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Life Root

Scientific Name(s): Senecio aureus L.
Common Name(s): Cocashweed, Coughweed, False valerian, Female regulator, Golden groundsel, Golden senecio, Grundy-swallow, Life root, Ragwort

Clinical Overview

Use

Life root has been traditionally used to hasten labor and reduce labor pain in childbirth. It has also been used to treat a wide range of illnesses, from cough to hemorrhage. However, use of the plant is not recommended due to its toxic and possibly carcinogenic properties.

Dosing

There is no clinical evidence to provide dosing recommendations for life root. Use is not recommended because of potential toxicity due to the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

Contraindications

No longer considered safe.

Pregnancy/Lactation

Avoid use. Emmenagogue and teratogenic effects have been reported, as well as toxicity due to the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

Interactions

None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

Research reveals little or no information regarding adverse reactions associated with life root use.

Toxicology

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids have been associated with the development of hepatotoxicity, liver cancer, and hypertensive pulmonary vascular disease. Infants and children are most sensitive to toxicity. Fatal pyrrolizidine toxicity occurred in a 2-month old infant whose initial symptoms mimicked those of Reye syndrome.

Botany

Life root is a perennial herb with a slender, erect stem that bears bright yellow flower heads. The lower leaves are heart shaped. It grows to approximately 1.2 m in height and is found in swampy thickets and areas of moist ground in the eastern and central United States. The entire dried plant, not only the roots, is used medicinally.1, 2, 3 Life root has been confused with a variety of other plants with broadly purported healing powers, including mandrake root and ginseng root.

History

Life root has played an important role in traditional American Indian herbal medicine and was used as a tea by the Catawba women to hasten labor and reduce labor pain in childbirth.4 The plant has been used to treat a variety of illnesses, including hemorrhage and cough.5 Despite concerns regarding its safety, the plant continues to be used in some herbal preparations to control irregular menses and other gynecologic disturbances.6

Chemistry

Life root plant contains a number of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, including senecionine (approximately 0.006% in the root), senecifoline, senecine, otosenine, floridanine, florosenine, and other related compounds. Presence of an astringent tannin has also been reported.1, 5, 6 Chemical composition of other various Senecio spp. has been reported.7, 8

Uses and Pharmacology

Life root has traditionally been used for the treatment of amenorrhea, menopause, and leucorrhea.6 Life root has also been used as a uterotonic, diuretic, and mild expectorant.6 Although it is widely believed that life root can influence activity of female reproductive organs (hence the name "female regulator"), there is little pharmacologic evidence of a uterotonic effect or influence on hormone levels in women.1, 6, 9

Antimicrobial analyses of the related species Senecio graveolens have been performed on the essential oil.8

Dosing

There is no clinical evidence to provide dosing recommendations for life root. Due to the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, use of life root for medicinal purposes is not recommended.

Pregnancy / Lactation

Avoid use. Life root is contraindicated during pregnancy and lactation due to its abortifacient and uterotonic effects. Emmenagogue and teratogenic effects have been reported, as well as toxicity due to the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids.6, 10, 11 In animal studies of life root, pyrrolizidine alkaloids were present in the placenta and milk.6

Interactions

None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

Research reveals little or no information regarding adverse reactions associated with use of life root.

Toxicology

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids have been associated with the development of hypertensive pulmonary vascular disease, hepatotoxicity, and liver cancer.12 Infants and young children are most sensitive to pyrrolizidine alkaloid toxicity and typically present with acute onset of nausea, emesis, abdominal pain, and distention. In typical pyrrolizidine alkaloid toxicity, physical examination reveals hepatomegaly and possible ascites, which can result in death in the acute phase or progression to frank cirrhosis. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids have produced toxic necrosis of the liver, particularly in grazing animals that have ingested large amounts of plants containing these compounds. There is strong evidence that pyrrolizidine alkaloids are involved in human liver diseases, including primary liver cancer (see Comfrey monograph).1, 13 The action of pyrrolizidine alkaloids can cause veno-occlusive disease and liver congestion, leading to acute and chronic liver disease. Generally, Senecio spp. are most toxic in pediatric patients, and there is some indication that the combination of alkaloids in S. aureus may be at the lower end of the toxicity scale for this genus12; however, because of the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, the plant is not recommended for internal use.

In a case in Arizona, tea made from Senecio longilobus (erroneously harvested instead of Gnaphalium) and given for 4 consecutive days to a 2-month old Mexican-American infant for cough and nasal congestion (probable total consumption of 66 mg of mixed alkaloids) led to fatal toxicity. The tea was discontinued the day before admission of the infant to the hospital. Initial clinical and laboratory presentation mimicked that of Reye syndrome; however, the infant's condition progressed over the 6 days after admission, with development of jaundice, ascites, hepatomegaly, and elevated liver enzymes. Necropsy revealed extensive necrosis of the central parenchyma with diffuse hemorrhaging throughout the necrotic area, consistent with pyrrolizidine alkaloid toxicity. Surprisingly, bile staining in the perivascular areas of the basal ganglia consistent with kernicterus was observed. An earlier case of pyrrolizidine alkaloid toxicity in a 6-month old female, also occurring in Arizona and the first indigenous case in the United States, also resulted from the same herbal tea formulation. The infant developed vomiting and irritability, followed by hepatocellular disease and portal hypertension. Over the next 8 months, her disease progressed through hepatic fibrosis to cirrhosis.14

References

1. Tyler VE. The New Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and Related Remedies. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: GF Stickley Co; 1987.
2. Dobelis I. Magic and Medicine of Plants. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association Inc; 1986.
3. Golden groundsel. NewCrop website. https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/HerbHunters/groundsel.html. Updated March 19, 1998.
4. Lewis W. Medical Botany. New York, NY: J. Wiley and Sons; 1977.
5. Duke JA. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1985.
6. Newall CA, Anderson LA, Phillipson JD, eds. Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health-Care Professionals. London, England: Pharmaceutical Press; 1996.
7. van Dooren B, Bos R, Tattje DH. Composition of essential oils of some senecio species. Planta Med. 1981;42(8):385-389.17401994
8. Pérez C, Agnese AM, Cabrera JL. The essential oil of Senecio graveolens (Compositae): chemical composition and antimicrobial activity tests. J Ethnopharmacol. 1999;66(1):91-96.10432213
9. Meyer J. The Herbalist. Hammond, IN: Hammond Book Co; 1934.
10. Brinker F. Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions. Sandy, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications; 1998.
11. Ernst E. Herbal medicinal products during pregnancy: are they safe? BJOG. 2002;109(3):227-235.11950176
12. Spoerke D, Jr. Herbal Medications. Santa Barbara, CA: Woodbridge Press Publishing Co; 1980.
13. Liener I. Toxic Constituents of Plant Foodstuffs. New York, NY: Academic Press; 1980.
14. Fox DW, Hart MC, Bergeson PS, Jarrett PB, Stillman AE, Huxtable RJ. Pyrrolizidine (Senecio) intoxication mimicking Reye syndrome. J Pediatr. 1978;93(6):980-982.722447

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.

Further information

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