What Is It?
The Iroquois and Cherokee were among the first of the American tribes in the eastern United States to use this small perennial plant (Hydrastis canadensis) medicinally. They harvested its fleshy underground stems (rhizomes) and roots and used them to treat a variety of infections and other complaints, from insect bites and digestive upset to eye and skin ailments. By the nineteenth century, healers began to refer to this native wildflower (which resembles a buttercup) as goldenseal because the cuplike scars on its bright yellow rhizomes resembled the wax seals then used to close envelopes and certify documents. The plant’s colorful roots also provided dye for clothing.
As goldenseal’s popularity as a healing agent grew over the decades, the plant fell victim to overharvesting. Today it is no longer gathered in the wilderness but commercially cultivated in Oregon and Washington State. The herb’s active medicinal compounds are the alkaloids berberine and hydrastine. Most of the research has been conducted on berberine, which has antibiotic, immune-system stimulating and anticancer properties. The alkaloids are responsible for the herb’s notably bitter taste. Eleven countries (but not the United States) now officially recognize berberine and hydrastine as medicines.
Goldenseal has long been valued for its ability to soothe inflamed or infected mucous membranes. It is found in popular herbal blends for taming intestinal and gallbladder inflammation. Traditional Chinese healers give goldenseal (berberine, specifically) to cancer patients whose immune systems are weakened as a result of chemotherapy treatments. It’s even being explored as a treatment for liver disorders.
Specifically, goldenseal may help to:
• Curtail colds, flu and other respiratory infections. If you feel that you may be developing a cold or the flu, take some goldenseal at once. The herb has both anti-infective and immune-system stimulating properties that may shorten the course of the illness. Goldenseal is often combined with echinacea for this purpose. In addition, because goldenseal can soothe mucous membranes, gargling with a tincture (diluted in warm water) or drinking the tea may relieve a sore throat.
• Reduce symptoms of sinusitis. Goldenseal’s properties as both an anti-infective and mucous membrane anti-inflammatory may be helpful in easing sinusitis symptoms and hastening the healing process. It is particularly effective when used in the form of a warm sinus irrigating solution that loosens and washes away the thickened, infected mucus that can cling to the walls of the sinus cavities.
• Combat infections of the urinary tract and vaginal area. Goldenseal may help in controlling urinary tract infections if taken at the first signs of infection. Along with reducing inflammation, drinking goldenseal tea can also help to flush bacteria away from the urinary tract. In addition, a goldenseal douche may be useful for vaginal yeast infections. There are also goldenseal vaginal suppositories commercially available.
• Treat eye complaints. Historically, goldenseal has been used for a variety of eye infections, including conjunctivitis (pinkeye). The eye’s mucous membranes respond particularly well to an eyewash made of cooled goldenseal tea.
• Heal minor cuts and scrapes. When taken internally along with echinacea, goldenseal tea is believed to boost immunity and reduce the risk of minor wounds becoming infected. Creams containing goldenseal may also help when applied directly to the affected area.
• Ease diarrhea. Research indicates that goldenseal is effective for acute infectious diarrhea caused by a variety of organisms including Escherichia coli, Giardia and Salmonella. Consult your doctor if diarrhea is severe or persists, however, because it can cause serious complications, such as dehydration, if improperly treated.
• Relieve symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s thought that an impaired immune system may be partially responsible for chronic fatigue syndrome. Rotating goldenseal with other immune-boosting herbs (echinacea, pau d’arco and astragalus) may be helpful in bolstering the body’s immune system and controlling this often disabling condition.
• Fight warts, cold sores, genital herpes and shingles. Goldenseal–taken internally and applied topically–may be valuable in fighting certain viral skin ailments. This includes warts (both genital and nongenital), which are caused by the human papillomavirus, and cold sores, genital herpes and shingles, which are caused by the herpes virus.
• Control canker sores. These painful sites of viral infection–often the result of stress or local trauma–may resolve more quickly under the influence of goldenseal’s anti-infective and soothing actions. The herb can be taken internally or dabbed directly onto canker sores.
Note: Goldenseal has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Goldenseal.
–To make a soothing cup of healing goldenseal tea, pour 1 cup (8 ounces) of very hot water over 2 teaspoons of the dried herb; cover and steep for 15 minutes, then strain.
–Select a high-quality goldenseal preparation. If you use a standardized extract, make sure it’s standardized to contain 8% to 10% alkaloids or 5% hydrastine.
• For colds, flu, and other respiratory infections: Start taking 125 mg of goldenseal (in combination with 200 mg echinacea) five times a day at the first signs of illness. Continue for five days, or as long as the illness lasts.
• For sore throat: Mix 1-1/2 teaspoons of goldenseal tincture into a cup of lukewarm water and gargle with it as needed. Drinking goldenseal tea may also offer relief.
