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Description - Research and Analysis
Acorus calamus L. Var. Americanus Wuiff or A. calamus L. Var. Vulgaris L., (Araceae) commonly called calamus, calamus root, sweet flag, rat root, sweet sedge, flag root, sweet calomel, sweet myrtle, sweet cane, sweet rush, beewort, muskrat root, and pine root. In French, it is Acore wai or Roseau aromatique; in German, it is Kalmus.
Calamus is a perennial herb that grows in swamps and marshes. The essential oil extracted from plants grown in Europe and Asia differs from the American variety. Roots and leaves are separated from the dried rhizomes, then ground to produce a pale, pink-tinged powder with a spicy smell and a slightly bitter taste. Calamus from Asia and India often contains so much toxic beta-asarone that it cannot (or should not) be used commercially.
Herbalists in India were the first to discover this plant. Ayurvedic practitioners used dried calamus to treat insomnia, melancholia, epilepsy and memory loss. Some North American Indians cultivated calamus and used it as a hallucinogen. In Europe, during the late 1800s, physicians used an alcoholic extract as a sedative and painkiller, although the main use has always been to calm upset stomachs (traditional herbalists call drugs that calm the stomach "carminatives"). For many years, American manufacturers used calamus as a flavoring in food and soft drinks. That practice was discontinued in the 1950s when it was discovered that one of the components of calamus oil caused cancer, at least in rats. Later studies showed that the offending component was not present in the variety of calamus grown in the United States, but commercial use of calamus as a food additive is still prohibited. Use of the plant by individuals, however, is legal. Today, interest has focused on the use of calamus as a hallucinogen and recreational drug.
Carminative, stomachic, stimulant and, in the Middle East, as an aphrodisiac.
Commission E Recommendations
This herb was not reviewed by Commission E.
Many active constituents have been identified in the plant's oil, but the two compounds that have received the most attention are Alpha-asarone and Beta-asarone (cisisomer). Beta-asarone is the component responsible for causing cancer in experimental animals. It is only present in calamus grown in Europe and Asia. The structure of both of the asarone molecules bears some resemblance to the structure of "ecstasy" (MDMA, 3,4-methylene-dioxymethamphetamine, an amphetamine-like drug), which probably accounts for the herb's psychoactive properties. Asarones tend to decompose overtime, and lose their psychoactive properties within a few months of harvesting.
Alpha-asarone is similar in structure to a drug called reserpine, used in the past as a sedative and as a treatment for high blood pressure. Calamus given to animals produces exactly those same effects. The structure of alpha-asarone also bears a very strong resemblance to a molecule called chlorpromazine, a very powerful medicine used to prevent vomiting, especially in surgical and chemotherapy patients. In spite of the similar structure, alpha-asarone produces exactly the opposite result - it causes vomiting. Other active ingredients are almost certainly present, but there have been so few serious pharmacologic studies that their nature remains a mystery. The main legitimate use for calamus is very much like that of chamomile - to treat stomach upset, and as a mild sedative. Large doses are said to be hallucinogenic. There is increasing interest in calamus as a legal, "recreational" drug.
The standard dose is 1 to 3 grams, dry or as a tea, three times a day. Liquid extracts, composed of equal parts of water and a 50 percent alcohol solution with calamus oil dissolved in it, is taken three times a day in a dose of 1-3 mL.
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Stir 1/4 of a teaspoon into a glass of water and consume 3 times daily, with meals.
Not recommended if you are pregnant or lactating.
Calamus preparations, taken in sensible doses, appear to be quite safe. The problem for recreational drug users who chew whole roots in an attempt to get high, is that they have no way of knowing how much drug they are really taking. They run the risk of overdose. Taking too much calamus can lead to intractable vomiting. A few cases of skin rash (dermatitis) have also been reported. Concerns about cancer (see Federal Register 09 May 1968, 33 693) appear to be unfounded, at least for calamus grown in the United States.
No dangerous drug interactions have been discovered.
While there are no published reports, it is conceivable that calamus might cause a positive screening test for "ecstasy-like" drugs, but confirmatory testing would show that what was being detected was asarone, and not MDMA (3,4-methylene-dioxymethamphetamine). Unfortunately for calamus users, if they are tested as a condition for pre-employment, or under a non-federally mandated drug testing program, there is no requirement for the employer to do any confirmatory testing.
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