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Goldenseal: One of America’s Most Popular Herbal Remedies Debunked

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Posted Tuesday, May. 17th, 2016

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Deep in the woodlands of the northeastern United States grows a plant that’s lauded by a whole spectrum of people, from those in need of minor first aid, to those hoping to take advantage of its more notorious purported properties.

This herb has a reputation as a go-to remedy for everything from cuts and scrapes, to eye infections, to cancer.  In fact, proponents view it as a natural alternative to prescription antibiotic drugs.

Speaking of drugs, this supplement is also said to mask the presence of marijuana, cocaine, opiates, and other illicit substances.  No wonder it’s such a popular purchase at health-food stores – some people swear by it as a way to fool drug tests.

But when it comes to the research behind this product, almost all of these claims go up in smoke.

An Herb Worth Its Weight in Gold?

A perennial herb in the buttercup family, goldenseal has long been revered by Native Americans for its healing potential.

The Cherokee used the roots and rhizomes of this plant as a tonic and wash for injury and inflammation, as well as to treat dyspepsia and cancer. The Iroquois people made a decoction of goldenseal roots and used it to quell whooping cough and diarrhea, liver trouble, fever, sour stomach, and gas.

Before long, settlers had co-opted this plant for themselves, and goldenseal soon gained popularity in both this country and Europe.  By the 19th century, the herb had found a place on the United States Pharmacopoeia and other standard drug references – as well as in traveling medicine shows, where proponents touted its antiseptic and antibacterial benefits.1

Mainstream medicine caught on, and goldenseal was even used to treat soldiers’ wounds during the Civil War.  Many major pharmaceutical companies began selling eye washes and eye drops containing the herb, products that remained popular until the 1970s.

But goldenseal’s popularity didn’t come without a price.

See, demand for the plant was so high that even as early as the late 1800s, it faced overharvesting.

Although goldenseal’s use declined as synthetic products gained more favor, renewed interest in natural medicines in the 1980s and ’90s still threatened its existence.

Goldenseal once again has a place in topical products used to treat eye problems, mouth and gum woes, and skin concerns. Oral capsules are said to benefit the digestive, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems, and the herb is said to act as a natural alternative to antibiotics.

The result: Today, wild goldenseal remains on the U.S. endangered species list. 1

With so many potential benefits, this herb must be worth its weight in gold – right?

The answer isn’t what you’d think.

Empty Promises…

Here’s the cold, hard truth: There’s very little evidence to support any of the claims made for goldenseal.1,2,3

In fact, there isn’t even one good gold-standard clinical study to help prove or disprove the plant’s reputation as a natural antibiotic, disease-fighter, or anything else.

But then why does the herb remain so revered?

Well, laboratory research shows that goldenseal root contains berberine, a substance that has been found to have a number of beneficial effects.2,3

For example, berberine appears to kill a variety of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms.  It can help prevent E. coli bacteria from binding to the walls of the urinary tract and may even lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and LDL cholesterol.  Herbalists believe that goldenseal may have these same benefits.2,3

It sure sounds effective.  So what’s the problem?

Berberine has undergone numerous lab and clinical studies.  We know that it works.

But berberine is just one component of goldenseal.  The herb only contains trace amounts of this chemical, so it’s unlikely to have the same effects as berberine itself.3

Plus, goldenseal hasn’t been well-studied at all.  There’s no direct scientific evidence that this plant is effective.1,2,3

And as for its supposed ability to help users pass drug tests?

Well, not only is there absolutely no proof that goldenseal can mask drug use, this claim actually stems from the plot of a murder mystery novel written by an herbalist!

That’s hardly a strong basis for this risky recommendation.

A Tarnished Reputation…

Take an endangered plant, add a dearth of scientific support, and whether or not to use goldenseal becomes a no-brainer.

And don’t forget that the product can have some unpleasant side effects, including digestive problems, rapid heartbeat, depression, and seizures.  High doses may cause breathing problems, paralysis, and even death.2,3

Goldenseal may also interact with medications such as cyclosporine and digoxin, and shouldn’t be used by people with hypertension.2,3

If you’re still intrigued by the idea of a natural antiseptic, you might try topical berberine.  But keep in mind that this product can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.  It shouldn’t be used – even topically – by pregnant women or people with liver problems.2,3

And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.

References

1http://www.medicalhealthguide.com/herb/goldenseal.htm

2http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/goldenseal

3http://nccam.nih.gov/health/goldenseal

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Natural Health Sherpa, Internet Selling Services, Wilmington, NC