Deady Nightshade, also known as Belladonna, is a highly toxic plant. I think we used to have some in the backyard when I was young, and my parents always told me to never eat the berries because they were poisonous – as little as 2 berries can be fatal to a child, though it takes more like 15 to kill an adult.
Back in the good ol’ days women of the fancier kind were taken to putting drops containing Belladonna essence into their eyes to make them all purty, in fact, the words Bella Donna are Italian for Beautiful Lady. One of the signs of Belladonna poisoning is dilated pupils, and that’s also one of the signs of sexual arousal, so it kind of works out. In fact, if you look at the Wikipedia entry for Belladonna, the list of symptoms reads almost like a list of symptoms that you are getting it on or drunk or both: Dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia (heart beating funny), loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention (okay, maybe not that one), constipation (or that one), confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions (you could get this from getting it on or getting drunk, but preferably the former). People in the olden days were crazy, and if you need any more proof of that check out History’s 10 Most Terrifying Contraceptives from Cracked.com.
Still, back then nothing said sexy like putting poison in your eyes, and if you think we’re much more highly evolved and intelligent now than you obviously don’t know much about botox, aka botulinum toxin which is incredibly toxic (but I’ll save that for another post). What price beauty?
Belladonna isn’t all bad though, it’s where we get Atropine from (among other sources, like Mandragora). It turns out that like a lot of chemicals, Atropine can be a hallucinogen, a drug, or a poison depending on how much you take.
A little chemistry for those of us so inclined:
Atropine is a racemic mixture, which is odd because it is extracted from plants who tend to pick one isomer and not the other, and after the Thalidomide shocker most drug companies prefer to sell just the one isomer. Most of the effects in this case are from the L-isomer. It can cross the blood-brain barrier which is what leads to the hallucinogenic effects.
Atropine binds as a competitive antagonist to the muscarinic acetylcholine receptor, and it’s used in eye tests and surgery to keep the pupils dilated (ew), and to resuscitate people (it increases heart rate, so it’s great for bradycardia). It is also a treatment for organophosphate poisoning, such as insecticides and nerve gas.
And just because this post didn’t already have enough of my favourite things (drugs, sex, natural compounds, enantiomers, and hallucinogens), it turns out Atropine is named after Atropos, the third of the three Fates, who cuts the thread of life and has power over life and death.
I likes Greek myths.