Used centuries ago as a poison, hallucinogen, and even as a beauty remedy, belladonna is a plant rich in potentially deadly alkaloids. But the dose makes the poison: in low or even homeopathic doses, this plant may help with IBS, menopausal complaints, migraines, and flu-like symptoms. Read on to learn more about its dark history and why safer alternatives are available.
“All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.”
This 500-year-old principle of toxicology from the Swiss physician and chemist Paracelsus precisely describes the effects of belladonna (Atropa belladonna). It sheds light on why this unusual plant can be both a deadly poison and a healing remedy.
Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade and devil’s cherries, is an herb belonging to the same family as tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, and Jimsonweed (Solanaceae). It can be recognized by its purple, bell-shaped flowers and cherry-like, blackberries. Native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, belladonna is also sometimes cultivated as an ornamental plant in the US [1, 2].
Belladonna is very poisonous. It contains up to 20 different alkaloids. Its alkaloids are anticholinergics, substances that block the “rest-and-digest” action of acetylcholine in the body. One of the main active compounds is hyoscyamine, which is converted into a mixture called atropine in the body [1, 2].
Cholinergic activity in the body is generally beneficial, as opposed to fight-or-flight overdrive. However, blocking cholinergic activity is beneficial for some diseases, especially when it comes to respiratory disorders. Belladonna can be used to relax blocked airways, relieve headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and menopausal symptoms [3, 4, 5, 6].
The therapeutic potential of belladonna was explored in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Belladonna and its alkaloids were used to improve conditions such as:
- Asthma [7, 8]
- Pneumonia [9, 10]
- Parkinson’s disease [11, 12]
- Huntington’s disease [13, 14]
- Motion sickness 
- Scarlet fever 
- Bowel obstruction [17, 18]
- Indigestion 
- Diabetes insipidus, a rare condition caused by problems with a chemical called vasopressin [20, 21]
- Joint and nerve pain [22, 23, 24]
- Weakness in the muscles and tissues of the groin (inguinal hernia) 
Belladonna is still available as a component of conventional medicines such as Bellergal (0.2 mg alkaloids) and Donnatal (0.13 mg alkaloids). However, these have largely been replaced by safer compounds with more specific effects. Belladonna is also sold as herbal preparations and homeopathic remedies .
Belladonna is used in homeopathy since its origins, dating to over 200 years ago when Samuel Hahnemann (the founder of homeopathy) prescribed it for scarlet fever. Nowadays, homeopathic belladonna is used for several conditions including migraines, menopausal complaints, otitis, sore throat, pink eye, and runny nose. Note, however, that the FDA doesn’t approve the use of homeopathic remedies for any conditions .
It’s very important to discriminate between herbal preparations and homeopathic ones. Homeopathic remedies are not the same as herbal tinctures, extracts, and other products used in conventional and herbal medicine in an evidence-based way.
Sometimes herbal products are combined with homeopathic remedies. But homeopathy relies on completely different principles, such as the vital force, to explain how the remedies supposedly act.
Homeopathy also uses a lot of substances that are toxic in normal, oral doses, including Belladonna. Substances are greatly diluted in water or alcohol in a process called “dynamization” or “potentisation” and thought to exert an energetic effect on the body.
Based on the belief that “like cures like”, homeopaths choose remedies based on the results of so-called “remedy provings”. In these trials, healthy people take the substance to find out which effects it produces. Homeopaths will eventually use it to cure ill people with similar symptoms [27+].
Homeopathic preparations are commonly critiqued for using such high dilutions that they contain only a few or no molecules of the active compound. Homeopathy does not consider that the effects of the remedies come from the active components of the substance used.
Scientific evidence does not back up the claims made by homeopathy. Indeed, a meta-analysis concluded that homeopathic remedies had no effect beyond placebo .
Homeopathic dilutions are written as a number followed by a letter (e.g., 30C). The number is how many times the diluting process was performed. The letter represents the dilution factor, or how much the substance was diluted [33+]:
- X or D: 1/10 means it was diluted 10 times and contains 10% of the active compound; 1 part of extract per 10 of alcohol or water
- C: 1/100
- M: 1/1,000,000
So, a homeopathic belladonna remedy labeled as 10X would contain only about 0.000000001% of Belladonna. One labeled as 30C would contain much less, as it would mean that the substance was 30 times diluted by 100.
Because homeopathic belladonna preparations are not standardized, it’s almost impossible to compare the doses of different products. But it’s worthy to note that most of them probably do not contain any belladonna at all. The upside of this is that, unless adulterated or improperly diluted, they act similar to placebo and won’t cause serious side effects or drug interactions .
The following purported benefits are only supported by limited, low-quality clinical studies. There is insufficient evidence to support the use of homeopathic for any of the below-listed uses. Remember to speak with a doctor before using homeopathic belladonna, and never use it in place of something your doctor recommends or prescribes.
