Other common name(s): eye balm, eye root, goldsiegel, ground raspberry, Indian dye, Indian paint, jaundice root, yellow paint, yellow puccoon, yellow root
Scientific/medical name(s): Hydrastis canadensis
Goldenseal is a bitter herb related to the buttercup. It is native to the eastern United States, although it can be grown elsewhere. Goldenseal takes its name from the golden-yellow scars that appear at the top of the root when the stem is broken off, which resemble an old-fashioned wax letter seal. The roots and rootstock, or rhizomes, of the plant are used in herbal remedies.
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that goldenseal is effective in treating cancer or other diseases. Goldenseal can have toxic side effects, and high doses can cause death. Some supplements sold as goldenseal contain other herbs and compounds that can make their effects unpredictable. Two chemicals in the herb (berberine and hydrastine) have been studied for use as medical treatments.
How is it promoted for use?
Practitioners promote the use of goldenseal for a wide variety of conditions, including digestive problems such as peptic ulcers and colitis, urinary tract irritation, constipation, poor appetite, bleeding after childbirth, painful menstruation, eczema, itching, ringing in the ears, tuberculosis, cancer, and other ailments. Some claim goldenseal stimulates the immune system, and some recommend it for colds. Goldenseal has been used on the skin to treat wounds, herpes sores, and other skin conditions. It is sometimes made into a tea and used as a mouthwash or as a douche.
Berberine, a chemical contained in goldenseal, is said to fight off infection caused by some bacteria, fungi, and yeast and can act as a mild sedative. Some claim that berberine is more effective than aspirin for reducing fevers. Another chemical in goldenseal, hydrastine, is said to reduce blood pressure. Some people believe that goldenseal helps mask drugs in the urine so they cannot be detected on drug screening tests.
What does it involve?
Goldenseal can be taken internally as a capsule, extract, tincture, or tea. Suppliers also grind the root and sell the powder, which can be prepared in different ways. The amount of goldenseal recommended depends on how it is prepared (for example, tincture versus dried root).
Proponents use tooth powder and mouthwash made from goldenseal to treat tooth and gum infections. They also apply the powder to cold sores and skin wounds. Some use a goldenseal solution in ear drops, douches, and eye drops for conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eye). Salves made from goldenseal are used for eczema and psoriasis.
What is the history behind it?
For centuries some Native American tribes have used goldenseal for medicinal purposes. It was taken as a stimulant and used for stomach ulcers. Mouth sores and irritated eyes were washed with goldenseal solutions. It was also used as a face paint and as a dye for clothing. The herb later became an important ingredient in American folk medicine. It was made into an eyewash and into a tea to treat sores in the mouth and throat.
By 1900, it had been harvested nearly to extinction and is still considered an endangered species. It is currently grown in the United States in limited quantities. Possibly because of the small supply, some sellers substitute or mix goldenseal with other herbs that also contain berberine.
There can be wide variation among products sold as goldenseal. A study published in 2003 looked for the main goldenseal compounds in twenty different goldenseal products from different marketers. Hydrastine content ranged from none (0%) to 3%, and berberine ranged from less than 1% to nearly 6% in product samples. Another study published in 2003 tested goldenseal powder obtained from three different suppliers. It found that the samples contained varying amounts of the goldenseal compounds. One of the samples contained compounds that are not found in goldenseal.
What is the evidence?
Available scientific evidence does not support the use of goldenseal for cancer or any other medical condition in humans. There has been limited testing of goldenseal for other conditions. In one animal study, goldenseal appeared to stimulate the immune system.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, recommended that the National Toxicology Program (NTP) test goldenseal for its potential to cause developmental problems and/or cancer of the reproductive system. To date, no findings on reproductive effects have been published by NTP. However, a group of researchers in Australia studied the effect of goldenseal on the outcomes of rat pregnancies. No ill effects were found, although the researchers caution that false results could have happened due to goldenseal’s poor absorption when the herb is taken by mouth. In other words, it is possible that the rats did not actually absorb enough of the herb for it to have an effect.
Two of the chemicals in goldenseal—berberine and hydrastine—have been studied for some time. Laboratory research seemed to show that berberine stopped some cancer cells from reproducing, but this effect did not carry over when it was tested in animals. Later laboratory tests showed promise with one type of brain cancer, but animal studies have not been completed. Studies in the laboratory have shown that direct contact with berberine helps stop bacteria and some types of fungus from growing. Animal studies suggest that it may also reduce certain types of diarrhea. In addition, berberine has been studied for its blood-thinning and heart stimulant properties in animals.
