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Lobelia (ban bian lian)

What is lobelia? What is it used for?

Lobelia is a tall, reed-like plant that grows throughout North America. Also known as Indian tobacco, lobelia consists of a long, thin stem with green, shovel-shaped leaves and green bulbs with white or purplish flowers. Although some practitioners use lobelia seeds and roots in their formulas, the leaves are used primarily.

At the start of the 20th century, many herbal practitioners considered lobelia one of the most important medicinal plants. It was used to relieve pain and treat coughs and spasms; in higher amounts, it was employed to induce vomiting in people who had been poisoned.

Most of lobelia's medicinal properties come from an alkaloid substance called lobeline. Several studies have been conducted using lobeline to help people stop smoking, but these studies have produced decidedly mixed results. It is still used to treat coughs, asthma and bronchitis. Uncontrolled studies suggest lobeline may improve lung function.

How much lobelia should I take?

No more than one milliliter of lobelia tincture or extract should be taken at a time. Taking too much internally may cause nausea and possibly vomiting.

What forms of lobelia are available?

The most popular form of lobelia is an ointment, which is used topically on the chest to relieve asthma and bronchitis. Some specialty stores sell lobelia acetracts, which are made using vinegar instead of alcohol.

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

Using too much lobelia can frequently cause nausea and vomiting. Other signs of lobelia poisoning may include weakness, heartburn, a weak pulse, and difficulty breathing. Lobelia should not be used by pregnant or lactating women, or by children less than six years old.


  • Bergner P. Is lobelia toxic? Medical Herbalism 1998;10(1,2):1,15—32.
  • Davison GC, Rosen RC. Lobeline and reduction of cigarette smoking. Psychol Reports 1972;31:443—56.
  • Ellingwood F. American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, 11th ed. Sandy, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1919, 1998, 235—42.
  • McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A. American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997, 71.
  • Pocta J. Therapeutic use of lobeline spofa. Cas Lek Cesk 1970;109(36):865.
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