Common Names

Lobelia , Indian-Tobacco, Asthma Weed.
Botanical Name
Lobelia inflata
CAMPANULACEAE ~ Bellflower Family

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What is it?

In herbal medicine we use the dried leaves of Lobelia; a plant that comes to us from the great American Indian tradition of medicine. Lobelia grows to about half a meter and gives off angular leaves. The flowers of all Lobelias are distinctive and delicate and the medicinal Lobelia is no exception with its exquisitely shaped pale-blue flowers rising from slender stems.




How has it been used?

Lobelia was one of the most important remedies of 'physiomedicalism', which is the system of herbal medicine that developed when the European and American Indian systems merged and subsequently evolved through further back-and-forths over the Atlantic.

Lobelia’s primary use was as a potent relaxant. Lobelia was seen to be able to open blocked channels in the body with robust efficiency. Lobelia has a strong reputation as a treatment for asthma and bronchitis as well as for spasms in the joints or muscles.

Lobelia has largely fallen out of modern herbal medicine practice, perhaps at least in part because it has been much maligned as a dangerous herb when not used carefully. One popular use that continues to this day is as an aid to stop smoking whereby 5 drops or so are taken three times a day to reduce nicotine cravings. If anyone has been addicted to smoking and tried to stop then they will know how much of a testimony it is to any herb that can help reduce those urges.

King's Dispensatory writes 'when the circulation exhibits a markedly slow pulse-wave it will be better corrected by lobelia than by any other drug we possess. In fact the most prominent indication for the drug is the full, oppressed, sluggish, doughy pulse. Associate this with thoracic pain, difficult breathing, soreness or bruised feeling within the chest, nausea with tongue heavily coated at base, fullness of tissue, and we have before us a fair range of the action of lobelia. It is a good remedy in cardiac congestion. Perhaps the most important use for this drug will be in the treatment of respiratory affections. For this class of diseases no remedy is more highly valued by physicians of our school. Acute pneumonia, with, tendency to congestion, the breathing being oppressed, is quickly relieved by lobelia. All chronic forms of sore throat, especially when ulcerated, are benefited by it. Chronic pneumonia, bronchitis, and laryngitis are all conditions in which lobelia will be of great service. In asthenic laryngitis of children it is exceedingly useful. It is a remedy of great value in chronic catarrh, dry, hard, or barking coughs, colds, and all forms of irritation and oppression of the respiratory tract'

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of nearly 40 studies and articles on Lobelia are listed in a PDF found here


Safety of Lobelia

Despite some rather hysterical claims to the contrary, Lobelia may actually be safely taken by anyone, including children and the elderly, breastfeeding mothers and pregnant woman, however, like a great many other substances, it has the potential to do harm if taken to excess. In New Zealand Lobelia is classed as a restricted medicine, available from a pharmacist without a prescription but also available for general sale for use in a traditional manner via burning the herb to aid respiratory conditions or smoking cessation.

As there is a narrow dose range between what is effective and harmful you really have to 'know your Lobelia' and in terms of treating a condition this is a herb that should not be used by someone who is not well experienced in its correct and safe use. I talk about all this in much more depth below in the section 'personal experiences'.

General comment on herbal safety

All medicinal herbs that have the power to do good have the potential to do harm. The old maxim 'the poison is in the dose' precisely describes how too much of anything can be bad for us. The ancient rule to 'firstly, do no harm is, to this day, held as the core directive by all practitioners of traditional herbal medicine. Not only are we careful to do our best to use the right herbs, but equally we take care to not give too much of them or use them overlong.

For some years now, against this proven and safe way of herbalism, there has been a rising tide of excessive caution and scare-mongering in many parts of the world. The same authorities that, not so long ago, decried herbal medicines as ineffectual, have now taken up a different adversarial position; that they are dangerous substances that should only be prescribed by Doctors, who of course have zero training in them.

Lists of '10 popular herbs and why you should avoid them' include things like Garlic and Ginger that might 'thin your blood'. Such cautions are absurd to the point of the ridiculous, but fear is a universal driver that has long been proven to be effective at manipulating people.

Unfortunately, the same unnecessary fear and worry has crept into many natural health websites and popular publications on herbs. Herbs that we have safely used for thousands of years, that have no reports of adverse reactions in the medical literature despite widespread use by millions of people, are suddenly described as contraindicated because of something that should have been seen as completely unimportant, or at the utmost a merely theoretical concern, such as a laboratory study on one of the herb's constituents to use an all too common example.

