Elecampane is a bitter-tasting plant that has a long history of use for its various health benefits.
This plant is also commonly called also called horse-heal or elfdock.
Elecampane rhizomes (i.e. roots) are commonly used for digestive health as well as for lung and respiratory health. It works as a mucolytic to help move phlegm from the lungs.
In this article, we will look at the health benefits of elecampane, its safety, and its history.
Table of Contents
- What is Elecampane?
- Benefits of Elecampane:
- Elecampane Safety:
- Species of Elecampane:
- Naming & Taxonomy:
- History & Traditional Use:
What is Elecampane?
Elecampane is a perennial plant in the Asteraceae (i.e. sunflower) family. It was originally native to Eurasia, where it spread from Spain to Western China.
The scientific name for this herb is Inula helenium, but it’s commonly called elecampane.
The root of this plant has been used traditionally for its antimicrobial properties, as well as for supporting digestive health and respiratory health. It’s still frequently used as a bitter tonic and expectorant.
Elecampane contains sesquiterpene lactones, a class of phytochemicals that have been studied in recent years due to their anti-inflammatory activity.
This herb has a long history of traditional medicine usage, but modern research is just now establishing its health benefits.
Benefits of Elecampane:
There are many purported health benefits of elecampane. Most of the scientific research on this herb has been done via test-tube research or animal studies.
1. May Support Respiratory Health
Elecampane has been used traditionally to support lung health and respiratory function.
Traditional herbalists suggest that elecampane works as a gently stimulating expectorant for chronic catarrhal conditions. Said more plainly, this herb works to expel phlegm from your lungs.
A recent clinical trial involving 106 children with acute cough was conducted to test the effectiveness of a cough syrup containing various herbs, including:
- Inula helenium (i.e. elecampane)
- Malva sylvestris (i.e. common mallow)
- Plantago major extract (i.e. plantain)
- Helichrysum stoechas (i.e. everlasting flower)
Over the course of 8 days, the study found that the group given the herbal cough syrup had a significant reduction in night-time and day-time cough scores.
A lab-based study found that elecampane (as well as Grindelia squarrosa) worked to reduce inflammation within cultured human respiratory epithelium cells. The researchers noted that their observations in this study justify the traditional use of these herbs for the treatment of inflammation-based diseases in the respiratory tract.
A clinically tested and approved extract of I. helenium root (standardized for sesquiterpene lactones) is marketed in Russia under the name “Alanton”. It is prescribed for the treatment of acute and chronic infectious and inflammatory diseases of the respiratory system, accompanied by a persistent cough with thick viscous mucus.
Isoalantolactone, a sesquiterpene lactone found in elecampane, has been found in lab studies to help reduce inflammation in cases of acute lung injury.
Summary:It appears that elecampane has the ability to expel mucus from the respiratory system. It also appears to have an anti-inflammatory effect within the lungs. While these initial findings are promising, full-scale human clinical trials are needed to verify these results.
2. May Improve Digestive Health
Elecampane may be one of the best bitter herbs for digestion.
Elecampane contains inulin, a prebiotic fiber that’s known to support digestive health.
Inulin is a special type of fiber that is readily fermentable by intestinal bacteria. It’s been noted that inulin helps to increase stool frequency in individuals with constipation.
Research shows that inulin has many other health benefits, including improved intestinal permeability, a decrease in fat mass, and an improvement in appetite control.
Additionally, research shows that bitter-tasting herbs (like elecampane) work to increase the secretion of gastric juice and bile. This essentially primes your digestive system and helps your body digest food better.
Summary:Elecampane contains inulin, a prebiotic fiber that has many benefits for digestive health. It’s also been shown to increase the secretion of gastric juice and bile, which helps with digestion.
3. Antimicrobial Properties
Research shows that elecampane has antimicrobial properties.
A test-tube study looked at the effectiveness of elecampane extract versus Staphylococcus aureus. The study results showed I. helenium to be 100% effective against the 200 staphylococci strains that were tested.
Another in vitro study found that the essential oil present in elecampane proved to be effective in fighting both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria. The study also found that elecampane was highly effective against Candida spp (a fungal infection). Interestingly, the researchers noted that elecampane essential oil was found to be more effective in attacking Candida spp than other well-known antimicrobial herbs, including tea tree and bergamot oil.
Another lab study found that elecampane has strong activity against Staphylococcus aureus. Staph is a gram-positive bacteria that cause a wide variety of clinical diseases. The researchers noted that the sesquiterpene lactones present in elecampane were found to be the most active principles against S. aureus.
Summary:A wide variety of laboratory studies show that elecampane has strong antimicrobial properties. While these initial findings are promising, human clinical trials are needed.
4. Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Laboratory research suggests that elecampane has anti-inflammatory activity. It’s thought that the sesquiterpene lactones found in this herb are responsible for its anti-inflammatory action.
Inflammation is a complex defense mechanism that is vital to health since it is the immune system’s response to harmful stimuli, such as damaged cells, toxic compounds, pathogens, or irradiation. Chronic inflammation can lead to a variety of negative health outcomes.
As noted above, a lab-based study found that elecampane worked to reduce inflammation within human respiratory cells.
An animal study noted that sesquiterpene lactones (isolated from Inula helenium) worked to reduce inflammation in mice.
