Herbs for Health: Uses for Goldenseal

| December/January 1995

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is one of the most popular herbs on the U.S. market. Although a scientific basis for its use has not been established, it has been one of the herbal stars of American folk medicine for more than 200 years.

This small, herbaceous plant of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) has hairy, lobed leaves and bright yellow rhizomes and roots. Inconspicuous white flowers in April and May are followed by showy, bright red fruits suggestive of raspberries. Goldenseal grows in rich, moist woods, especially under beech trees, from Vermont to Minnesota and south to Georgia, Alabama, and Arkansas.

The name goldenseal comes to us from Samuel Thomson (1769–1841), the founder of a system of herbal medicine that attracted millions of followers during the first half of the nineteenth century. Thomson noted the small cuplike scars on the upper side of the rhizome and thought that they looked like wax letter seals.

Goldenseal’s primary historical use has been as a tonic for mucous membranes, particularly those of the digestive tract. White settlers learned this use from Native Americans. The Cherokee also used the roots as a wash for local inflammations and drank a decoction to treat general debility, dyspepsia, and poor appetite. The Iroquois used a decoction to treat diarrhea, liver disease, fever, sour stomach, flatulence, and pneumonia. It was an ingredient of digestive bitter tonics, the nineteenth-century counterpart to antacids. Both Native Americans and whites obtained a bright yellow dye from the rhizomes and roots.

During the past two decades, goldenseal has been one of the top-selling herbs in health-food stores, used as an antiseptic, cold remedy, substitute for antibiotics, homeostatic, diuretic, tonic, and anti-inflammatory. And let’s not omit hemorrhoids, excessive menstrual bleeding, nasal congestion, mouth and gum sores, eye afflictions, and (externally) wounds, sores, acne, and ringworm, among other ailments. Name a condition, and you can probably find a reference somewhere to goldenseal’s use for it.

Despite two centuries of use, goldenseal is still considered a folk medicine. Scientists have paid it little attention. The most recent pharmacological study on goldenseal and its constituents dates to 1950, and its author noted that there had been little research during the previous forty years. Because test conditions of early studies were not rigorous by today’s standards, the results of those studies are open to question.

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