I wonder sometimes if the writers of such articles feel that the herb will be more deserving of respect if it is thought to be a little bit dangerous, in other words more like a drug than something that has simply come out of the earth and been used by ordinary people for generations beyond count.

There is just so much misinformation about herbal medicine on the internet now. Ludicrous claims and cautions abound in equal measure; it seems like one group are trying to make money out of the public whilst the other are busily trying to scare them off.

I have to believe that the kind of reader who takes the time to read pages on herbs that are as extensive as this one is much less likely to be swayed by marketers or misinformers. I hope that you will keep your wits about you if you get conflicting opinions from people who have never really got to know these herbs, who have never worked with them, or learned how to use them safely and effectively.

I want to remind you that the reason that herbs can never be patented and owned by any individual or corporation is because they are, and always will be, the People's medicine. They belong to all of us and it is my great hope in sharing this work that you will learn how to use them wisely for yourself, and the people you care for. Be safe, but do not be afraid.


Personal experiences

Lobelia is very strong and must be used with great care and sensitivity but I can state from personal experience that, whilst I certainly use Lobelia for respiratory constriction and congestion it is also the most whole-body relaxing herb I have ever worked with.

My 'earthquake strength relaxing formula' (a short note on why I call it this is written up in the beginning of my article on anxiety here) has Lobelia as the key ingredient. A particularly valuable property of Lobelia is in the way it potentiates the action of other herbs, enabling them to be absorbed more deeply and rapidly, the other relaxing nervine herbs in that particular mixture are; Kava, Skullcap, Wild Yam and Cramp Bark but it is clearly the Lobelia that allows people to feel the relaxing action straight away and so in a very real sense it opens the door to the deep action of the other herbs with which it travels.

From long practice of giving a dose of Lobelia directly to my patients before deciding to give it to them in a formula that they then take home I can say three things about it for sure:

1) Lobelia is not for everyone. There are instances when it will not engage well with the body and it will cause an adverse response which is palpable in the pulse and as a visible reaction. I would urge anyone reading this and wanting to try Lobelia for themselves to do so with a trained practitioner who knows how to tell when something is wanted or unwanted by the body.

2) Lobelia has an immediate effect on:
~ opening the circulation (people get colour when it is right for them; they go more pale when it wrong).
~ on slowing, smoothing and deepening the pulse (people get a more agitated or choppy pulse when it is wrong for them)
~ on deepening the breath; there is a visible and almost immediate deepening of the breath and relaxation of tension in the shoulders and face when Lobelia is given to the right person (when it is not the right herb you just don't see them take spontaneously take a deep breath within a minute of ingesting it)

3) Lobelia is a low dose herb. Don't think that because some of it is really good then more will be a lot better, it won't. Fortunately Lobelia has its own built-in safe-guard against being ingested in amounts that are too toxic. It didn't get the old nickname 'puke-weed' for nothing! If you take a small therapeutic amount of Lobelia you will get a noticeable scratchy sensation at the back of the throat the passes reasonably quickly.

If you take too much Lobelia you will feel nauseous. If you take way too much you will throw up, copiously and continuously, until your stomach is completely empty (this particular property of Lobelia was what made it feared and reviled in an earlier age but at the same time valued because old-timer doctor/herbalists often preferred to make their patients evacuate their stomachs and their bowels before they did much of anything else!)

Like all herbs there is a fairly wide range of the optimum dose from one person to the next but on average I find about 5 drops per dose per adult is enough to get all the desired effects, sometimes less, sometimes a little more, but never more than about 10 drops at a time.

If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or if you have your own pressing reasons to understand how to use this potent plant ally then I think you simply must take an experimental and experiential approach to getting to know it properly. The best way to do that is to take a small, safe dose with an quiet and attentive mind and then observe for yourself how it makes you feel. Likewise if you intend to practice with this herb with others then at some point you will need to take more than would be quite comfortable so you can be in no uncertainty about what can happen if you take too much! Lobelia really is a fantastic herb to use in practice but you must do it with the true understanding that can not only come from the abstraction of knowledge but must also come from real and personal experience.

Further to this, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here

Lobelia combines perfectly with Skullcap for mental tension, with Kava for anxiety, with Cramp bark for muscular tension and with Wild Yam for abdominal and pelvic congestion or tension.


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Lobelia is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

Part of the reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This useful and rather fascinating subject is introduced further here

Another big part of using the right herb when it is most needed comes from understanding the need to treat what is going wrong for the person that had led up to their getting a health condition. In this light, Lobelia can particularly offer its benefits when a relaxing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd