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Category: Medicines - plant based



Introduction and description

Nicotiana rustica - "Midewiwan-Sacred-Tobacco-flowers"

The medical community and governments alike have waged war on tobacco. 

Perhaps more correctly, they have waged war on cigarettes, and with good reason.  By smoking a cigarette one inhales all the toxins from the paper it was rolled in, the pesticides used in commercial farming, and the chemicals used to process the tobacco.  And as we have seen in the overload section, toxins can cause any number of illnesses and the most well known is cancer.

But the smoke and toxin particles can also travel round the blood stream and cause atherosclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis, amongst many other diseases.


So smoking is not good for your health, any more than inhaling the fumes from car exhausts is, or being in a polluted city full of smoke and grime.  When I was a child one of the most prevalent illnesses were lung diseases such as bronchitis, caused by the number of open fires, and smogs we had.  No central heating, just coal fires and a lot of people were very ill.

So the case against smoke – a toxin – is proven, but is the case against tobacco?

There are other ways of taking unadulterated 'organic' tobacco and the South American Indians look on tobacco as an ally, a healing herb.  Not an hallucinogen, but a healer.  Why?

It has been used as a poultice, for example, as the chemicals are absorbed through the skin. 


Over the past decade there has been some very interesting research done on tobacco, and one thing that has emerged is that it provides quite significant pain relief; the relief is in excess of the opioids.  There is still debate about the addictiveness of tobacco, but the problem is that is often difficult to separate addictiveness from the desire to be without pain.

The problem with the opioids is that the body downgrades the number of receptors over time if use is regular.  Thus one has to maintain the level of input to stay where you are and furthermore, if any form of pain relief is to be forthcoming, the dose has to be constantly increased.  Opioids are best for extremely infrequent, almost emergency treatment like the heroin [for heroin it is] used in cardiac arrest patients.  The opioids also have other side effects – like constipation and depressed breathing which can be dangerous.

Thus the search is on for a pain killer that can be used more regularly, but which does not cause tolerance and addiction.  And tobacco may be a solution.

Some background


The main, but not only, chemical in tobacco that promotes both pain relief and relaxation is Nicotine.  We have a page for Nicotine in the science section going into more detail, not only on the receptors it acts on, but also other plants containing nicotine, of which there seem to be quite a few, although none appears to contain as much nicotine as the tobacco family.

Nicotine is both the chemical that provides the pain relief and is also an Acetycholine ligand – it binds to a subset of the Acetycholine receptors called the Nicotinic receptors.

There are two main types of Acetylcholine receptors.  Acetylcholine – our endogenous neurotransmitter binds to both, but all the exogenous ligands are more selective.

  • The nicotinic receptors are found on skeletal muscles and at nerve synapses, the sorts of muscles involved in rheumatism, trapped nerves, Ehlers Danlos and Multiple Sclerosis.  But it is only active at the synapses between neurons and skeletal muscle and has poor activity elsewhere
  • The muscarinic receptors are active at the synapses of neurons with smooth and cardiac muscle, but tend to show poor activity at sites where nicotine is active

In other words, depending on the type of pain one would use different plants.  Tobacco only helps with certain types of pain.

The tobaccos


The correct botanical name of the family of plants we know of as simply ‘tobacco’ is the Nicotania family. 

There are a large number of members of the Nicotania family, for example, Nicotania rustica, Nicotania bigelovii, Nicotania attenuata, Nicotania trigonophylla and the familiar Nicotania tabacum.

Nicotania Rustica , for example, is not the same tobacco used to make cigarettes which is Nicotania tabacum

The origins of Cultivated Tobacco (N. tabacum) are obscure; it is not known from the wild and appears to be a hybrid between Woodland Tobacco (N. sylvestris), N. tomentosiformis and another species (perhaps N. otophora), deliberately selected by humans a long time ago.

Nicotania Rustica in contrast, is used for healing and other shamanic rituals.  Clearly when used by shamans, it is also free of the chemicals used by tobacco companies in manufacture.


