Growing up, I was always fascinated by the part in the Odyssey where Odysseus and his men land on an island populated by the “Lotus eaters,” a group of humans who live entirely by eating the fruit of the lotus flower. In the story, some of Odysseus’ men explore the island and encounter the lotus eaters, who offer the sailors some to try. They accept and become addicted to the lotus, wanting nothing but to lie around and nibble on the flowers. When Odysseus comes to retrieve his men, they refuse and weep and try to remain, and he’s forced to remove them from the island and shackle them to the ship until the madness has passed. This part always made me wonder. What was so beguiling about the lotus?
I had no idea about drugs or addiction or anything of that sort. I was too young. So I assumed it was that the lotus just tasted really, really good.
Turns out that it may have been based on a real lotus flower with psychotropic effects—the blue lotus.
For one thing, the lotus eaters weren’t totally invented by Homer. Herodotus, the famous Greek historian, also wrote about a race of lotus eaters living on an island off the coast of Libya. According to Herodotus, these lotus eaters, or Lotophagi, also made and drank lotus wine.
Two, tons of ancient Egyptian artifacts and artwork depict the lotus, either adorning the heads of gods and goddesses or worn by priests and other figures of great prominence in Egyptian society. We know that the ancient Egyptians cultivated and utilized the Blue Lotus for thousands of years. Their primary mode of ingestion was to steep the flower in wine for several weeks and drink it during celebrations and religious rituals.
King Tut’s tomb, for example, had a gold shrine depicting a figure holding a massive Blue lotus flower, and the tomb of Ramses II contained a wreath of dried blue lotus flowers. You can say a lot of things, but I hardly doubt the flower choice on the pharaoh’s tomb was arbitrary.
In the famous (or infamous) Turin papyrus from ancient Egypt depicting a variety of sexual acts, all the women wear blue lotuses in their headdresses.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead includes several sections discussing the use of the blue lotus in religious rites.
There are similar images found in Mayan artwork, and it’s likely that both the Egyptians and the Mayan civilization utilized the blue lotus for various medicinal applications, including treating erectile dysfunction.1 It also had spiritual significance.
Now, I don’t now if the blue lotus is the same thing Homer was referring to in The Odyssey, but I did uncover some potential benefits to the flower that a group of wayward sailors would have enjoyed.
Technically, you’re not supposed to ingest blue lotus. It’s legal to buy it, but it can’t be sold “for human ingestion.” The fact that it’s been used for thousands of years by a diverse coalition of cultures, that the compounds contained therein have been shown to have beneficial health effects, and that there’s a good chance it was memorialized by one of the greatest authors in one of his greatest works makes me want to dig a little deeper.
There isn’t a lot of modern research into blue lotus itself. No real randomized controlled trials showing an effect (or lack of an effect, for that matter). The literature is fairly bereft. However, there is a fair amount of research into the two primary isolated compounds that we know the blue lotus contains. So let’s take a look at that, see whether the research lines up with what the ancient evidence indicates, and maybe we can make some guesses about the rest of the more “esoteric” claims.
Both apomorphine and aporphine have been isolated from blue lotus flowers, and for most intents and purposes they are interchangeable, as aporphine is hydroxylated in the body to form apomorphine. Historically, clinicians have used isolated apomorphine as an emetic—a reliable way to induce vomiting.
May Alter Dopamine Function.
Apomorphine is a non-selective dopamine receptor agonist, meaning it activates both D1 and D2 dopamine receptors, although it is more active on the D2 receptor. It’s also an antagonist of certain serotonin receptors, and it could inhibit the breakdown of dopamine in the brain in some people. For this reason, some clinicians prescribe subcutaneous or sublingual apomorphine HCL as a treatment for severe Parkinson’s disease (which is characterized by low dopamine activity). When an episode hits, the apomorphine will be applied to reduce muscle stiffness and tremors.
Potential for Psychogenic Erectile Dysfunction
Apomorphine is also prescribed for psychogenic erectile dysfunction (erectile dysfunction originating from psychological rather than physical issues). It does so by downregulating frontal limbic activity, the site of the brain responsible for “thinking.” In other words, apomorphine may improve sexual function by helping you stop overthinking everything—like the sexual act at hand.2
Could Increase Growth Hormone Release
One study found that in normal, healthy men, apomorphine increases growth hormone (GH) release.3 As to whether that also increases the growth of muscle, bone, cartilage, and stimulates fat loss and immune benefits normally associated with GH, it remains to be seen. But by most measures an increase in GH is a good thing, especially since this is natural growth hormone release—not exogenous administration.
