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Analysis of herbal teas made from the leaves of comfrey (Symphytum officinale): reduction of N-oxides results in order of magnitude increases in the measurable concentration of pyrrolizidine alkaloids

  • Nicholas H Oberlies (a1), Nam-Cheol Kim (a1) (a2), Dolores R Brine (a3), Bradley J Collins (a4), Robert W Handy (a3), Charles M Sparacino (a3), Mansukh C Wani (a1) and Monroe E Wall (a1)
  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1079/PHN2004624
  • Published online: 01 January 2007
Abstract
AbstractObjectives:

To determine the relative quantities of two hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids, symphytine and echimidine, in teas prepared from comfrey leaves (Symphytum officinale), and to determine the potential contribution of the N-oxide forms of these alkaloids to levels of the parent alkaloids.

Design:

Comfrey leaves were purchased from three commercial sources and used to prepare tea in a manner consistent with the methods used by consumers. An extraction scheme was devised for extraction of the alkaloids, and a gas chromatographic method was developed to quantify the two major alkaloids, symphytine and echimidine. Recognising that the N-oxide derivatives of these alkaloids have also been identified in comfrey preparations, chemical reduction was applied to determine the total quantities of the alkaloids as free bases and as N-oxide derivatives.

Results:

The concentration of symphytine and echimidine varied considerably between teas prepared from leaves purchased from the different vendors of plant material. Moreover, a much higher concentration of symphytine was found in the tea when steps were included to reduce N-oxides prior to analysis. The treatment of pure symphytine with hot water did not generate the N-oxide derivative de novo.

Conclusions:

Since the pyrrolizidine alkaloids are known to be hepatotoxic, consumption of herbal teas made from comfrey leaves may be ill-advised. The concentration of pyrrolizidine alkaloids in such teas may be underestimated substantially unless the concentration of N-oxides is taken into consideration.

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*Corresponding author: Email oberlies@rti.org
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