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J Ethnopharmacol. 2009 Oct 29;126(1):18-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2009.07.031. Epub 2009 Aug 3.

Aconitum in traditional Chinese medicine: a valuable drug or an unpredictable risk?

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Department of Pharmacognosy, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.


Aconitum species have been used in China as an essential drug in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for 2000 years. Reviewing the clinical application of Aconitum, their pharmacological effects, toxicity and detoxifying measures, herb-herb interactions, clinical taboos, famous herbal formulas, traditional and current herbal processing methods based upon a wide range of literature investigations serve as a case study to explore the multidisciplinary implications of botanicals used in TCM. The toxicological risk of improper usage of Aconitum remains very high, especially in countries like China, India and Japan. The toxicity of Aconitum mainly derives from the diester diterpene alkaloids (DDAs) including aconitine (AC), mesaconitine (MA) and hypaconitine (HA). They can be decomposed into less or non-toxic derivatives through Chinese traditional processing methods (Paozhi), which play an essential role in detoxification. Using Paozhi, the three main forms of processed aconite -- yanfuzi, heishunpian and baifupian -- can be obtained (CPCommission, 2005). Moreover, some new processing techniques have been developed in China such as pressure-steaming. The current development of fingerprint assays, in particular HPLC, has set a good basis to conduct an appropriate quality control for TCM crude herbs and their ready-made products. Therefore, a stipulation for a maximum level of DDA content of Aconitum is highly desirable in order to guarantee the clinical safety and its low toxicity in decoctions. Newly developed HPLC methods have made the accurate and simultaneous determination and quantification of DDA content interesting.

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