Bryonia alba, also known aswhite bryony, is native to Europe and northern Iran. It’s been used for medicinal purposes since at least the 14th century when it was a treatment for leprosy. Today, it is mostly used in homeopathic remedies taken in tiny doses for the symptoms of arthritis, pain and respiratory ailments. However, the plant’s other common name, “devil’s turnip” is a clue to its darker nature, in that larger amounts of Bryonia alba extracts can cause serious side effects and even death.
Ingesting parts of the Bryonia alba plant can cause dizziness, weak pulse, cold perspiration, dilated pupils, spasms, convulsions, and eventually can be fatal. According to the Monograph for Herbal Medicinal Products prepared by the Egypt Ministry of Health and Population, consumption of 40 berries can cause death in adults, and as few as 15 berries is fatal for children.
One of Bryonia alba’s primary uses in folk medicine is as a purgative. This digestive cathartic activity can cause a host of drug absorption issues. It may reduce absorption of vitamin K, which affects patients taking blood thinners like warfarin. It may also decrease absorption of the drug isoniazid, an antidepressant that’s also used as a treatment for tuberculosis. Bryonia alba can increase intestinal transit time of digitalis, which is used for congestive heart failure and to treat certain arrhythmias, reducing the drug's effectiveness, which could be fatal.
Ingestion of Bryonia alba not only may cause diarrhea, but can also lead to vomiting and inflammation of the stomach and intestinal tract, even producing hemorrhoids, according to “Meyler's Side Effects of Herbal Medicines.” These effects are caused by toxic resins containing cucurbitacins, which are drastic laxatives and emetics that can lead to the same symptoms as food poisoning. Even very small doses of this resin can produce severe diarrhea. The plant’s effects can also be stressful to the kidneys, and in large doses lead to kidney damage.
The same cucurbitacins in the resin that cause the digestive problems also can lead to irritation and inflammation when extracts of the plant are applied to the skin and mucous membranes. Just touching fresh Bryonia alba can cause skin irritation, and more prolonged contact between juice and the skin can lead to redness, rashes, infections, blisters and necrosis--the death of skin tissue.
According to the Egypt Ministry of Health and Population’s Herbal Monograph, women should be particularly cautious when using Bryonia alba. Large doses may precipitate menstruation and even cause miscarriage in pregnant women.