Daihuang ©Erich Stöger

Aconiti Radix cocta (praeparata) (zhi chuan wu), Aconiti lateralis Radix praeparata (fu zi) and Aconiti kusnezoffi Radix cocta (praeparata) (zhi cao wu) are essential herbs in Chinese Medicine (TCM). Aconiti coreani Radix praeparata (zhi guan bai fu) also plays a role. These species rank among the highly toxic drugs in Chinese Medicine and have been responsible for many deaths in China and Hong Kong - here particularly during the period under British rule with no regulation of Chinese Medicine. These cases, however, can largely be traced back to misuse, such as inadequate processing or overdoses, often under „folk medicine“ conditions [1]. Aconitum tubers are also consumed in southern China as a food, sometimes in vast quantities, with corresponding outcomes [2].  

The various Aconitum species have a long history, spanning many countries, from use as arrow poisons, to agents of murder and suicide, to medicinal applications which also include incidences of poisoning. Extractum Aconiti, later the pure substance aconitine, was listed in the German Pharmacopoeia up until 1948. Unlike in European medicine, the Chinese knew as early as 1800 years ago to detoxify the drug, without affecting its therapeutic impact. 

The critical toxic alkaloids of the Aconitum herbs are aconitine, mesaconitine and hypaconitine. The first two are of similar toxicity, while the latter is approximately only one fifth as toxic. For humans approximately 1.5 to 6 mg of aconitine are lethal [3]. These compounds are diester diterpenoid alkaloids. Through hydrolysis, acetic acid is separated, producing the substances benzoylaconine, benzoylmesaconine and/or benzoylhypaconine which have approximately one 200th of the original toxicity [4]. A further process of hydrolysis produces the substances aconine, mesaconine and hypaconine, whose toxicity has in turn been reduced by the same factor. Hydrolysis is mainly carried out through long soaking in water or a saline solution, followed by heating in this liquid and/or steaming. The processed drugs in animal tests (LD50 for mice) are roughly one 200th as toxic as the raw drugs [5]. 

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