"Everything on the earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission." -Morning Dove [Christine Quintasket]
Used by the Native Americans, Hydrastis canadensis (goldenseal) is believed to have many uses such as an insect repellent, digestive, and antimicrobial. As with many traditionally used herbs however, scientifically recorded evidence has yet to catch up with ethnobotanical history. While research on this species primarily targets its antimicrobial and synergistic effects, goldenseal has been shown to have potential in the pharmaceutical field.
Hydrasitis canadensis is a perennial herb growing in the northeast of North America. Its primary active compounds are the alkaloids hydrastine, berberine, and canalidine. The highest levels of these compounds are found in mature, 5 year old rhizomes (found in the soil). Goldenseal can be propagated by cutting and repotting their medicinal rhizome. It prefers moist environments as it is typically found on the shaded forest floor. The bright red berries produced by this species, although enticing, are not edible for humans.
Goldenseal was used by several Native American tribes. The Cherokee of southeastern United States, would use it to treat upset stomach, as an insect repellent, and to calm sore eyes. Kickapoo Indians, originally located by the great lakes, shared this use as they also washed irritated eyes with goldenseal. Its bright yellow rhizome additionally served as a dye for clothing and art. There are often similarities in uses for specific species among Native American tribes, however it is overlooked that the regions where tribes resided were diverse, with different climates and overall environments, consequently affecting the phytochemistry of plants. The regional history of a species is just as important as its ethnobotanical uses due to environmental influence on a plants chemistry.
In 2001, goldenseal was considered one of the top six medicinal herbs in the US. Supplements made with the herb, emphasized its benefits for improving the immune system, and treating colds and infections. The rich traditional history of goldenseal however, did not match its scientific support as much is still left to be investigated for this species. For example, while goldenseal has the active compound berberine, one study demonstrated that oral administration of goldenseal showed minuscule amounts of berberine absorbed by the body. Suggesting that goldenseal is not effective in providing berberine through supplementation. Scientists did find that the berberine from goldenseal led to synergistic effects with other plant compounds however, leading to enhanced antibacterial activity against the human pathogen Staphylococcus aureus.
Almost all of the goldenseal products sold are harvested from the wild, endangering the plant in some areas of the United states and making it a species "at high risk" in other states. In part, this was due to its high demand and popularity commercially, but also due to deforestation and urbanization of its native areas. In 1997 the population of goldenseal was in such great danger, that artificial propagation was made mandatory for any global trade. Further research is required for maintaining wild populations of goldenseal for use as a crop and medicinal purposes.
As with any natural product, the safety of a medicinal plant must be assessed before mass distribution. Goldenseal does pose some potential health risks, particularly to pregnant women, diabetic patients, and individuals with a vitamin B deficiency. Long term use has been shown to inhibit vitamin B absorption. Mice given goldenseal for long periods of time (2 years in this study) were more likely to develop tumors. Diabetic individuals taking metformin should consult their doctor when considering goldenseal as one study showed use of goldenseal reduced the amount of metformin in the blood, interfering with glucose regulation.
Goldenseal is a potent and promising herb, especially in the field of antibiotics, however it should be used in moderation, in the event it is necessary, and not for long periods of time. Improved understanding of its medicinal properties and more regulations on its use is needed to protect and preserve its population in the wild.
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