Igalan, a sesquiterpene lactone found in elecampane, has been found in lab studies to impair pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Another sesquiterpene lactone, Isoalantolactone, within elecampane has been found in lab studies to help reduce inflammation in cases of acute lung injury.
Summary:Lab research shows that the sesquiterpene lactones found in elecampane work to reduce inflammation both within the respiratory system and throughout the body. Human clinical trials are needed to prove these initial findings.
5. Other Benefits
Other benefits of elecampane include:
- May Have Anti-Proliferative Properties – A study found that an elecampane extract containing alloalantolactone, alantolactone, and isoalantolactone displayed anti-proliferation and anti-migration effects on pancreatic cancer cells.
- May Have Antioxidant Properties – An in vitro study found that elecampane has the ability to stop oxidative damage.
- May Provide and Anti-Stress Effect – An animal study found that Inula helenium has an anti-stress effect.
While these varied health benefits are interesting, human clinical trials are needed to corroborate findings in animal and cell culture studies.
Summary:Elecampane has been tied to a wide variety of health benefits. Human clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
Safety Class: 1
Interaction Class: A
The Botanical Safety Handbook puts elecampane in the safety class of 1, meaning it can be safely used when appropriately consumed.
It has an interaction class of “A” which suggests that no clinically relevant adverse reactions are expected to occur.
In general, this herb is well tolerated and safe to take for most individuals.
However, elecampane should be avoided by individuals that have allergies to plants in the Asteraceae family, this includes plants such as:
Allergic reactions may present as contact dermatitis (i.e. a red itchy rash on the skin).
Excessive use of elecampane may lead to vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, or symptoms of paralysis.
Pregnancy & Lactation:
The Botanical Safety Handbook notes that based on available evidence, it appears that elecampane is generally safe to take in pregnancy and lactation.
Standard dosing for elecampane is as follows:
Tincture: 1-2mL three times per day of a 1:5 tincture (in 40% alcohol).
Infusion: Pour 1 cup of cold water over 1 teaspoon of shredded root. Let stand for 8-10 hours. Heat and take very hot three times a day.
Elecampane is an easy-to-grow plant that spreads quickly. As such, there are no concerns in regard to the sustainability of this plant.
In fact, elecampane is often used as a sustainable substitute for herbs like Osha Root.
Elecampane is said to contain over 400 compounds, mainly terpenoids (sesquiterpene lactones and dimers, diterpenes, and triterpenoids) and flavonoids.
In particular, this plant contains alantolactone, a sesquiterpene lactone that is thought to be one of the primary active constituents.
This plant also contains isoalantolactone, another sesquiterpene lactone that is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Elecampane also contains helanin, a phytochemical combination of alantolactone and isoalantolactone.
This herb is also rich in inulin, a special form of fiber. Research estimates that this herb contains 19-44% of the inulin-type fructans, with higher contents being most typical in plants harvested in the autumn.
Species of Elecampane:
There are many different documented species of this herb, the primary ones include:
- Inula helenium,
- Inula britannica L.
- Inula cappa
- Inula racemosa
- Inula viscosa
- and Inula japonica
As mentioned above there are many different species of this herb, in fact, it’s reported that there are over 90 different “Inula” species.
Expectorant, antitussive, diaphoretic, hepatic, antimicrobial.
Naming & Taxonomy:
Elecampane’s scientific name is Inula helenium. It’s a perennial plant that belongs to the Asteraceae family of plants.
The genus name “Inula” is a Latin word that’s considered to be a corruption of the Greek word Helenion. The species name “helenium” is thought to refer to Helen of Troy who was said to have a handful of elecampane with her when Paris stole her away.
Another legend states that this herb sprang from where her tears fell on the ground: another that Helen first used it against venomous bites; a fourth, that it took the name from the island Helena, where the best plants were said to grow.
It’s said to grow best in damp, well-draining loamy soil.
It is easily cultivated. Seeds may be sown, either in cold frames or in spring in the open. It is best propagated, however, by off-sets, taken in the autumn from the old root, with a bud or eye to each.
History & Traditional Use:
Elecampane has a long history of usage, in fact, it was mentioned by Dioscorides and Pliny. This herb was commonly used throughout England, it was a staple grown in herb gardens where it was used as a culinary and medicinal plant. Not only was its root commonly used as a medicine, but it was also candied and eaten as a dessert.
Inula helenium (and other members of the Inula family) have been widely used in Traditional Chinese medicine as well as Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicinal systems for the treatment of various diseases such as bronchitis, fever, hypertension, diabetes, and inflammation.
In Russia, roots of elecampane have been used as an expectorant in chronic respiratory diseases: bronchitis, tracheitis, tuberculosis, and bronchial conditions with excess mucus.
Elecampane appears to be a safe and well-tolerated herb.
Common usage tells us that this herb is helpful for various respiratory complaints. Laboratory research appears to be promising in regard to improving digestion.
It also appears that this herb has strong anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.
It’s worth looking into elecampane if you are needing support in any of these areas. As always, make sure to consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or adding a new supplement.
Gardner, Z. & McGuffin, M. (2013). Botanical safety handbook (2nd edition). American Herbal Products Association.
Grieve, M. (1931). White Horehound. Botanical.com. Retrieved from https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/e/elecam07.html
Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: The science and practice of herbal medicine. Healing Arts Press.