5 Uses of alkaloids in Medicine, Agriculture & Research

Alkaloids are the secondary metabolites of plants. They are internal constituents of plants and are biomolecules.

The uses of alkaloids are based on their toxic effects on the body.

Their toxicity is seen by changes in body physiology when administered or consumed.

But some of these toxic effects are useful in terms of health when used in the right doses. Excess doses will definitely be poisonous and harmful to man.

Chemically they contain nitrogen in them and so are alkaline in nature.  They are also less soluble in water. They can be found in different plant parts like leaves, stems, bark, roots, etc.

The alkaloids are mainly obtained from plants, which are shrubs and herbs.

5 Uses of alkaloids

  1. As medicines.
  2. As Euphoric & addicting drugs
  3. As pesticides or insect repellents.
  4. For research and scientific study.
  5. To catch animals.
  6. In plants

In medicine

uses of alkaloids
Vinca plant gives alkaloid vincristine, an anti-cancer drug.
Sl. NoAlkaloidMedical UsesPlant source
1vincristineFor cancer treatmentVinca rosea
(Catharanthus roseus)
2CodeineCough remedyOpium poppy
3QuinineAnti-malarial drugCinchona officinalis tree bark
4EphedrineFor treatment of blood pressureEphedra
5ErgotamineMigraine reliefErgot

Alkaloids have many pharmacological uses in health care. They act as life-saving drugs in some serious disorders like cancer, blood pressure, etc.

Atropine, a derivative of belladonna, is used in the treatment of muscle spasms, while scopolamine is useful to inhibit secretions. 

Morphine, a derivative of opium alkaloid, is used for severe pain relief.

Euphoric & addicting drugs

Many psychotropic substances like marijuana, cannabis, and opium sort of substances are alkaloids. They have been used since the ancient period as instruments for mental excitement and euphoria.

However, they are considered as harmful as per modern medicine. They were in full-fledged use by kings and common for fun and as part of recreation. Even now, many people consume them by procuring them illegally.

Insect repellents and pesticides.

As mentioned earlier, these alkaloids are toxic in nature. They are toxic in varying concentrations.

Alkaloid pyrethrin is used as an insect repellent in mosquito coils, mosquito repellents, and even in agriculture. Luckily enough, at such concentrations, these insecticides are less toxic to humans but affect mosquitoes to leave the vicinity.

For research and scientific study

Due to their specific effects on the body, they are used in research and scientific study. For example, atropine, an alkaloid, can cause dilation of the pupil.

To test if a new substance is having similar effects or opposite effects, it is compared with atropine. So here, atropine is used as a standard for comparison in research.

To catch animals

Heavy animals, like elephants, were captured by making them immovable. For this, the hunters use arrow poison ( D-tubocurarine), which is applied to the arrow’s point and shot at the animal.

When the arrow gets stuck to the animal, the alkaloid (D-TC) will enter the muscle and cause paralysis. This is a short-term action and is reversible. These immovable animals get trapped and transported. The same can be used for deer, wild animals, etc.

Benefits to plants

Besides the above, alkaloids are also beneficial to the plants producing them. They are waste products of body metabolism. They are excreted through leaves, fruits, etc. 

They are toxic and bitter in nature, so they help the plant from being grazed by animals. Thus these alkaloids save the trees and plants from being eaten (grazing) by cattle. Due to its bitter taste and other poisonous effects on the body, animals do not prefer to feed on plants containing alkaloids.