Native Americans have been using goldenseal for a long time, and have revered it for its wide array of health benefits. While little known to many people, this valuable herb is believed to work against numerous ailments, from upset stomach to jaundice, and may even have cancer-protective properties. But because it's so sought after, the population of this wild-growing plant is now dwindling.
Discover important facts about goldenseal and find out why this age-old herb is considered one of the most versatile traditional cures of all time.
What Is Goldenseal?
A low-sprawling woodland plant that belongs to Ranunculaceae or the buttercup family,1 goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is native to the northern border of South Carolina, east to north Arkansas, the lower half of New York and southeast corner of Wisconsin. It's also native to Nova Scotia.
The plant grows up to 1 foot tall, and can be identified through its palm-shaped leaves, an erect and hairy stem and small, greenish-white flowers that bloom in spring and turn into a cluster of about 10 red berries.2
Today, you will also see goldenseal growing in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and some areas of Illinois, although its numbers have been significantly reduced due to overmining and overharvesting.3 In some places, goldenseal plant is called by different names, such as eyeroot, hydrastis, eyebalm, turmeric root, orangeroot and yellowroot.4 Its most well-known moniker, however, is based on its thick yellow rhizome, or the root.
Goldenseal root is said to be the source of this plant's medicinal powers. This is the part that's dried and turned into goldenseal powder or capsule, as well as tinctures and creams.5
However, this is also the reason why these plants are disappearing. Unlike other herbs and spices whose leaves and flowers can be safely harvested while keeping the plant intact, goldenseal's root, once harvested, destroys the plant. And because goldenseal seeds take five to seven years before they can mature, replacing the plant at the same rate it is harvested is difficult.6
You'll Be Amazed at Goldenseal's Many Uses
Native Americans greatly valued goldenseal herb, using not only the root, but the leaves and flowers as well. They also used goldenseal root as a potent yellow dye for clothing.
Nevertheless, what stands out more are the numerous health benefits of this simple little plant. These native tribes have actually used goldenseal, both medicinally and culturally, for a long time. For example, the Cherokees used goldenseal to help treat skin diseases and sore eyes, and mixed the powdered root with bear fat to make an efficient insect repellent. Meanwhile, Catawba tribe members boiled the root to treat colds, sore mouth and jaundice.
They also chewed fresh or dried goldenseal root to soothe an upset stomach. The Kickapoo, on the other hand, use a goldenseal-infused water to treat smoke-irritated eyes brought on by burning the prairie in autumn.7
Goldenseal's Health Benefits Are Far-Reaching
But what exactly makes goldenseal so useful for your health? The secret is in the three active alkaloids that it contains, namely hydrastine, canadine and berberine.8
Berberine, in particular, has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and immune-boosting properties. It works against various bacteria, fungi and protozoa, and may even help treat gastrointestinal issues. Berberine was even said to help control blood sugar and lipid metabolism just as efficiently as the diabetes drug metformin.9
Aside from the three alkaloids mentioned, goldenseal also offers essential oils, fatty oil and resin.10 This potent combination is responsible for the herb's many health benefits, such as:11,12,13,14,15
- Improved gut and gastrointestinal tract (GI) health. If you suffer from irregular bowel movements, ulcer, constipation, cramping and bloating, goldenseal can help your system get back on track. It also promotes better digestion and increased bile secretion.
- Relief from sinus conditions. Powdered goldenseal root can help reduce infection and inflammation in the sinus cavities.
- Promotes healing of skin ailments. Thanks to its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, goldenseal is effective against acne, eczema, dry skin and psoriasis. It may even help eliminate dandruff.
- Provides protection for the liver. An animal study published in the journal Pharmacognosy Research has found that goldenseal may have hepatoprotective effects,16 meaning that it can protect the liver and prevent liver failure.
- Help prevent cancer. When used with other herbs like red clover, goldenseal may help treat certain cancers. One study published in Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology journal17 even demonstrated the effects of berberine for melanoma.
Due to its potent antibiotic effects, goldenseal has been found effective against infections, like urinary tract infections (UTI). The berberine in this herb helps prevent infectious bacteria from attaching to your cell walls. However, it is not meant to be taken for more than two weeks, and is only recommended for acute UTIs.18
Goldenseal blends well with some herbs, even helping boost their health-protective properties. One popular herbal combination that's said to provide immense benefits is goldenseal and Echinacea. When taken in tandem, these two herbs are said to help strengthen your immune system.19
Goldenseal thrives best in moist forest soils or damp meadows, and often grows wild. However, because this herb is becoming scarce in its natural habitat and is in danger of becoming extinct, then you may want to consider growing your own goldenseal plant.
The New Carolina State University provides helpful guidelines in growing goldenseal:20
"Goldenseal can be propagated from rhizome pieces, root cuttings, one year old seedlings, or seed. It takes 5 to 7 years to grow harvestable roots from seed and 3 to 5 years to grow harvestable roots from rhizome pieces. Root cuttings or seedlings usually take 4 to 6 years.
Site selection is the most important factor for producing healthy goldenseal. Goldenseal grows best in a rich, moist, loamy soil with good air and water drainage. Planting on a slight slope will improve drainage. Do not plant in a bottom or in a heavy, poorly drained soil.
Goldenseal needs to be grown in the shade, which can be provided artificially or by a natural forest canopy."
The site also notes that due to the plant's endangered status in the state, those who wish to cultivate this herb in their backyard need to acquire a permit from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Plant Industry Division.
Here's a Goldenseal Tea Recipe You Can Try
One of the easiest ways to get the benefits of goldenseal is to make an herbal tea from the powdered root or the leaves. Here's one simple recipe from Crazy for Tea21 that you can try:
- 1 teaspoon goldenseal powdered root or leaves
- 8 ounces boiling water
- Raw honey, to taste
Boil and simmer the goldenseal leaves or powdered root or leaves in the water for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain and enjoy.
Note: the tea can have a bitter flavor that many may not be able to tolerate, so adding a teaspoon of raw honey may be a good idea.22 You can also add a teaspoon of Echinacea to this recipe.
Be Aware of These Potential Goldenseal Side Effects
If taken in small and moderate doses, in proper preparations such as tinctures, capsules or tea, goldenseal is most likely harmless. However, it's still recommended to consult your physician to ensure that this herb is safe for you, especially if you're dealing with any medical condition.
Some health experts claim that fresh, raw goldenseal plant may be poisonous and cause serious reactions, such as mouth and throat irritation, paralysis, burning or tingling on the skin, respiratory failure and even death.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also avoid using goldenseal, as a potentially hazardous chemical in the herb can cross the placenta or make its way into breastmilk. It's not safe for young children and babies either. Newborns who have been exposed to goldenseal have also experienced brain damage (kernicterus).23