Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Ranunculaceae)

Goldenseal is a member of the Ranunculaceae family. Goldenseal is a perennial that grows in the wild from Georgia to Canada. The plant grows from a yellowish root and forms a hairy stem with five-parted leaves, green white flowers with no petal and a fruit that resembles a raspberry. In the 19th century, the expansion of farming lands and the popularity of its medicinal properties among the early settlers and Native American Indians led the plant to become an endangered species. It is now cultivated and its high price and demand may result in adulterated products.

As a result of the endangered status of goldenseal, a handful of environmentally conscious supplement companies have taken the position of substituting other berberine-containing herbs for goldenseal in their immune support formulas. Other plants that contain relatively high concentrations of Berberine (the alkaloid thought to contribute to the immune-stimulating effect of Goldenseal) include Goldenthread (Coptis chinensis), Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium), Barberry (Berberis vulgaris), and Tree Turmeric (Berberis aristata).


  • Immune system support (immunostimulant, antimicrobial)
  • Anti-cancer effects (colon cancer)
  • Antioxidant
  • Treats/prevents urinary tract infections


Goldenseal contains several alkaloids in its roots, stems and leaves that are believed to be the active components: hydrastin (4%), berberine (6%) and canadine. Berberine possesses some antibacterial activity by either directly killing bacteria or preventing bacterial attachment to the cell walls of the host, as well as some antioxidant properties and smooth muscle relaxation effects.

Scientific Support

No scientific human studies evaluating the effect of Goldenseal have been reported at this point. Only animal, animal tissue and in-vitro testing have been done at this point and there is a long history of folk-medicine use of Goldenseal. A recent placebo controlled animal (rats) study tested the effectiveness of Goldenseal as an “immunostimulant.” The study measured the formation of specific antibodies in rats injected with an antigen (a compound that stimulates an immune response). An extract of Goldenseal root was consumed (in the rats’ drinking water) for 6 weeks. Results of the study indicated that goldenseal caused a significant increase in antibodies (IgM) from day 1 to day 15 when compared to the control group, but that this benefit disappeared after day 15.

A similar experiment was done using an Echinacea extract – showing that the animals receiving Echinacea had increased antibodies (IgG) from day 1 to day 27, but this benefit also disappeared by day 25 Berberine, one of the alkaloids found in Goldenseal, was found to decrease the activity of an enzyme involved in tumor growth (arylamine N-acetyltransferase) in a colon cancer cell culture. Whether Goldenseal supplements would have any effect on colon cancer in humans remains to be tested. Ingrid Naiman in her book, “Cancer Salves, a Botanical Approach to Treatment”, writes the following: “Goldenseal is probably the premier anti-microbial herb in North America” (p. 129).


Goldenseal is generally considered safe – but it should not be used during pregnancy or lactation and should be avoided by individuals with high blood pressure or other cardiovascular diseases. Goldenseal is often found in combination with Echinacea and is claimed to help in the treatment of upper respiratory infections. No well-designed studies back this claim. The immunomodulation benefits of Goldenseal root extract have been shown in a recent study on laboratory animals but the extrapolation of these results to a human population exposed to different antigens or microorganisms may not be applicable.


Recommended doses of the powdered root range from 4 to 6 grams per day. Dosage of the root extract ranges from 250 to 500 mg three times per day and may be standardized to berberine or total alkaloid levels (approximately 5%). Continuous use should not exceed three weeks.

Names: Orange Root, Yellow Root.

Habitat: Native to North America, it was used extensively by Native Americans as an herbal medication and clothing dye. Its medicinal use centered around its ability to soothe the mucous membranes of the respiratory, digestive, and genitourinary tracts in inflammatory conditions induced by allergy or infection. It is mostly cultivated.

Collection: Unearth root and rhizome from three-year-old plants in the autumn, after the ripening of the seeds. Clean carefully and dry slowly in the air.

Part Used: Root and rhizome.


  • Isoquinoline alkaloids, mainly hydrastine, berberine, berberastine, canadine, candaline, and hydrastinine.
  • Miscellaneous; fatty acids, resin, polyphenolic acids, meconin, chlorogenic acid, phytosterins and a small amount of volatile oil.

Actions: Bitter, hepatic, alterative, anti-catarrhal, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, astringent, laxative, expectorant, emmenagogue, oxytocic.

Indications: One of our most useful remedies owing much of its value to the tonic effects it has on the mucous membranes of the body. This is why itis of such help in all digestive problems, frompeptic ulcers tocolitis. Its bitter stimulation helps in loss of appetite, and the alkaloids it contains stimulate bile production and secretion. All catarrhal conditions improve with Golden Seal, especially sinus ones.

