Although goldenseal root is one of the most popular herbs sold today, it is taken almost entirely for the wrong reasons. Originally, it was used by Native Americans both as a dye and as a treatment for skin disorders, digestive problems, liver disease, diarrhea, and eye irritations. European settlers learned of the herb from the Iroquois and other tribes and quickly adopted goldenseal as a part of early colonial medical care.
In the early 1800s, an herbalist named Samuel Thompson created a wildly popular system of medicine that swept the country. Thompson spoke of goldenseal as a nearly magical cure for many conditions. His evangelism led to a dramatic upsurge in demand, followed by over-collection and decimation of the wild plant. Prices skyrocketed and then collapsed when Thompsonianism faded away.
Goldenseal has passed through several more booms and busts. Today, it is again in great demand, but now it is under intentional cultivation.
Goldenseal contains a substance called berberine that has been found to inhibit or kill many microorganisms, including fungi, protozoa and bacteria. 1,2,10-14,22
Note that goldenseal probably is not likely to work as an oral antibiotic, because the blood levels of berberine that can be achieved by taking goldenseal orally are far too low to matter.
Extremely weak evidence (far too weak to rely upon at all) suggests that goldenseal or berberine may be helpful for various heart related conditions, including
Ironically, goldenseal’s most common uses are entirely inappropriate. Goldenseal is frequently combined with the herb
The other myth that has helped drive the sales of goldenseal is the widespread street belief that it can block a positive drug screen. The origin of this false idea dates back to a work of fiction published in 1900 by a pharmacist and author named John Uri Lloyd. In Stringtown on the Pike , a dead man is found to have traces of goldenseal in his stomach. In fact, he had taken goldenseal regularly as a digestive aid, but a toxicology expert mistakes the goldenseal for strychnine, and deduces intentional murder.
This work of fiction sufficed to create a folkloric connection between goldenseal and drug testing. Although the goldenseal in the story actually made a drug test come out falsely positive, this has been turned around to become a belief that goldenseal can make urine drug screens come out negative. A word to the wise: it doesn't work.
When used as a topical treatment for minor skin wounds
Although there are no reports of severe adverse effects attributable to use of goldenseal, this herb has not undergone much safety testing.
One study suggests that topical use of goldenseal could cause photosensitivity (an increased tendency to react to sun exposure). 20
Goldenseal should not be used by pregnant women because the herb has been reported to cause uterine contractions. Also, berberine may increase levels of bilirubin and cause genetic damage.
Just as there are incorrect rumors regarding the benefits of goldenseal, there are popular but incorrect beliefs regarding its health risks. For example, it is often said that goldenseal can disrupt the normal bacteria of the intestines. However, there is no scientific evidence that this occurs. Another fallacy is that small overdoses of goldenseal are toxic, causing ulcerations of the stomach and other mucous membranes. This idea is based on a misunderstanding of old literature.
Some evidence suggests that goldenseal might interact with various medications by altering the way they are metabolized in the liver.
13. Soffar SA, Metwali DM, Abdel-Aziz SS, et al. Evaluation of the effect of a plant alkaloid (berberine derived from Berberis aristata ) on Trichomonas vaginalis in vitro . J Egypt Soc Parasitol. 2001;31:893-904.
14. Stermitz FR, Lorenz P, Tawara JN, et al. Synergy in a medicinal plant: antimicrobial action of berberine potentiated by 5'-methoxyhydnocarpin, a multidrug pump inhibitor. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2000; 97:1433-1437.
19. 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.
22. Wu X, Li Q, Xin H et al. Effects of berberine on the blood concentration of cyclosporin A in renal transplanted recipients: clinical and pharmacokinetic study. Eur J Clin Pharmacol . 2005 Aug 26 [Epub ahead of print].
23. Gurley BJ, Swain A, Hubbard MA, et al. Clinical assessment of CYP2D6-mediated herb-drug interactions in humans: Effects of milk thistle, black cohosh, goldenseal, kava kava, St. John's wort, and echinacea. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2008 Jan 23.
Last reviewed April 2009 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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