Aconite (Acotinum napellus), also known as monkshood, wolfsbane, leopard's bane, devil's helmet, and various other common names, is a meadow flower and member of the buttercup family original to the mountainous regions of the northern hemisphere. Its common name of monkshood is a reference to the flower sepals, which resemble tiny hoods much like the cowls once worn by medieval monks. The plant is the source of aconitine, a highly potent neurotoxin that produces a burning, numbing sensation on the skin and, if taken internally, in the gastrointestinal tract. Just 20 ml of aconite tincture is enough to cause death within a few hours, either from respiratory failure or cardiac arrest. The poisonous nature of aconite became widely known during the highly publicized trial of George Henry Lamson, who was convicted of killing his brother-in-law Percy John in 1881 in the first known case of murder by aconite poisoning.
Despite its toxicity, aconite has been used for centuries in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine as a pain reliever and blood coagulant. It is also used in Japanese kampo medicine to counter pain associated with dampness and coldness. However, the herb is detoxified by various complex heat-process techniques before use. For instance, in Chinese medicine, aconite root is steamed with ginger in a process known as pao zhi, and in India the herb undergoes samskaras before it is used in Ayurvedic formulas.
Recently, scientists have identified another analgesic compound in aconite root, an alkaloid called neoline that is made stable with heat-processed detoxification. Analysis of plasma levels of this substance in mice with peripheral neuropathy induced with oxaliplatin or partial ligation of the sciatic nerve, has led researchers to identify neoline as a potential therapy for neuropathic pain.
All parts of this plant contain extremely dangerous toxins. In fact, the ancient Romans used aconite as a method of execution and certain indigenous peoples use it as a dart and arrow poison. Although it is a very attractive flowering plant and is grown as an ornamental, care should be taken when handling the plant, including the flowers. Detoxification of the raw material is critical, and is not accomplished in the home kitchen through ordinary boiling or steaming. Therapeutic use of aconite is best left to skilled herbalists and health care practitioners experienced in the proper preparation and administration of this herb.
Yohei Tanimura, Masato Yoshida, Masahiro Ohsawa, Toshiaki Makino. "Neoline is the active ingredient of processed aconite root against murine peripheral neuropathic pain model, and its pharmacokinetics in rats." Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 2019