The anti-microbial properties appear to due to alkaloids present. As an example of research that has been done on plant constituents we shall consider berberine. Berberine, found in a number of other herbs as well, has antibiotic, immuno-stimulatory, antispasmodic, sedative, hypotensive, uterotonic, cholerectic, & carminative activity. Its demonstrable pharmacological activities strongly contribute to the therapeutic use of Hydrastis. Berberine has marked antimicrobial activity, and whilst not in the same league as antibiotics, it has a broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity. In vitro antimicrobial effects have been demonstrated against bacteria, protozoa, and fungi, including:

Staphyloccus spp. Vibrio cholerae Neisseria gonorrhoeae
Streptoccus spp. Diplococcus pneumonia Neisseria meningitidis
Chlamydia spp. Pseudomonas spp. Treponema pallidum
Corynebacterium diphtheria Shigella dysenteriae Giardia lamblia
Escherichia coli Entamoeba histolytica Leishmania donovani
Salmonella typhi Trichomonas vaginalis Candida albicans.

This improved blood supply may promote optimal activity of the spleen by increasing the release of compounds that potentiate immune response. It has also been shown to activate macrophages in a number of ways. Coupled with its ability to inhibit tumor formation in the laboratory, suggests that berberine possesses some antineoplastic activity. Berberine’s action against some of these pathogens is actually stronger than that of antibiotics commonly used, however, please remember that we are dealing with whole plants and not extracted constituents. Berberine’s action in inhibiting Candida, as well as other pathogenic bacteria, prevents the overgrowth of yeast that is a common side effect of antibiotic use. This fascinating alkaloid increases blood supply to the spleen.

Berberine has been shown in several clinical studies to stimulate the secretion of bile (i.e. it is a cholerectic) and bilirubin. One clinical trial that examined the effect of berberine on 225 patients with chronic cholecystitis. Oral doses of 5 to 20 mg three times a day before meals caused, over a period of 24-48 hours, disappearance of clinical symptoms, decrease in bilirubin level, and an increase in the bile volume of the gallbladder. Berberine corrects the elevated levels of tyramine found in patients with liver cirrhosis. It prevents the elevation of serum tyramine following oral tyrosine load, by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosine decarboxylase found in bacteria in the large intestine.

Traditionally Hydrastis canadensis has been used during labour to help contractions, but it is for just this reason that it should be avoided during pregnancy. Applied externally it can be helpful in eczema, ringworm, itching, earache and conjunctivitis. Priest & Priest tell us that it is a “mild, positive, permanently stimulating vaso-tonic with especial influence upon the portal system, entire venous system and right heart. Tropho-restorative to mucous membranes when irritated, inflamed or ulcerated” They give the following specific indications: catarrhal conditions of mucous membranes, especially gastric. Orifice soreness or discharge, conjunctivitis, keratitis, tonsillitis, pharyngitis, vaginitis, cervicitis.

Ellingwood recommends it for the following patholgies: functional disorders of the stomach, catarrhal gastritis, atonic dydpepsia, chronic constipation, hepatic congestion, chronic alcoholism, hepatic congestion, general debility, protracted fevers, cerebral engorgements, prostrating nightsweats, menorrhagia or metrorrhagia due to uterine subinvolution, post-partum haemorrhage, tumors, catarrhal conditions, aphtous ulcers, indolent ulcers, nasal catarrh, diphtheria, tonsilitis, inflammation of the eyes, leucorrhoea, anal fissure, eczema, gallstones, cholecyctitis, congestive jaundice, goitre, non-malignant mammary tumors.

Combinations: In stomach conditions it combines well with Meadowsweet and Chamomile. In uterine haemorrhage it is best combined with Beth Root. Externally as a wash for irritation and itching it combines well with distilled Witch Hazel. As ear drops it may be combined with Mullein.

Preparations & Dosage: Infusion: pour a cup of boiling water onto 1/2-1 teaspoonful of the powdered herb and leave to infuse for 10-15 minutes, This should be drunk three times a day. Tincture: take 1 ml of the tincture three times a day.

Contra-Indications: Like all berberine containing plants and strong bitters, Hydrastis is not recommended for use during pregnancy.

Berberine’s action against some of these pathogens is actually stronger than that of antibiotics commonly used, however, please remember that we are dealing with whole plants and not extracted constituents. Berberine’s action in inhibiting Candida, as well as other pathogenic bacteria, prevents the overgrowth of yeast that is a common side effect of antibiotic use. This fascinating alkaloid increases blood supply to the spleen.

Author: Life Enthusiast Staff