mihajilov-Krstev.
2012. Antistaphylococcal activity of Inula helenium L.
root essential oil: Eudesmane sesquiterpene lactones induce cell
membrane damage. European Journal of Clinical Microbiology and
Infectious Diseases. 31.6: 1015-1025.
Wang, J., Y.M. Zhao, M.L. Zhang, & Q.W. Shi. 2015.
Simultaneous determination of chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid,
alantolactone and isoalantolactone in Inula helenium by
HPLC. Journal of Chromatographic Science. 53.4: 526-530.
Wichtl, M. 1994. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals. CRC Press,
Zaima, K., D. Wakana, Y. Demizu, Y. Kumeta, H. Kamakura, T.
Maruyama, M. Kurihara, & Y. Goda. 2014.
Isoheleproline: A new amino acid-sesquiterpene adduct from Inula
helenium. Journal of Natural Medicines. 68.2: 432-435.
This paper was developed as part of the BIO 368 - Medical Botany
course offered at Wilkes University during the summer of 2015.
Course instructor was Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
information contained herein is based on published sources, and is
made available for academic purposes only. No warrantees, expressed
or implied, are made about the medical usefulness or dangers
associated with the plant species in question.