Field of Science

Get your wolfsbane here! Cures headaches, only $16 a bottle

Homeopathic drugs contain some pretty strange ingredients. These drugs (or perhaps I should call them potions) come in ordinary-looking packages, apparently designed to look just like real medicine, but they are not. Inside the bottles are concoctions of a wide variety of plant extracts and other substances, almost none of them effective for what’s written on the package.

This week I was browing the headache remedies at CVS, and I encountered a treatment I hadn’t seen before: Nova Headache Complex. It’s an expensive homeopathic remedy, advertised at $16.29 for a 50-ml bottle.

Because homeopaths and their treaments are unregulated, Nova can sell this stuff without having to prove that it has any effect at all on headaches. We can thank Congress for that: ever since 1938, when a homeopathic member of Congress passed the first law protecting them, homeopathic manufacturers have been allowed to forgo any testing to show that their products are safe and effective. And who decides what is homeopathic? The homeopaths themselves.

So: what does Nova’s Headache Complex contain? According to the package, it contains Aconitum Napellus 12X, Bryonia 12X, Cactus Grandiflorus 4X, Chelidonium Majus 6X, Cimicifuga Racemosa 6X, Sanguinaria Canadensis 6X, Spigelis Anthelmia 6X, Thuja Occidentalis 6X. Let's look at just the first of these.

Wolfsbane flowers
Aconitum napellus is a lovely flowering plant, commonly known as monk’s hood or wolfsbane. If that sounds ominous, it should: wolfsbane contains several highly poisonous compounds. It's listed at #3 in the top 10 deadliest plants at Zitbits, which explains:
"When ingested, an intense burning feeling in the limbs and abdomen is immediately felt. In large doses, death can occur in as little as 2-6 hours. Only 20ml of pseudaconitine is needed to kill an adult human. Its name comes the mythology that it was thought to keep away werewolves, hence ‘wolfsbane’."
Wolfsbane has been used as a poison for thousands of years, going back to Roman times. Many young readers will remember it as the main ingredient in a deadly potion in the Harry Potter books. Coincidentally, exactly one year ago, a gardener in England died after accidentally brushing against some wolfsbane flowers.

Yikes! How can they sell this stuff? Well, luckily for consumers, the 12X refers to an extreme dilution, in this instance equal to 10 raised to the 12th power, or 1 part in 1 trillion. The only reason people don’t die when they take Nova's Headache Complex is that there’s essentially no wolfsbane in it.

Fortunately, most homeopathic “drugs” don’t contain any measurable amount of their active ingredients. That’s because homeopaths think that the more you dilute a substance–even to the point where not a single molecule remains–the more potent it is. This laughably foolish notion flies in the face of modern chemistry, biology, and physics, but homeopaths believe it anyway.

What about the other ingredients? All of them are plant extracts, several of them also poisonous (including black cohosh and bloodroot). To avoid extending this discussion for many more pages, suffice it to say that none of these plants have been shown scientifically to cure headaches.

Nova Headache Complex does contain one real ingredient: 20% alcohol. That’s quite a lot, much stronger than beer or wine.'s Yvette d'Entremont demonstrated on YouTube how one can easily get drunk from a few bottles of these homeopathic products. (She used CVS's homeopathic constipation cure, which fortunately has no effect at all on constipation.) This revelation prompted NBC4 in Los Angeles to investigate why CVS was selling alcohol to minors.

Back to our headache "cure": fortunately, over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and acetaminophen work very well for most people. If none of these work for you, drinking an alcohol solution laced with wolfsbane (or, to be more accurate, laced with nothing) won’t help either.

The FDA is currently considering whether or not to modernize its regulation of homeopathic remedies. They’ve held a hearing and solicited public comments. Interesting, the Federal Trade Commission weighed in, arguing that the FDA's current lax rules “may harm consumers and create confusion for advertisers.” I’m skeptical that the FDA will step in any time soon, but one can always hope.

Meanwhile, CVS will sell you wolfsbane for headache pain, but I hope that none of the bottles contain the deadly poisons listed on the label. If nothing else, at least you get a shot of overpriced alcohol.


  1. During Prohibition, alcohol-based "medicines" like these were common. The most infamous of these, Jamaica Ginger, unfortunately contained a substance that was neurotoxic in addition to the alcohol, however.

  2. Hmmm.

    Wolfsbane got its name as it was used to kill (ordinary) wolves in Classical Greece. Wolfsbane was a translation of lykoktonon.

    20ml of pseudaconitine (though it is a solid) would be enough to kill hundreds of adult humans by the oral route, much more if injected. Possibly they meant "mg"?

    The Poison Garden has a quick summary of why Nathan Greenaway almost certainly did not die from brushing against Aconitum (or mashing large quantities into his cuts). Media hysteria notwithstanding.

    Several people per year do die from Aconitum poisoning from its use as a medicine in China and by others using Traditional Chinese Medicine. I was going to give some forensics papers as references but you can search and find 21 papers.

    The Poison Garden has a neat summary of the plant that is more accurate and comprehensive than Zitbits.

    1. Pat, thanks for the useful additional info about wolfsbane. I found The Poison Garden site when researching this article, but I went with the Zitbits site, perhaps erroneously. In any case, wolfsbane is not likely to cure a headache - and homeopathic concentrations aren't going to have any effect at all. As with all homeopathy, it's just magical thinking.

    2. Yes, I too was going to say that brushing against wolfbane, or cutting the flowering stalks for a flower arrangement, or staking up their too tall stems, virtually any normal gardening activity will not result in any harm. But please don't eat the wolfbane.

  3. Processed Aconite (Fu Zi) is a commonly used and important herb in Tradtional Chinese Medicine. Again dosage is everything.

  4. A good read on it's history and preparation in China.


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