Goldenseal: The Mysteries & Myths
by Karyn Siegel-Maier
Goldenseal (Hydrastis candensis) has been touted as a panacea for nearly everything from eye infections to hemorrhoids. One of the best-selling herbs in history, over-harvesting and deforestation also play a role in making this herb one of the most expensive and endangered. By the turn of the 20th century, more than 300,000 pounds of goldenseal root were harvested annually. Empowered with such widespread adoration for more than 200 years, you would think the scientific community would have paid some attention to this herb. But, the fact remains that very few studies have been done to investigate goldenseal's medicinal powers, the most recent dating to 1950.
Goldenseal inherited its name from the 19th-century herbalist Samuel Thompson, who likened the cup-like ridges on the upper rhizome as being akin to wax letter seals. The rhizome, or root, possesses a vivid hue of yellow, making it very distinctive in appearance. European settlers learned to use goldenseal from the American Indian. Known as "yellow puccoon" to the Cherokees, the juice of goldenseal root was a popular remedy for sores and wounds. The Cherokee also used goldenseal root to make a dye for clothing and ceremonial face paint. When ground and applied with bear grease, it served as an insect repellent.
Goldenseal earned an entry in both the British Pharmacopoeia and U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1860, but the herb appeared frequently in the literature of the 17th and 18th centuries as well. In his Medical Flora, Rafinesque wrote about the Native American's use of goldenseal as a treatment for urinary infection. He was the first to describe and name one of the major alkaloids found in goldenseal - hydrastine.
Goldenseal owes its therapeutic action to two such alkaloids, hydrastine and berberine, the latter being responsible for the vibrant yellow color of the root. Hydrastine constricts blood vessels and lowers blood sugar, and both berberine and hydrastine are antibacterial as well as being slightly sedative. Berberine is also found in barberries, Asian goldenthread and Oregon grape, and most studies on this alkaloid have been exercised with extracts from these plants rather than goldenseal.
In spite of a lack of scientific data to support the curative claims of goldenseal, anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness in treating colds abound. In small doses, and in combination with echinacea, goldenseal can be helpful when a case of the sniffles arises. It should be noted however, that large doses can cause profuse mucous secretions and can also promote uterine contractions, making its use during pregnancy questionable.
There is a peculiar myth about goldenseal that needs to be dispelled. The persistent belief that goldenseal can mask illegal drug use in urine tests actually stems from fiction, not fact. The eclectic pharmacist and writer John U. Lloyd featured goldenseal in his 1890 murder mystery "Stringtown on the Pike" in which the accused is convicted based on the testimony that examination of the victim's stomach revealed traces of strychnine. In truth, the contents of the stomach merely contained the residue of the victim's daily cocktail of goldenseal tonic. The heroine of the story, a student of chemistry, discovered that a combination of hydrastine and morphine can produce findings similar to strychnine poisoning. Hence, a modern herbal legend was born.