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Sure, potions of invisibility and immortality may be a little hard to come by in the real world, but there's some legit science behind less fantastic ones. Historical sleep and love potions are grounded in science, even if some of the ingredients are a bit toxic.

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As a SciShow viewer, you can keep building your STEM skills with a 30 day free trial and 20% off an annual premium subscription at From invisibility to immortality, potions are common in fantasy stories.

And they have a place in history, too. While you’d struggle to find a potion that could keep you from ever dying, or allow you to commit the ultimate heist, some of them are grounded in science. Today, we’re going to focus on two potions from history that might have gotten the job done … even if some of the ingredients turned out

to be just a little bit toxic. [Intro song] Millions of adults struggle to fall asleep, so it’s not unsurprising that sleep potions have captured humanity’s interest for centuries.

But while you or I might just pop open the medicine cabinet and grab five milligrams of melatonin, the sleep potions of yore were a bit more complex. For example, recipes may have contained extracts from ingredients like foxglove flower, dry frog or toad, Rauwolfia serpentina root, and almond oil. And that definitely sounds potion-y.

But whoever chose those ingredients didn’t throw them together because they smell nice. Each has chemical compounds that contribute to the overall effect of a sleeping potion. Foxglove is a purple flowering plant that contains compounds known as cardiac glycosides, which can improve heart function by manipulating something called the cardiac sodium potassium pump..

These pumps have the very important job of keeping the right balance of ions like sodium and, hold onto your seats you’ll never guess, potassium both inside and outside of a cell. But when cardiac glycosides swoop in, they inhibit that pump. Sodium ions start to build up inside the cell.

That becomes a problem for proteins called sodium calcium exchangers, which try to remove calcium ions from the cell by letting in, you guessed it, sodium. But that can’t happen if the cell’s already chock full of sodium. So calcium starts building up, too.

And since it’s calcium’s job to bind to muscle tissue and make them contract, more calcium means more muscle contractions. In other words, cardiac glycosides indirectly make your heart pump harder and more efficiently. That increased efficiency then stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that’s responsible for calming you down, including slowing your heart rate.

And that which brings us back to the sleep potion. This slower heart rate can help you fall asleep faster, since one step in falling asleep is slowing the heart rate down by up to 20 or 30%. But foxglove isn’t the only ingredient bringing cardiac glycosides to the mix.

The dry toads do too, in the form of bufotoxins. Yeah you heard me right. They’re toxic, so you’d want to avoid adding too much of that ingredient to your potion cauldron.

Our next ingredient, Rauwolfia serpentina root, is found in Asia and is more commonly known as Indian Snake Root or Devil’s Pepper. It contains several kinds of alkaloids, which are chemical compounds that have at least one nitrogen atom, a ring-like structure, and a few other shared properties. Alkaloids can do everything from make your coffee taste super bitter, to, well, helping you hit the hay.

For example, Rauwolfia serpentina root contains reserpine, which can cause drowsiness, lower blood pressure, and bring a general calm to the central nervous system. The entire nervous system communicates via neurotransmitters, which are tiny chemicals that carry messages like “shake your leg really anxiously” from one nerve cell to the next, delivering the message by binding to the recipient cell. Reserpine acts by messing with neurotransmitter packaging, so that message to go do something never gets sent.

Basically, it’s your nerve cell's personal mail thief. And the last ingredient, almond oil, actually has nothing to do with sleep and everything to do with potion. The oil actually acts as a solvent, and helps everything stay mixed together.

Of course, there were also some sleep potions that might sound closer to what we see today in our medicine cabinets. For example, laudanum was invented by the Swiss polymath Paracelsus in the early 16th century. It allegedly included opium and brandy, which are both depressants, chemicals that do things like slowing brain activity or relaxing muscles..

Modern analyses of old samples have confirmed some of laudanum’s purported ingredients, but not all. For example, some recipes listed unicorn horn… which I assume will continue to evade scientists for, at least a little while longer Now while sleep potions have modern medical equivalents, you’d be hard-pressed to find our next potion on your local pharmacy’s shelves. I’m talking about love potions.

But, I’m not talking about aphrodisiacs. Last I checked, libido was different from love. But think about how you felt on your very first date.

Were you excited? Nervous? Was your heart racing, your palms sweaty?

Maybe you found yourself literally weak in the knees. It’s that kind of feeling that ancient love potions were going for. One such documented love potion contained mandrake root, henbane leaves, areca nut, and yellow hemp.

Mandrake root and henbane both have a well documented history of being used in witchcraft, with purported biological effects ranging from narcotic to aphrodisiac. Several alkaloids in these plants have a toxic effect by blocking your body’s parasympathetic nervous system. But at certain doses, they can cause symptoms like a racing heart, palpitations, and dry mouth.

Which definitely doesn’t remind me of how I feel on a first date. No sir-ee. I was definitely cool as a cucumber… Meanwhile, areca nut has a different alkaloid called arecoline, and that behaves like nicotine, acting as a stimulant and lending feelings of euphoria.

And the last ingredient, yellow hemp, has ephedrine in it, which can directly mess with your noradrenaline levels. Now, it just so happens that when you first feel Cupid's arrow, your noradrenaline goes up, so this love potion is really aiming to capture that ‘OMG I’m in love’ feeling. So why aren’t we all downing this love potion and finally agreeing to go on that blind date our mom set up for us?

And then after we get back, why aren’t we drinking a sleeping potion so we’re not lying awake for hours wondering what our date thought of us? Well, even though it’s clear that these potions did cause some desired effects, a lot of that was thanks to their toxic components. So the next time you think about brewing your own potion, keep in mind how your ingredients will affect the body.

And definitely avoid recipes that call for poisonous toads. And thank you to Brilliant for supporting this SciShow video! Brilliant is an online learning platform with thousands of interactive lessons in science, computer science, and math.

And their course on Measurement might come in real handy when you want to know how much of the cauldron n is filled with that volume of arecoline or poisonous toads from the old recipe you found. The geometry know-how to figure out that kind of volume measurement is all in that course. And it builds on your previous algebra knowledge.

And If you’re feeling rusty on algebra, you can find six different courses on that at Brilliant As well! you can try it for free for 30 days at or by clicking the link in the description down below. That link also gives you 20% off an annual premium Brilliant subscription. And thanks for watching! [ OUTRO ]