The strychnine is an evergreen tree indigenous to the tropical and sub-tropical climatic regions and grows in abundance in southeastern Asia and Australia. The strychnine is basically a poisonous tree that grows up to a height of 50 feet or 15 meters. The tree often has a broad twisted trunk and bears oval shaped glossy leaves that are three-and-a-half inch long. The leaves are deeply veined and found in opposite pairs. Strychnine bears tubular shaped white and greenish flowers that grow in bunches at the end of the boughs. The fruits of strychnine are fleshy and orange or yellow colored berries that are one-and-a-half inch in diameter. Each of the berries encloses five to eight disc shaped seeds that produce a venomous substance known as strychnine. The substance is so bitter that it retains its undesirable taste even after being diluted with 400,000 parts of water!
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History has it that when the legendary Egyptian queen Cleopatra made up her mind to commit suicide, the brutal sovereign utilized her slaves as guinea pigs to experiment the consequences of the different lethal plants on humans. It is said that belladonna, henbane and even the strychnine seeds were among the venomous plant sources Cleopatra experimented with. However, the queen did not choose strychnine as the poison to end her life, perhaps because this plant brings a violent death that is preceded with vicious convulsions and distortion of the face owing to the acute agony caused by strychnine poisoning. What is horrendous is that strychnine poisoning leads to violent seizures and spasms even while the people retain their consciousness. Worse still, strychnine poisoning leads the body to bend almost twice making both the head and the feet of the victim touch the ground simultaneously. Whatever may be the reason, the haughty Egyptian queen, renowned for her startling beauty and authority over men, did not choose any of the plant poisons to end her life. Instead, she preferred the asp, a small poisonous snake belonging to the viper family, to commit suicide.
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Interestingly, strychnine possesses two diverse properties. It acts as a stimulating agent, and on the other hand, it is also an agent causing convulsions or violent hysterical spasms and the poison acts straight away. People discovered the fatal properties of strychnine in ancient times and made use of the seed to poison their arrow heads. Later, Europeans imported the fatal strychnine seeds from India in the 15th century to eliminate the increasing rodent populace. More recently, in the 19th century many physicians added very small portions of strychnine to tonics as they supposed that the substance possessed invigorating properties and was able to influence the central nervous system.
Currently, physicians administer restricted measures of strychnine to enhance the activities of the muscles as well as a remedy for people suffering from alcohol poisoning or to get rid of the toxicity caused by other depressant medicines. In addition, strychnine has been found to be effective in treating certain neurological disorders. Hence, physicians use mild doses of the substance to kindle particular centers in the nervous system. Today, physicians also use controlled doses of strychnine to treat acute constipation as the substance has been found to stimulate the intestinal movements. However, this is done very selectively and only in specific cases.
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Although the ingredients of strychnine tree or medical preparations from it are seldom used internally owing to their toxic nature, they are thought to be effectual stimulants for the nervous system, especially for the elderly people. In Chinese herbal medicine, the seeds of strychnine are eaten to alleviate external pains. In addition, they are also considered to be useful in treating different types of tumors as well as allay paralysis such as Bell's palsy or facial paralysis. Apart from being a useful herbal medicine, strychnine is also an important ingredient of homeopathic medication and is particularly recommended for digestive problems, feeling for cold as well as tetchiness.
Interestingly, the properties of Nux Vomica and the alkaloid strychnine are considerably alike. While powdered seeds of strychnine are used to treat atonic acid indigestion (dyspepsia), the tincture prepared with strychnine is frequently used in amalgams to invigorate the gastro-intestinal tract. Strychnine is bitter to taste, but aids in enhancing appetite by stimulating the contraction of the intestinal muscles. This action of strychnine makes it an effective remedy for chronic constipation. In such cases, it is frequently blended with cascara and other laxatives for better effects.
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Strychnine is the main alkaloid element present in the trees' seeds. The substance functions as an astringent or bitter and enhances the secretion of gastric juices and is quickly soaks up when it reaches the intestines. Once strychnine gets into the intestines, it exercises its distinguishing influences on the central nervous system. While the respiration is accelerated and deepened, the action of the heart is decelerated owing to the invigoration of the vagal (involving the tenth pair of cranial nerves called vagi) center. Significantly, administration of strychnine heightens the different senses such as smell, touch, hearing and vision and at the same time increases the blood pressure by perking up the pulse. These actions of strychnine make it a valuable medication or tonic for the circulatory system during a cardiac failure.
Unless taken in very small and controlled doses, the action of strychnine is snowballing and the substance takes a very long time to be expelled from the body. Basically, strychnine undergoes a very sluggish excretion process. Strychnine is generally used by physicians as a stimulant for the gastric system and especially used in treating dyspepsia or acid indigestion. Looking at it, one will find that the most direct and appalling indication of strychnine poisoning is the vicious seizures and spasms owing to the instantaneous and concurrent spur of the sensory swelling of the spinal chord. The blood pressure rises alarmingly during these convulsions and this is beneficial in cases of persistent lead poisoning. Heavy doses of strychnine are administered to patients during cardiac failure as well as in cases of surgical shocks. In such cases 1/10 grain of strychnine is administered to the patients through hypodermic (the tissue area below the skin) injections. Strychnine is also used by physicians to treat poisoning by chloroform or chloral.
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It may be noted here that brucine is another substance whose actions are very much like that of strychnine. However, brucine is less poisonous than strychnine and it normally paralyzes or renders the minor motor nerves inactive. Dissimilarity between the two is that unlike in the case of strychnine poisoning, attacks by brucine does not lead to convulsions or uncontrolled fits and spasms. Brucine is used to treat intense feeling of itchiness and also as a local pain killer to alleviate irritation or swelling in the external ear.
When there is any instance of poisoning following the use of strychnine, one should immediately take an emetic to cause vomiting or use stomach pump. In addition, the patient must be given tannin or potassium permanganate to neutralize the action of strychnine. Simultaneously, the patient must be administered chloroform or heavy doses of chloral or bromide in order to restrain the vicious seizures and spasms.
Administering urethane, which is considered to be a remedy to strychnine poisoning, in heavy doses may also prove to be useful in such cases. Alternatively, amyl nitrate may also be administered to the patient to control the violent spasms owing to poisoning by strychnine. Three to five minims may be injected hypodermically if it is found that the patient is not respiring following strychnine poisoning.
The strychnine tree is indigenous in southeastern Asia. The tree grows normally in the wild and is also commercially cultivated. The seeds of the tree, which has therapeutic value, are collected when ripe.
During a clinical research conducted by Chinese scientists, a paste prepared with the seeds of the strychnine tree was applied on 15,000 patients suffering from Bell's palsy. The study reported 80 per cent success.
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