Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) was originally introduced to early American settlers by Native American tribes, who used it primarily for skin problems, digestive disorders, and as a wash for sore eyes. It is now one of the most popular herbs in the United States, although there is little scientific evidence regarding its effects.
Part of goldenseal's popularity is likely due to the rumor that taking the herb can help mask a positive test for illegal drugs. There's no evidence that it works, and several studies have reported that taking goldenseal does not alter the results of a drug test.
Goldenseal is often combined with echinacea in cold remedies, but there is no evidence that it's effective. However, as goldenseal has soared in popularity, it has become overharvested. In 1997, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora reported that goldenseal is at risk of becoming an endangered species. As a result, the international trade of goldenseal continues to be closely controlled and monitored.
Goldenseal is a small plant with a single hairy stem. It has two five lobed, jagged leaves, small flowers, and raspberry-like fruit. The bitter tasting rhizome, or root, isbright yellow/brown, twisted, and wrinkled. Goldenseal can be found growing wild in rich, shady soil in the northern United States, but it is now grown mostly on farms.
What's It Made Of?
Goldenseal contains a compound called berberine that kills many types of bacteria in test tubes, including the ones that cause diarrhea. Berberine has also been shown to kill a wide range of other types of germs in test tubes, such as those that cause candida (yeast) infections and various parasites such as tapeworms and Giardia. Berberine may also activate white blood cells, making them more effective at fighting infection and strengthening the immune system. Berberine is sometimes used as an antibiotic and disinfectant, both externally and internally. It has antibacterial properties and protects against a variety of bacteria, such as E. coli. Berberine is commonly recommended to treat urinary tract infections (UTI). More studies are needed to demonstrate its effectiveness. It is sometimes used as a perineal wash after sexual activity to prevent UTIs. Berberine may also be useful in heart failure. However, it's traditionally thought that the berberine in goldenseal isn't absorbed well in the intestinal tract.
Medicinal Uses and Indications
Antibiotic or Immune Booster
Today, goldenseal is marketed as a tonic to aid digestion, sooth upset stomach, and as an antibacterial agent. It is considered a natural antibiotic and is most often combined with echinacea in preparations designed to strengthen the immune system. However, only one study found that goldenseal might help boost white blood cells (a measure of the infection fighting ability of the immune system), and it wasn't well designed.
Upper respiratory problems
Goldenseal is often found in herbal remedies for hay fever (also called allergic rhinitis), colds, and the flu. There's no real evidence that it works in humans to treat upper respiratory infections or allergies, however. It may help ease a sore throat, which often accompanies cold or flu.
Because goldenseal appears to have antiseptic properties in test tubes, it's sometimes used to disinfect cuts and scrapes.
It is commonly used to treat several skin, eye, and mucous membrane inflammatory and infectious conditions (such as sinusitis, conjunctivitis, and urinary tract infections). It is also available in mouthwashes for sore throats and canker sores.
Goldenseal has not been investigated in many scientific studies. Some trials have looked at berberine, one of the active compounds in goldenseal. Berberine is widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat dysentery and infectious diarrhea. Berberine may be effective in humans for malaria, heart failure, and various types of infections, including upper respiratory problems. It may also dilate blood vessels and help treat heart failure. However, oral goldenseal contains only trace amounts of berberine, so it's impossible to say whether the herb would be effective or not.
Goldenseal supplements are available as tablets and capsules (containing the powdered root), liquid extracts, and glycerites (low alcohol extracts). Goldenseal is commonly found in combination with the herb echinacea.
How to Take It
Goldenseal is not recommended for children unless under a doctor's supervision. Never give goldenseal to an infant.
Besides being used orally, goldenseal is often mixed with water and other substances to create different topical washes, mouthwash, and even as a vaginal douche. Speak with a knowledgeable health care provider to determine the right dosage and form for you.
The use of herbs is a time honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain components that can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care provider qualified in the field of botanical medicine.
Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not use goldenseal.
People with high blood pressure, liver disease, or heart disease should ask their doctor before taking goldenseal.
Goldenseal can irritate the skin, mouth, throat, and vagina. It may also cause an increased sensitivity to sunlight.
Goldenseal may interfere with the metabolism and effectiveness of certain medications. If you are taking prescription or over the counter medications, ask your doctor before taking goldenseal.
A few studies report interactions between berberine (a major component of goldenseal) and prescription or non-prescription medicines.
Cyclosporine -- Goldenseal may decrease the breakdown of this medication resulting in the build-up of too high levels in the body.
Digoxin -- May cause an increase of Digoxin levels.
Tetracycline -- One study reported that berberine may decrease the effectiveness of tetracycline antibiotics.
Anticoagulants (blood thinners) -- Theoretically, goldenseal and berberine could increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you take blood thinners. These medications include:
- Warfarin (Coumadin)
- Plavix (Clopidogrel)
Other laboratory studies report that berberine may change liver metabolism, possibly affecting the levels of medications processed in the liver. The list of medications that are processed by the liver is enormous, so speak to your health care provider before using goldenseal if you are taking medications of any kind.
Medications moved by pumps in cells (P-Glycoprotein Substrates) -- Some medications that are moved by these pumps include etoposide, paclitaxel, vinblastine, vincristine, vindesine, ketoconazole, itraconazole, amprenavir, indinavir, nelfinavir, saquinavir, cimetidine, ranitidine, diltiazem, verapamil, corticosteroids, erythromycin, cisapride (Propulsid), fexofenadine (Allegra), cyclosporine, loperamide (imodium), quinidine, and others.
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Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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