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False Unicorn

Scientific Name(s): Chamaelirium luteum (L.) Gray
Common Name(s): Blazing star, Devil's bit, Drooping starwort, Fairywand, False unicorn, Helonias root, Rattlesnake

Clinical Overview

Use

False unicorn has been used in traditional medicine as a uterine tonic for treatment of amenorrhea and morning sickness. It has also been used as an appetite stimulant, diuretic, vermifuge, emetic, and insecticide; however, clinical studies to support any of these indications are limited.

Dosing

False unicorn doses have traditionally been 1 to 2 g of the root as a tea, or 2 to 5 mL of the tincture 3 times a day as a uterine tonic or diuretic; however, there are no clinical studies to support a particular dose. Preparations have not been standardized.

Contraindications

No longer considered safe.

Pregnancy/Lactation

Avoid use. Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking.

Interactions

None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

Excessive doses may cause nausea and vomiting, possibly due to the saponin content.

Toxicology

Information is lacking.

Botany

C. luteum is a native lily of the eastern US. The only species in its genus, it is considered threatened because of habitat loss and effects of collection from the wild for herbal use.1, 2 C. luteum is a dioecious species (ie, the male and female flowers, which turn yellow on drying, are borne on separate plants). The roots (called starwort or unicorn root) are used medicinally and are collected in autumn.1, 3 The plant has been confused with the lilies Helonias bullata and Aletris farinosa (true unicorn root) because of shared common names. Synonyms of C. luteum are Veratrum luteum L.; Chamaelirium obovale Small.

History

False unicorn root was used during the Eclectic medical movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, chiefly for treating "female complaints" or as a uterine tonic in amenorrhea or morning sickness. It has also been used as an appetite stimulant, diuretic, emetic, and vermifuge, and acts as a mild GI tract tonic.4, 5 Its use in combination preparations for painful or irregular menstruation is reportedly increasing in the United States.2

Chemistry

Studies characterizing the chemical composition are limited.2 The root primarily contains steroidal saponins, including chamaelirin, chiograsterol, aglycone diosgenin, and other saponins with an "unusual" cholestane core, and sterols.2, 6, 7

Oleic, linoleic, and stearic fatty acids have also been isolated from the root.3

Uses and Pharmacology

Cancer

Animal data

The chemical constituents extracted from the root have been tested for cytotoxicity in human leukemia cells in vitro and in prostate cancer in mice.7, 8

Clinical data

There are no clinical data regarding the use of C. leuteum in cancer.

Uterine tonic

Animal data

Animal studies were conducted in the early 1900s by a single group of researchers. No effects were observed on isolated or intact uteri. An effect on gonadotropins was also postulated.9, 10, 11, 12

Clinical data

There are no clinical data regarding the use of false unicorn as a uterine tonic. As part of a combination preparation, the extract was used in a clinical study of herbal alternative therapies for menopause; however, the presence of false unicorn in the capsules could not be confirmed, and the researchers questioned the quality of the preparation.13

Dosing

False unicorn doses have traditionally been 1 to 2 g of the root as a tea, or 2 to 5 mL of the tincture 3 times a day as a uterine tonic or diuretic; however, there are no clinical studies to support a particular dose.4 As part of a combination preparation, the extract was used at a 200 mg/day dosage in a clinical study; however, the presence of false unicorn in the capsules used could not be confirmed, and the researchers questioned the quality of the preparation.13

Pregnancy / Lactation

Avoid use. Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking. The extract has been traditionally used as an emmenagogue, GI irritant, and uterotonic.4

Interactions

None well documented. Extracts of the root inhibited cytochrome P450 2D6 and 3A4 in 1 study, suggesting potential for interactions.14

Adverse Reactions

Excessive doses may cause nausea and vomiting, possibly due to the saponin content.4, 5

