Medical Attributes of Inula helenium - Elecampane

by Abigail Mikolon
Wilkes University
Wilkes-Barre, PA

July 2015

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 2015). 

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 enzymes. 

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. 2015).

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.

Grieve, M. 1931.  Elecampane. A Modern Herbal.  Accessed 03 July 2015.

Gruenwald J, T. Brendler, C. Jaenicke, et al. (eds). 1998.   PDR for Herbal Medicines. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics, pp. 912-913.

Lehmuskallio, E. 2015. Elecampane. Inula helenium. Accessed 03 July 2015.

Lim, S.S., J.R. Kim, H.A. Lim, & C.H. Jang. 2007.  Induction of detoxifying enzyme by sesquiterpenes present in Inula helenium. Journal of Medicinal Food. 10.3: 503-510.

Mountain Rose Herbs. 2015. Elecampane root. Accessed 03 July 2015.

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Newall, C.A., L.A. Anderson, & J.D. Phillipson. 1996. Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health-Care Professionals. The Pharmaceutical Press. London, pp. 106-107.

O'Shea, S., B. Lucey, & L. Cotter 2009.  In vitro activity of Inula helenium against clinical Staphylococcus aureus strains including MRSA. British Journal of Biomedical Science.  66.4: 186-189.

Plants for a Future. 2012. Inula helenium L. Accessed 03 July 2015.

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.

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Westfall, A. 2015.  Elecampane. The Winter Garden.  Accessed 03 July 2015.

Whelan, R. 2011. Elecampane. Accessed 03 July 2015.

Wichtl, M. 1994. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals. CRC Press, pp. 254-260.

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. ( The 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.

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