In two studies on over 2,600 children with upper respiratory tract infections and nasal allergies, homeopathic belladonna (6C and 30C) improved runny and stuffy nose. However, neither of them was placebo-controlled [35, 36].
In an observational study on over 400 menopausal women, 300 noticed an improvement in their symptoms and 83 stopped experiencing hot flashes after homeopathic therapy. Belladonna was the second most commonly prescribed remedy. However, the dilution was not specified and the study didn’t include placebo controls .
In an observational study on over 100 children with ear inflammation (otitis), homeopathic therapy (including belladonna) prevented the inflammation from coming back and shortened the duration of the symptoms compared to conventional medicines. However, the dilution of the remedies was not specified and the study was neither randomized nor blinded .
In a clinical trial on over 600 children with acute brain inflammation (encephalitis), homeopathic belladonna (30C, 200C, and 1M) added to conventional therapy reduced death and disability better than placebo. There was some risk of bias in the study since the groups were not blinded to the researchers and the disability evaluation was subjective .
In a clinical trial on 66 women undergoing radiotherapy after breast cancer surgery, both belladonna 7C and another homeopathic preparation (X-Ray 15C) slightly improved skin inflammation when compared to placebo. However, the results were based on a subjective evaluation of the symptoms .
In a clinical trial on 30 children, a homeopathic complex with belladonna (4C) improved tonsil inflammation caused by viral infections. It reduced pain in the tonsils, ears, and after swallowing better than placebo. However, the placebo group included almost 3 times more girls, who are more prone to tonsil inflammation and experienced greater pain on day 1 [41, 42].
In an observational study on 168 children, one-third received homeopathic belladonna (normally 9C) to manage their migraine attacks. Belladonna reduced the duration of the attacks and school absence, but the results were inconclusive because the study didn’t include placebo controls .
At a lower concentration (30C), homeopathic belladonna had no effect on migraines in a clinical trial on 60 people. Indeed, 2 reviews concluded that homeopathy doesn’t have any effects beyond placebo on migraines [44, 45, 46].
In a study in epileptic dogs, homeopathic Belladonna (200C) reduced the frequency of the seizures. However, the study was very small and no human research on this potential benefit has been carried out .
Anecdotally, homeopathic belladonna is used as a remedy for:
- High fever and confusion
- Cold and flu
- Teething in babies
- Seizures, vomiting, and nausea in children
- Asthma and cough
However, no preclinical or human studies have confirmed its benefits for these health concerns.
Although the dilution in homeopathic remedies is usually so high that they contain few or no molecules of the active compound, the level of belladonna alkaloids may be enough to cause adverse effects if improperly diluted.
After over 400 cases of adverse effects (including 10 deaths) were reported in babies taking homeopathic belladonna teething tablets, the FDA warned against their use and some manufacturers stopped producing them. In a recent laboratory analysis, the FDA found that Hyland’s teething tablets contained alkaloid levels exceeding by far the amount stated on the label and asked the company to recall them .
Other adverse effects reported after using homeopathic belladonna include:
- Seizures and fever from belladonna tablets (dilution not specified) for colics in a baby 
- Blurred vision, headache, and memory loss from a belladonna 6X cream in a man 
- Unequal size of the pupils (anisocoria) from Belladonna 6X eye drops in a woman 
For more about the dangers of belladonna poisoning, check out this post.
- Eye drops
The doses used in trials testing homeopathic Belladonna were:
- Migraines: belladonna 9C and 30C, as needed [43, 44]
- Runny nose: belladonna 6C or a kit containing belladonna 30C and other remedies, as per needed [35, 36]
- Ear inflammation (otitis): 30 globules/day (dilution not specified) combined with other remedies 
- Acute brain inflammation (encephalitis): belladonna 30C, 200C, and 1M, as needed 
- Skin reactions caused by radiotherapy: belladonna 7C, as per needed 
- Tonsil inflammation: 2 belladonna 4C tablets, 4x/day 
Homeopathic Belladonna was usually given as needed in the trials, so it’s difficult to compare its effects in different studies or even different people in the same study.
Most studies on homeopathic belladonna had design flaws such as:
- Lack of placebo controls [43, 35, 36, 37]
- Lack of blinding or randomization [38, 39]
- Not specifying the dilution used [37, 38]
- Results mostly based on subjective measures [40, 39]
- An uneven composition of groups despite randomization 
Additionally, some were funded by the companies selling the remedies, most health claims were investigated in only one study, and one (improvement of epilepsy) was only tested in dogs.
Belladonna is a plant rich in alkaloids with a dark past — deadly in high amounts and potentially useful at lower doses. Its combination with other drugs may improve irritable bowel disease, menopausal complaints, headaches, and surgical pain. At the doses prescribed by doctors or contained in properly diluted homeopathic remedies, belladonna is generally safe.
However, exceeding the doses or eating the plant can cause severe poisoning. Overall, safer and more effective alternatives are out there for most conditions belladonna can be used for.