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Crocus autumnale, Autumn Crocus

 crocus autumnale


Colchicine is an alkaloid that is extracted from the bulb of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), a common garden plant and widespread naturally in northern temperate regions. Crocus has been used in the treatment of  rheumatism, gout and general inflammation for millennia. Extracts and proprietory products containing cochicine are available 'over the counter' in many countries, i.e., without prescription, and it may be prescribed by herbalists for back pain. In addition to being an anti-inflammatory, colchicine also acts to inhibit mitosis, or cell division. This has led to it being looked at as a potential anti-cancer treatment. As cancer cells tend to divide far more quickly than normal cells, they are significantly more vulnerable to colchicine poisoning.

However, the therapeutic value of colchicine against cancer and as an anti-inflammatory is limited by its toxicity in normal cells. Acute colchicine poisoning results in symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning, occurring 2 to 5 hours (but up to 24 hours) after the toxic dose has been ingested. These include burning in the mouth and throat, fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and kidney failure. Onset of multiple organ failure may occur within 24 to 72 hours, which can lead to death. If the victim survives, recovery may begin in 6 to 8 days. There is no specific antidote for colchicine.

Even low doses can be dangerous. As it is not excreted well or broken down in the body, the blood concentration of colchicine can increase with regular use, and lead to a wide range of often serious and irreversible side-effects including severe nerve and brain damage (neuromyopathy, dementia), extreme gastro-intestinal disturbance, damage to bone marrow and resultant anaemia, hair loss and kidney damage resulting in bloody urine.

The toxicity of colchicine is enhanced by a compound in grapefruit juice, and by statins.

Cochicine is also used as a mutagen in plants in order to create new strains, and there is good evidence that it is also mutagenic and teratogenic (foetus deforming) in animals. Babies, children and women of childbearing age must never be exposed to colchicine. On balance the dangers of using this extract far outweigh any benefits it might bring.




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