Scientific Name(s): Alkanna tinctoria (L.)
Common Name(s): Alkanet, Alkannawurzel, Alkermeswurzel, Anchusa tinctoria, Dyers's Bugloss, Henna, Orchanet, Racine d'alcanna, Racine d'orcanette, Radix anchusea, Rote ochsenzungenwurzel, Schminkwurzel
Alkanna is a biennial or perennial herbaceous plant growing from 0.3 to 0.6 m in height with pubescent lanceolate leaves. It bears blue to purple trumpet-shaped flowers arranged in loose, 1-sided scorpioid racemes. The dried cylindrical, fissured rhizome has exfoliating, brittle, and dark purple bark on the outside and remains of bristly leaf and stem pieces near the crown region.PLANTS 2017, Bisset 1994 While native to southern Europe, the plant is also grown in and imported from Albania, India, Egypt, and Turkey.Bisset 1994, Roeder 1995 Alkanna root belongs to the plant family Boraginaceae and contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that aid in plant defense against insect herbivores. Although pyrrolizidine alkaloids are found in all plant organs, they are concentrated in the roots of these plants.Chojkier 2003
Alkanna should not be confused with another plant also known as alkanet, but which is the related Anchusa officinalis L. of the same family (Borage).(USDA) A decoction (tea) of A. officinalis leaves and roots for coughs and chest disorders was described in older herbals.Reader's Digest 1986
Alkanna and related plants have long been referred to as henna and used as a dye for cloth. Alkanna has also been used to impart a red color to fats, oils, and waxes.Bisset 1994 The Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460 to 370 BC) recorded the use of alkanna root for the treatment of skin ulcers, and the botanist Theophrastus (ca. 371 to 287 BC) suggested that it could be used as a dye and in medications. Greek physician and pharmacologist Dioscorides (ca. 49 to 90 AD) also described alkanna's properties.Papageorgiou 2008
Today, alkanna root is used almost exclusively as a cosmetic dye.Bisset 1994 Orally, it has been used for diarrhea and gastric ulcers. Traditionally, topical alkanna root has been used to treat skin wounds and diseases.
Alkanna root contains a mixture of red pigments found in the bark at levels of up to 5% to 6%. These consist mainly of fat-soluble naphthazarin (5,8-dihydroxy-1, 4-naphthaquinone) components, such as alkannin and related esters.Bisset 1994, Papageorgiou 1980, Tung 2013 The red pigments are soluble in fatty oils, which makes them useful for the detection of oily materials in microscopic powders during histological examination. Like some other members of the Borage family, pyrrolizidine alkaloids have been found in Alkanna tinctoria, but levels have not been determined.Bisset 1994 The alkannin esters of beta, beta-dimethylacrylic acid, beta-acetoxy-isovaleric acid, isovaleric acid, and angelic acid have also been isolated from the root.Papageorgiou 1978
Uses and Pharmacology
Cancer cell effects
Anti-proliferative activity against human cancer cell lines has been reported.Tung 2013
Potential antiaging effects
Alkanna root has demonstrated antioxidant effects. One study found that both monomeric and oligomeric alkannin exhibited high radical scavenging activity. Additionally, an olive oil extract containing A. tinctoria possessed radical scavenging activity at room temperature; however, when it was heated, this activity was decreased.Assimopoulou 2005
Wound healing/Antimicrobial activity
Crude extracts of A. tinctoria, demonstarte antimicrobial activity in screening.Sengul 2009, Khan 2015 Alkannin has been shown to exert activity against gram-positive bacteria, gram-negative bacteria, and fungi. Additionally, alkannin may exert bactericidal action on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacteria that forms biofilms against wound healing.Papageorgiou 2008
A. tinctoria has been studied in male rabbits with partial thickness, severe, and olive oil burns. A solution of A. tinctoria 16% was applied twice daily to the left side of the animal. The right side served as a control. Partial thickness burn wounds were completely healed in 7 to 10 days, and olive oil burn wounds were healed in 26 days. However, severe burn wounds were unresponsive to A. tinctoria.Ogurtan 2002
The esteric pigments displayed antibiotic and wound-healing properties in an older clinical study enrolling 72 patients with ulcus cruris (indolent leg ulcers).Papageorgiou 1978
More recently, a clinical study (n=60) demonstrated improved wound healing rates with application of topical A. tinctoria ointment.Kheiri 2017
No recent clinical data justify human dosage.
Pregnancy / Lactation
Documented adverse effects. Contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Avoid use.McGuffin 1997 Animal studies in rats have shown that pyrrolizidine alkaloid-induced toxicity can affect offspring, with suckling young rats more likely to develop pyrrolizidine alkaloid-induced hepatotoxicity than their mothers.Roeder 1995, Schoental 1968
Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are substrates for the cytochrome P450 3A4 isoenzyme. Inducers of this enzyme, including rifampin, St. John's wort, and phenobarbital, may increase the conversion of pyrrolizidine alkaloids to toxic metabolites.Chojkier 2003
Alkanna root may cause acute liver failure, cirrhosis, pneumonitis, pulmonary hypertension, or heart failure. Toxic byproducts from the hepatic metabolism of pyrrolizidine alkaloids are transported to the lungs where they may cause pulmonary toxicity. Sinusoidal-obstruction syndrome, also known as venoocclusive disease, is a hepatic complication associated with bone marrow transplantation that may occur in patients consuming products containing pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids have been shown to be carcinogenic in animals, specifically associated with hepatocellular and squamous cell carcinomas and liver angiosarcomas.Chojkier 2003
The pyrrolizidine alkaloid components in alkanna root may cause liver and/or lung toxicity. The most hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids include the cyclic diesters, such as retrorsine and senecionine. Fulvine and monocrotaline have been implicated in causing liver and pulmonary toxicities.Chojkier 2003 Specifically, pyrrolizidine alkaloids cause liver cell enlargement, disturbances in liver cell metabolism with functional losses, and fatty degeneration in the liver.Roeder 1995
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