Hydrastine, another component of goldenseal, may raise blood pressure. Animal studies have suggested it may help with stabilizing diabetes. Further studies are needed to determine whether the results apply to humans. In addition, it is important to remember that herb extracts would not be expected to have the same effect as the whole herb.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
This product is sold as a dietary supplement in the United States. Unlike companies that produce drugs (which must provide the FDA with results of detailed testing showing their product is safe and effective before the drug is approved for sale), the companies that make supplements do not have to show evidence of safety or health benefits to the FDA before selling their products. Supplement products without any reliable scientific evidence of health benefits may still be sold as long as the companies selling them do not claim the supplements can prevent, treat, or cure any specific disease. Some such products may not contain the amount of the herb or substance that is written on the label, and some may include other substances (contaminants). Though the FDA has written new rules to improve the quality of manufacturing processes for dietary supplements and the accurate listing of supplement ingredients, these rules do not take full effect until 2010. And, the new rules do not address the safety of supplement ingredients or their effects on health when proper manufacturing techniques are used.
Most such supplements have not been tested to find out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.
Goldenseal may produce toxic effects, including digestive complaints, nervousness, depression, constipation, rapid heartbeat, diarrhea, stomach cramps and pain, mouth ulcers, nausea, seizures, vomiting, and central nervous system depression. High doses may cause breathing problems, paralysis, and even death. Long-term use may lead to vitamin B deficiency, hallucinations, and delirium.
Berberine, one of the active compounds in goldenseal, can disrupt heart rhythm. This compound can also cause jaundice in newborns, a condition marked by yellowed skin and eyes that is sometimes linked to deafness or brain damage. Goldenseal may have an unpredictable effect on blood pressure, since different compounds in it have opposite effects on blood pressure. People with high blood pressure or heart disease may be more likely to be harmed by goldenseal than people without these conditions.
If hives, a rash, or shortness of breath develops, stop taking goldenseal and seek medical attention immediately. Potential interactions between goldenseal and other drugs and herbs should also be considered. Always tell your doctor and pharmacist about any herbs and supplements you are taking.
Berberine is known to reduce sperm motility in bulls, but it is unknown whether it affects fertility in humans. Men who are trying to have children may wish to avoid goldenseal until human studies are done. There are also concerns that high doses of goldenseal might tighten the womb in pregnant women and cause miscarriage or early labor. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not use goldenseal unless further studies show it to be safe.
Goldenseal applied to the skin may make it more sensitive to the sun, so avoid sunlight and artificial sunlight while using it. If sunlight is unavoidable, cover up or use sunscreens.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).
Davis JM, McCoy JA. Commercial goldenseal cultivation. Department of Horticultural Science, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. North Carolina State University web site. Accessed at www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-131.html on June 5, 2008.
Edwards DJ, Draper EJ. Variations in alkaloid content of herbal products containing goldenseal. J Am Pharm Assoc. 2003;43:419-423.
Fetrow CW, Avila JR. Professional's Handbook of Complementary & Alternative Medicines. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2004.
Goldenseal. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Web site. Accessed at www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/69241.cfm on June 5, 2008.
Gruenwald J. PDR for Herbal Medicines. 3rd ed. Montvale, NJ: Thomson PDR; 2004.
Gurley BJ, Gardner SF, Hubbard MA, et al. In vivo effects of goldenseal, kava kava, black cohosh, and valerian on human cytochrome P450 1A2, 2D6, 2E1, and 3A4/5 phenotypes. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2005;77:415-426.
Gurley BJ, Swain A, Hubbard MA, et al. Supplementation with goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis), but not kava kava (Piper methysticum), inhibits human CYP3A activity in vivo. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2008;83:61-69.
Inbaraj JJ, Kukielczak BM, Bilski P, Sandvik SL, Chignell CF. Photochemistry and photocytotoxicity of alkaloids from Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis L.) 1. Berberine. Chem Res Toxicol. 2001;14:1529-1534.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Goldenseal. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Web site. Accessed at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/goldenseal/ on June 5, 2008.
Rehman J, Dillow JM, Carter SM, et al. Increased production of antigen-specific immunoglobulins G and M following in vivo treatment with the medicinal plants Echinacea angustifolia and Hydrastis canadensis. Immunol Lett. 1999;68:391-395.
Weber HA, Zart MK, Hodges AE, et al. Chemical comparison of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis L.) root powder from three commercial suppliers. J Agric Food Chem. 2003;51:7352-7358.
Yao M, Ritchie HE, Brown-Woodman PD. A reproductive screening test of goldenseal. Birth Defects Res B Dev Reprod Toxicol. 2005;74:399-404.
Zeiger E. Goldenseal (hydrastis canadensis l.) and two of its consituent alkaloids berberine [2086-83-1] and hydrastine [118-08-1] review of toxicological literature. November 1997. National Toxicology Program Web site. Accessed at http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/Chem_Background/ExSumPdf/Goldenseal.pdf on June 5, 2008.
Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 11/28/2008