Rustica is also used for entheogenic purposes by South American shamans. Most commonly, it is allowed to soak in water, and the water is then insufflated; it is also smoked in cigars and used as an enema and as an anthelmitic effective against tapeworm infections. In the east southern of Turkey, people use this herb and ashes of some tree bodies to make a snuff called "Maraş Otu". They use this putting under either of the lips like Swedish snus. It is also a common admixture of Ayahuasca in some parts of the rainforest.
In Russia, N.rustica is called "makhorka" (махорка). It was smoked casually by the lower classes before normal tobacco became widely available (after WWII), and is still sometimes smoked by peasants and farmers.
Nicotiana rustica leaves have a nicotine content as high as 9%, whereas Nicotiana tabacum (common tobacco) leaves contain about 1 to 3%

Nicotania Rustica is not the only ‘entheogenic’ nicotania plant.  The Takelma for example use N. bigelovii, and tobacco was very important to the Aztecs, who considered it one of the sacred herbs of Xochipilli, the "Flower Prince" a deity of entheogenic plants.

Chemical constituents

 The alkaloids in each variety differ both in type and quantity.  They may, for example, contain very little nicotine or quite large quantities.  Many varieties of tobacco – Nicotania rustica, Nicotania bigelovii, Nicotania attenuata, Nicotania trigonophylla often contain far larger amounts of nicotine than the familiar Nicotania tabacum.

  • Nicotiana tabacum - Nicotine is the main alkaloid in Nicotiana tabacum.   The minor tobacco alkaloids nornicotine, anabasine, and anatabine from Nicotiana tobacum are known to possess nicotinic receptor agonist activity, although they are relatively less potent than S-(–)-nicotine, the principal tobacco alkaloid.  The chemical constituents of this tobacco are so different from any of the others that one is tempted to say this is actually not tobacco
  • Nicotania Rustica  – wild tobacco.  It is known in South America as Mapacho and in Vietnam as Thuoc Lao (thuốc lào)Rustica is used by South American shamans and  grows in the rain forest.  It  contains up to twenty times more nicotine than common North American varieties such as N. tabacum.  It also contains other alkaloids – nornicotine and anabasine.
  • Nicotania Glauca -  contains anabasine, nornicotine and nicotine although ‘other alkaloids’ are present, unidentified in Dr Duke’s analysis but forming the bulk of the content.
  • Nicotania Debneyi  - contains mostly anabasine alkaloids. 
Nicotania glauca

So when you trot off to the Amazon for a healing session and see tobacco added to the medicine, you are not actually getting tabacum, but rustica, and most of its effects are mediated via Nicotine.

I am not going to go into too much depth here, as this section is simply for general information, but the properties of each of these substances varies considerably.  The following provides a very brief description of some of the other alkaloids with their properties:

  • Nornicotine – is the second most abundant tobacco alkaloid in Nicotiania tabacum.   It is an NAChR agonist with known affinity for both α4β2* and α7* nAChR subtypes. Nornicotine also evokes an  increase in dopamine, indicating that nornicotine acts as an agonist at nAChR subtypes modulating DA release.  It has been shown to increase DA release and inhibit DAT function
  • Anabasine.  Anabasine is an NAChR binding agonistically to receptor sites much like Nicotine.  It is principally a neuronal nicotinic ACh receptor partial agonist with known affinity for the α7, and α4β2 sites plus some known affinity for muscular sites
  • Anatabine – Anatabine is an NAChR agonist.  It is present at a concentration of about 30 times lower than nicotine.  But the half-life of anatabine is 8 times  greater than that of nicotine.  In effect, as the nicotine effects wear off, the anabatine and other alkaloid effects start to kick in.

Compared to nicotine alone, addition of the minor tobacco alkaloids thus extends the effects of the Nicotine – the pain relief, sedation, and tranquilisation effects.

There has been some speculation that some Nicotiana species contain  beta-carbolines, which means that they might have some MAOI activity. But if you look at the list of beta carbolines in Wikipedia no mention is made of the Nicotiana species. 

