Aletris

Scientific Name(s): Aletris farinosa L. Family: Liliaceae (lilies)

Common Name(s): Unicorn root , stargrass , whitetube stargrass , crow corn , Ague grass , Aloerot , Devil's-bit , colic root , ague root , starwort , blazing star , mealy starwort , huskwort . Some of the common names also are used in connection with Helonias ( Chamaelirium luteum [L.] A. Gray). 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5

Uses

Aletris has been used as a sedative, laxative, antiflatulent, antispasmodic, and as a treatment for diarrhea and rheumatism. Its potential estrogenic properties may account for its use in treating female disorders. However, there are no clinical trials to support these potential uses.

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Dosing

There is no recent clinical data to justify human dosage. Classical texts recommend 2 to 6 g of root daily.

Contraindications

Contraindications have not yet been identified.

Pregnancy/Lactation

Documented adverse effects. Antagonizes some oxytocins. Avoid use.

Interactions

None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

None are known.

Toxicology

Aletris reportedly has narcotic properties and can induce colic, stupefaction, and vertigo.

Botany

Aletris is a perennial herb with linear leaves that grow in a rosette. These leaves surround a slender stem that reaches 1 m in height. These are grasslike, of a yellowish green color, and from 5 to 15 cm long. They surround the base of the stem in the form of a star, in this respect differing distinctly from another starwort ( Chamaelirium luteum ) with which it is sometimes confused. The plant is native to North America and is distributed widely throughout the continent. Three other species of aletris, Aletris aurea Walt., A. lutea Small, and A. obovata Nash, bear much resemblance to A. farinosa and are frequently collected with the latter. 2

History

Aletris is a North American plant that is now recognized worldwide in traditional folk medicine. Aletris occurs in dry, generally sandy soil from Maine to Minnesota, Florida, and Tennessee. It had been used by American Indians in the Carolinas as an antidiarrheal tea and in Appalachia for the management of rheumatisms and as a tonic and a sedative. 1 The fabled Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound , which was touted as a cure-all for female discomforts, contained aletris, among other plant derivatives. 6 It has been included in laxatives and has been used as an antiflatulent (hence the name “colic root”) and antispasmodic.

The roots and rhizomes are collected in the fall and dried for preservation.

Chemistry

Little is known about the chemical composition of A. farinosa with diosgenin being the only significant compound. Diosgenin has also been isolated from it, along with gentrogenin from the related Japanese species A. foliata and A. formosana . 7 An oil derived from A. farinosa is reported to have pharmacologic activity, but this has not been well defined. 1 The plant also contains a resin and a saponin-like glycoside that may yield diosgenin on hydrolysis. 1

Uses and Pharmacology

Estrogenic activity

Aletris has been reported to have estrogenic activity, although estrogenic compounds have not been isolated nor have detailed studies confirmed this activity.

Mechanism of action

The potential estrogenic properties of aletris may be due to a diosgenin-derived steroid that has not yet been characterized.

Animal data

Studies have indicated the drugs examined act on the strips of the isolated human uterus in the same manner as on the guinea pig uterus, but to a much lesser degree. Aletris farinosa , Pulsatella pratensis , and oil of valerian depress the activity of the strips. 8 Another pharmacological study shows similar results of Aletris farinosa on the isolated uterine tissue of the rat, the guinea pig, and the rabbit. Studies also were conducted on the in vivo uterus of the rabbit and the cat. It exerted a definite action of depression on the isolated uterus of the rat. The antagonistic action of aletris against the stimulating effect of the oxytocic principle of the posterior lobe of the pituitary (pitocin) also was studied on the isolated uterus of the rat. The results using the isolated uterine tissue of the guinea pig and of the rabbit and the in vivo rabbit uterus were inconsistent, the predominant action being stimulation. The effect of aletris on the decerebrate cat and the cat that was estrus induced by the injection of a compound estrogenic preparation was mainly pronounced sedation. 9

Clinical data

Research reveals no clinical data regarding the estrogenic activity of aletris.

Dosage

There is no recent clinical data to justify human dosage. Classical texts recommend 2 to 6 g of root daily.

Pregnancy/Lactation

Documented adverse effects. Antagonizes some oxytocins. Avoid use. 10

Interactions

None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

No adverse events have been reported with the use of aletris.

Toxicology

The plant has been reported to have narcotic properties, and in small doses can induce colic, stupefaction, and vertigo. 11

Bibliography

1. Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics . New York, NY: J. Wiley and Sons; 1980.
2. Sievers AF. The Herb Hunters Guide American Medicinal Plants of Commercial Importance . Washington, DC: US Dept. of Agriculture; 1930. Miscellaneous Publication No. 77. http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/HerbHunters/hhunters.html . Accessed April 8, 1998.
3. Osol A, Farrar GE Jr. The Dispensatory of the United States of America . 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott; 1955:1535.
4. Meyer JE. The Herbalist . Hammond, IN: Hammond Book Co; 1934:244.
5. Dobelis IN, ed. Magic and Medicine of Plants . Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest; 1986:144.
6. Tyler VE. The Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and Related Remedies . Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press; 1993.
7. Okanishi T, et al. Steroidal components of domestic plants. LXVI. Steroidal sapogenins of 16 liliaceae plants. Chem Pharm Bull . 1975;23:575-579.
8. Pilcher JD. The action of the several (female remedies) on strips of the excised human uterus. Arch Intern Med . 1917;19:53-55.
9. Butler CL, Costello CH. Pharmacological studies. I. Aletris farinosa. J Am Pharm . 1944;33:177-183.
10. McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, Goldberg A, eds. American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook . Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1997.
11. Duke JA. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs . Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1985.

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