Toxicology

Information is lacking. Reports of toxicity from species of the Veratrum genus, which contain toxic alkaloids, may have been erroneously attributed to C. leuteum.15 In a study conducted in the 1950s, toxicity in rats was observed at 40 to 50 mg doses of the dried plant extract.11

References

1. Chamaelirium luteum L. USDA, NRCS. 2015. The PLANTS database (http://plants.usda.gov, 2015). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA. Accessed April 28, 2015.
2. Matovic NJ, Stuthe JM, Challinor VL, et al. The truth about false unicorn Chamaelirium luteum: total synthesis of 23R,24S-chiograsterol B defines the structure and stereochemistry of the major saponins from this medicinal herb. Chemistry. 2011;17(27):7578-7591.21598325
3. Duke J. Handbook of Biologically Active Phytochemicals and Their Activities. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1992.
4. Duke J, Bogenschutz-Godwin M, duCellier J, Duke P. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2002.
5. Yarnell E, Abascal K. Holistic approaches to prostate cancer. Altern Complement Ther. 2008;14(4):164-180.
6. Challinor VL, Stuthe JM, Bernhardt PV, Lehmann RP, Kitching W, De Voss JJ. Structure and absolute configuration of helosides A and B, new saponins from Chamaelirium luteum. J Nat Prod. 2011;74(7):1557-1560.21692443
7. Yokosuka A, Takagi K, Mimaki Y. New cholestane glycosides and sterols from the underground parts of Chamaelirium luteum and their cytotoxic activity. J Nat Med. 2013;67(3):590-598.23160794
8. Ng SS, Figg WD. Antitumor activity of herbal supplements in human prostate cancer xenografts implanted in immunodeficient mice. Anticancer Res. 2003;23(5A):3585-3590.14666653
9. Pilcher JD, et al. The action of certain drugs on the excised uterus of the guinea pig. J Pharmacol. 1916;8:110.
10. Pilcher JD, et al. The action of "female remedies" on intact uteri of animals. Surg Gynecol Obstet. 1918;27:97-99.
11. Graham RC, Noble RL. Comparison of in vitro activity of various species of Lithospermum and other plants to inactivate gonadatropin. Endocrinology. 1955;56(3):239-247.14353034
12. Brandt D. A clinician's view. HerbalGram. 1996;36:75.
13. Newton KM, Reed SD, Grothaus L, et al. Reprint of the herbal alternatives for menopause (HALT) study: background and study design. Maturitas. 2008;61(1-2):181-193.
14. Ho SH, Singh M, Holloway AC, Crankshaw DJ. The effects of commercial preparations of herbal supplements commonly used by women on the biotransformation of fluorogenic substrates by human cytochromes P450. Phytother Res. 2011;25(7):983-989.21213356
15. Chandler CM, McDougal OM. Medicinal history of North American Veratrum. Phytochem Rev. 2014;13(3):671-694.25379034

Disclaimer

This information relates to an herbal, vitamin, mineral or other dietary supplement. This product has not been reviewed by the FDA to determine whether it is safe or effective and is not subject to the quality standards and safety information collection standards that are applicable to most prescription drugs. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to take this product. This information does not endorse this product as safe, effective, or approved for treating any patient or health condition. This is only a brief summary of general information about this product. It does NOT include all information about the possible uses, directions, warnings, precautions, interactions, adverse effects, or risks that may apply to this product. This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your health care provider. You should talk with your health care provider for complete information about the risks and benefits of using this product.

This product may adversely interact with certain health and medical conditions, other prescription and over-the-counter drugs, foods, or other dietary supplements. This product may be unsafe when used before surgery or other medical procedures. It is important to fully inform your doctor about the herbal, vitamins, mineral or any other supplements you are taking before any kind of surgery or medical procedure. With the exception of certain products that are generally recognized as safe in normal quantities, including use of folic acid and prenatal vitamins during pregnancy, this product has not been sufficiently studied to determine whether it is safe to use during pregnancy or nursing or by persons younger than 2 years of age.

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