Scientific Name(s): Senecio aureus L.
Common Name(s): Cocashweed, Coughweed, False valerian, Female regulator, Golden groundsel, Golden senecio, Grundy-swallow, Life root, Ragwort
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.
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
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
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
None well documented.
Research reveals little or no information regarding adverse reactions associated with use of life root.
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
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