May Increase Motivation
I know of one men’s clinic that uses apomorphine to treat psychogenic erectile dysfunction who’s found it can also improve motivation. They report patients taking apomorphine for ED end up going to the gym more often, getting over depression, pursuing their goals, and displaying other unintended effects of increasing their dopamine function.
May Increase NGF and GDNF
One study found that isolated astrocytes (a type of brain cell) treated with apomorphine showed increased expression of both nerve growth factor (NGF) and glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), two pathways that are very important for nerve function, nerve regrowth, learning, addiction prevention and treatment, and dopamine function—to name just a few.4
Could Be Effective as Part of an Addiction Recovery Plan
I’ve also heard of apomorphine being used to to help with alcohol and other drug addictions, especially in the old days. A 1977 study details how how out of 123 addicts (about 50/50 alcohol/opiate users) treated with apomorphine, 65% stayed clean for 6 months and 41% stayed clean for longer than 6 months. 5 Those are decent stats. It’s an old study, though. More research is needed. If you’re facing addiction, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.
May Improve Mitochondrial Function
Although these aren’t in vivo studies, there is evidence that apomorphine can improve mitochondrial function and reduce cell death by inhibiting mTOR (the same pathway fasting, calorie restriction, and keto inhibit).6
Molecularly, nuciferine is somewhat related to apomorphine but has divergent pharmacological effects.
May Improve Metabolic Health
The majority of this research is in rodents, but it’s impressive. Nuciferine has been shown to reduce gut permeability, increase autophagy, and improve gut bacteria composition in rodents fed junk food. As a consequence, the rodents don’t get as fat as they usually do on such a diet.7
Mitigated Damage After Heart Attack in Animal Models
Again, in rats: preloading subjects with nuciferine and lotus extract, then inducing a heart attack, spared them from the worst of the health effects. The combo reduced heart and liver inflammation and damage, and it even blocked structural damage and alteration to the heart tissues.8
May Affect Sexual Function
Combined with two other compounds, nuciferine has been shown to improve erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation in humans.9
Has Antipsychotic Properties
Recently, researchers found that nuciferine interacted with a similar range of receptor sites as conventional antipsychotic medicines. They ran nuciferine through the gauntlet of gold-standard antipsychotic effect tests and found it had broad—albeit atypical—antipsychotic effects.10
Does Blue Lotus Actually Do Anything?
You know my stance on whole foods/herbs versus isolated compounds: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is very likely that the blue lotus flower is both more effective and offers a broader range of benefits than either nuciferine or apomorphine. That’s even more likely to be true for general users of these herbs interested in overall health benefits, rather than someone with late-stage Parkinson’s disease or severe psychogenic erectile dysfunction interested in specific pharmacological effects.
Sure enough, in one study, luciferine by itself was not effective against breast cancer, but an alcoholic extract of the lotus (not blue lotus, but a related species with similar compounds present) was effective.11
Where to get it?
I know people in the alternative health world. Some would place me in it. From asking around, I’ve learned that Etsy is a good place to find high quality blue lotus.
How to use it?
The most common way to use blue lotus is to make tisane: steep blue lotus petals in boiling water for ten minutes and strain.
I’ve also heard that you can steep blue lotus petals in wine for about a week, strain it, then drink it, to make something approximating what the ancient Egyptian priest and upper castes may have consumed.
What can you expect?
From my reading of the literature, here’s what people have experienced.
If the isolated compounds’ effects on psychosis and muscle spasticity extend to the whole plant, you might expect blue lotus to promote both mental and physical calm.
Focus and motivation.
If it indeed promotes healthy dopamine function, blue lotus may improve your motivation and ability to focus.
If apomorphine’s effects on nerve growth factor and glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor in isolated astrocytes extend to the brains of people who consume blue lotus, the flower could be fantastic for learning, productivity, and cognitive function in general.
Both nuciferine and apomorphine can have beneficial effects on sexual function, and we know that blue lotus itself had a strong reputation as an aphrodisiac. I find this to be a likely benefit.
Contact with the spirit realm.
Well, that’s not guaranteed, but it certainly was used in religious and spiritual rites for thousands of years. Your mileage may vary.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.