• For sinusitis: Irrigate the sinuses with a solution of 1 1/2 teaspoons of goldenseal tincture, or 1/2 teaspoon of extract, to 1 cup of saline solution. Place the solution in a neti pot or in a WaterPik (set to the lowest pressure) fitted with a special sinus irrigator attachment. This type of warm sinus irrigation is particularly valuable when used after steam inhalation. For acute sinusitis, irrigate twice a day for about five days. For chronic sinusitis, irrigate daily for about a week and then continue one or two times a week.
• For urinary tract infections: Drink several cups of goldenseal tea daily.
• For vaginal yeast infections: Use a douche twice a day for no more than seven days. Prepare each douche using 3 teaspoons of powdered herb per 8-ounce cup of lukewarm water. If you are using the commercially prepared vaginal suppositories, follow the manufacturer’s directions.
• For eye complaints: Apply an eyewash three times a day. To prepare the eyewash, make a diluted tea using 1 teaspoon of dried herb per pint of hot (but not boiling) water. Steep for 10 minutes, allow to cool, and strain through a sterile gauze pad or cheesecloth. Store any unused eyewash in a sealed sterile container until the day’s end; make a fresh preparation each day. Sipping three to four 8-ounce cups of regular goldenseal tea throughout the day will help to fight infection by stimulating the immune system.
• For cuts and scrapes: Apply goldenseal cream to the affected area or use a cream containing goldenseal and calendula three times daily.
• For diarrhea: Take 250 mg four times a day for no more than five days or until diarrhea passes. Alternatively, drink several cups (8 ounces each) of tea several times a day.
• For chronic fatigue syndrome: Take 125 mg goldenseal twice daily for three weeks, then alternate with three-week cycles of other immune-stimulating herbs, such as pau d’arco, astragalus or echinacea.
• For warts, shingles, cold sores, or genital herpes lesions: Apply goldenseal tincture to the affected area three times a day or soak a skin compress with the tincture and apply it to the lesion at bedtime. Remove in the morning; repeat the procedure until the lesion heals. Dilute the tincture if using for genital herpes lesions or any other irritation located in the sensitive genital area. For shingles, also try 125 mg goldenseal with 200 mg echinacea (either individually or in a combination preparation) four times a day during the acute phase only.
• For canker sores: Apply liquid goldenseal directly to the sores three times a day. After each application, do not eat for at least an hour. Alternatively, rinse with a goldenseal mouthwash three to four times daily. Make the mouthwash by adding 2 teaspoons of powdered root to 1 cup of water.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Goldenseal, which has therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
• Take goldenseal supplements with meals.
• To counteract the bitter taste of goldenseal tincture or tea, try sweetening it with honey.
• When making an eyewash, take extra care to use sterile tools and containers, and discard any extra solution at the end of each day.
• To avoid irritating or even ulcerating the skin, limit your application of topical doses to recommended amounts.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with goldenseal.
Possible Side Effects
• Goldenseal is very safe and does not cause any adverse reactions if the correct dosage is taken for the recommended length of time.
• Doses far greater than the recommended amount may irritate the mucous membranes in the mouth and result in diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, slowed heart rate, and respiratory problems.
• Don’t use goldenseal for more than three weeks at a time; wait two weeks, at least, before taking it again.
• Avoid taking the herb if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or glaucoma.
• Don’t use goldenseal if you’re pregnant or nursing a baby.
Athlete’s Foot Apply powder to affected areas twice a day.
Burns Apply cream to raw and weeping areas to prevent infection.
Canker Sores Dab liquid extract directly on the sores 3 times a day, using a cotton-tipped swab.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 125 mg standardized extract twice a day. Alternate with echinacea, astragalus, and pau d’arco in a 3-week rotation for maximum benefit.
Cold Sores 125 mg standardized extract (along with 200 mg echinacea) 4 times a day
Colds 125 mg standardized extract (along with 200 mg echinacea) 5 times a day for 5 days.
Flu 250-500 mg of standardized extract or 1 tsp. liquid extract 3 times a day
Shingles 125 mg standardized extract (along with 200 mg echinacea) 4 times a day during the acute phase only.
Sinusitis 1 tsp. liquid extract per cup of saline solution. Use a neti pot or fill the tank of a WaterPik and use with a special sinus irrigating attachment, twice a day.
Urinary Tract Infections Drink several cups tea daily.
Yeast Infection (Vaginal) Douche twice a day for no more than 7 days. Prepare each douche with 2 cups lukewarm tea.
David Edelberg, M.D.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
If you’re buying a commercial tea to brew yourself and then use as part of your sinus irrigation therapy, look for a product containing “pure” tea. Flavorings or other additives may be irritating to your membranes. Likewise, if you’re using a liquid extract for sinus irrigation, I would also recommend a pure product (again, no flavorings). This is best achieved by using brands manufactured by a reliable herbal company.
Goldenseal, an immune booster and anti-inflammatory agent, is available in the following supplement forms: Standard pills and liquids for oral, and occasionally topical, use Ointments and creams for topical use Dried tea products, which medicinally can be recommended both for oral and topical uses.
David Edelberg, MD