The most common medical uses of deadly nightshade employ its ability to control spasms caused by motion sickness and other conditions. Deadly nightshade also dilates the pupils of the eyes, and is used by eye surgeons. It also contains properties that act as a narcotic or sedative, and works on the nervous system as an antihistamine. Deadly nightshade is one of more than 2,000 species of a plant family that can be toxic if used incorrectly.
Atropa belladonna, which means beautiful lady in Italian, represents the generic name of deadly nightshade. It got this name because Italian women used juice from deadly nightshade berries to dilate the eyes, making them bright and shiny as a beauty aid. All parts of the plant can be highly poisonous, especially the roots and leaves. In some areas, belladonna is called devil’s berries or death cherries.
Some medication combines belladonna with phenobarbital to control the excretion of stomach acid and intestinal spasms caused by colic. It might also be useful to ease abdominal cramps associated with menstrual problems, and stop vomiting caused by motion sickness. Some medications made with deadly nightshade work on the central nervous system to dry up the production of saliva, perspiration, and urine. Bed-wetting drugs might contain deadly nightshade.
Belladonna contains the alkaloid atropine in its roots, leaves, blossoms, and berries. It grows as a weedy, dark green herb with purple flowers. Many common foods also belong to the nightshade family, including potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. Some parts of these plants are edible, while other parts are poisonous. One sign of toxicity in humans involves the loss of voice, along with spasms of the hands and fingers.
Nightshade formulas have been used in herbal medicine for years as an antidote for chloroform and opium poisoning. When made into a plaster or ointment, such medicines might contain analgesic properties to ease the pain of rheumatism, gout, and sprains. Homeopathic practitioners use belladonna to treat sudden illnesses marked by fever and pain. It might also be useful to treat whooping cough, asthma, and hay fever symptoms.
Side effects of the herb include dry mouth and skin, and enlarged pupils. Because of its diuretic effects, patients should guard against heatstroke, because the amount of perspiration that naturally cools the body might be inhibited. Some patients report blurred vision, dizziness, or drowsiness while using medication containing deadly nightshade. Signs of overdose include convulsions, coma, and hallucinations.