Comfrey (Symphytum officinale), a commonly used herb, contains dehydropyrrolizidine alkaloids that, as a group of bioactive metabolites, are potentially hepatotoxic, pneumotoxic, genotoxic and carcinogenic. Consequently, regulatory agencies and international health organizations have recommended comfrey be used for external use only. However, in many locations comfrey continues to be ingested as a tisane or as a leafy vegetable. The objective of this work was to compare the toxicity of a crude, reduced comfrey alkaloid extract to purified lycopsamine and intermedine that are major constituents of S. officinale. Male, California White chicks were orally exposed to daily doses of 0.04, 0.13, 0.26, 0.52 and 1.04 mmol lycopsamine, intermedine or reduced comfrey extract per kg bodyweight (BW) for 10 days. After another 7 days chicks were euthanized. Based on clinical signs of poisoning, serum biochemistry, and histopathological analysis the reduced comfrey extract was more toxic than lycopsamine and intermedine. This work suggests a greater than additive effect of the individual alkaloids and/or a more potent toxicity of the acetylated derivatives in the reduced comfrey extract. It also suggests that safety recommendations based on purified compounds may underestimate the potential toxicity of comfrey.
Keywords: N-oxide; comfrey; intermedine; lycopsamine; pyrrolizidine alkaloid; tisane.
Published 2015. This article has been contributed to by US Government employees and their work is in the public domain in the USA.