There is no smoke without fire however, [if you will excuse the joke] and I think this supposition goes back to a paper produced in 1962 describing how Harmala alkaloids had been found in tobacco smoke

Harmane and norharmane were isolated from cured tobacco and its smoke. This establishes the presence of indole alkaloids in tobacco. Quantitative studies showed that cigarette smoke contained between 15 and 20 μg of combined harmane and norharmane per gram of tobacco smoked. The tobacco itself contained only about 1 per cent of the amount found in smoke. Thus, the pyrolytic formation of the harmane alkaloids was strongly indicated. The addition of radioactive tryptophan to the tobacco resulted in the isolation of radioactive harmane alkaloids in the smoke. Further studies indicated that enough tryptophan was present in the tobacco to account for the quantities of the harmane alkaloids found in the smoke. [Source - The isolation of harmane and norharmane from tobacco and cigarette smoke - E.H. Poindexter Jr. and R.D. Carpenter- Philip Morris Incorporated, Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A. 18 May 1962.]


Not the tobacco, the smoke.  And Dr Duke’s analysis makes no mention of either.



 We will now take a look at Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases and his analysis of Nicotiana rustica L. - Solanaceae

In the list that follows, the number in () indicates how many separate chemicals this species has for that activity. I have homed in on the activities that are unrelated to the effects of the smoke and furthermore ignored activities that result from overdose.  Sialogogue means a chemical that promotes saliva flow, but this is mediated through the overall activity – it is a major inducer of the parasympathetic nervous system, a relaxant with pain relieving properties:

  • Analgesic (1)
  • Cholinergic (1)
  • Dopaminigenic (1)
  • Myorelaxant (1)
  • Sialogogue (1)
  • Tranquilizer (1)

Annabasine is a Myorelaxant, otherwise, it is Nicotine doing the work.  In addition it is an Ectoparasiticide (1) .  An ectoparasiticide is an antiparasitic drug used in the treatment of ectoparasitic infestations. These drugs are used to kill the parasites that live on the body surface – ticks, lice, fleas etc.

In contrast, Nicotiana tabacum L. – Solanaceae, on Dr Duke’s site, gives a Number of distinct activities for this species = 629.   We believe this is too complex by far, and as the objective is pain relief, there is evey reason to concentrate on the species that are simpler and with the three main chemicals that promote the activities above.


From the British medical journal

Nicotine, an alkaloid derived from the leaves of tobacco plants (Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rustica) is the primary agent in tobacco products.  There are different ways of administering the various products including:

  • smoking cigarettes,
  • chewing tobacco,
  • holding moist snuff in the mouth,
  • inhaling dry snuff through the nose,
  • inhaling smoke from a waterpipe and
  • inhaling vapour from an electronic cigarette.

It can be difficult differentiating the effects of nicotine from the many other toxic substances these products also contain.

Here we review the pharmacological effects of nicotine, but we will not review the well-known harmful effects of cigarettes, where it is primarily the toxins and carcinogens in tobacco smoke rather than the nicotine that cause illness and death.

Published by the BMJ Publishing Group Limited.   PMID: 25428425

There is also the Nicotine patch used in smoking addiction treatments.  This article along with others recommends:

  • chewing tobacco
  • holding moist snuff in the mouth,
  • inhaling smoke through a waterpipe and
  • inhaling vapour from an electronic cigarette.

for medical use.  In general :

  • smoking cigarettes, and
  • inhaling dry snuff through the nose,

are not supported.  From a general review of the literature, there are benefits in making the medicinal use targetted; as such poultices and patches may be of more use for pain relief than the methods above. 

References and further reading

No smoking, just use the leaves..................

  • Med Clin North Am. 2004 Nov;88(6):1399-413, ix.  Metabolism and biochemical effects of nicotine for primary care providers.  Metz CN1, Gregersen PK, Malhotra AK.  Laboratory of Medicinal Biochemistry, Center for Patient-Oriented Research, North Shore Long Island Jewish Research Institute, 350 Community Drive, Manhasset, NY 11030, USA.
  • Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2014 Oct;66(10):1582-6.  Smokeless tobacco (moist snuff) use and the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis: results from a case-control study.  Jiang X, Alfredsson L, Klareskog L, Bengtsson C. - The use of moist snuff was not associated with the risk of either ACPA-positive or ACPA-negative RA. The increased risk of RA associated with smoking is most probably not due to nicotine.  PMID:  24719251


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