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Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis)

James Meschino DC, MS, ROHP

General Features

Goldenseal is a perennial member of the buttercup family, whose rhizome is the part used for medicinal purposes.1  It is most frequently used for its anti-microbial properties to help fight infections and infestations.  2

Principle Active Constituents

Alkaloids, including isoquinoline alkaloids such as berberine, which are thought to have anti-microbial properties.2

Clinical Application and Mechanism of Action

  1. Antimicrobial

In vitro studies have shown berberine to be effective against a large number of bacteria including members of Bacillus sp, Streptococcus sp, Staphylococcus sp, Klebsiella spp, Proteus spp, Corynebacterium diptheria, Enterobacter aerogenes, Salmonella typhi, Vibrio cholerae, Shigella boydii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Escherichia coli and Xanthomonas citri.  It is also active against a wide range of fungi, and using chick embryos, berberine at a dose of 0.5 mg per egg offered protection from Chlamydia trachomatis.  This action was comparable to that afforded by a dose of 1 mg of sulphadiazine per egg.2

Berberine sulfate has been shown to prevent the adherence of streptococci to host cells, which may explain its antibiotic properties.2

Berberine has also been shown to activate macrophages, which engulf and destroy bacteria.3

Berberine has  been shown to have an antipyretic effect (lowers fever) in rats4 and has been used historically for this purpose by certain populations.

Thus, berberine may offer complementary support in the treatment of infections of the mucous membranes (oral cavity, throat, sinus, bronchi, genitourinary tract and gastro-intestinal tract.5

Goldenseal is often used to treat the common cold, either alone or in combination with Echinacea.6

Author’s Note:Due to insufficient evidence, Goldenseal should not be assumed to be a substitute for antibiotic therapy.

  1. Liver Disorders

Berberine has been shown to stimulate the secretion of bile and bilirubin.  Studies with patients suffering from chronic cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder) demonstrated improvement in clinical symptoms, a decrease in bilirubin levels, and an increase in the bile volume of the gallbladder.  The oral doses of 5 to 20 mg of berberine, three times per day before meals, produced these results within 24-48 hours.5

Dosage and Standardized Grade

As no established protocols exist for the treatment of mucous membrane infections, the following guide may serve to provide the body with additional anti-microbial support:

250-500 mg (three times daily) of a powdered extract capsule (caplet), standardized to 4:1 or 8-12 percent alkaloid content.5

Adverse Side Effects, Toxicity and Contraindications

Berberine has been shown to be very non-toxic in rat studies.5  It should be used with caution in cases of hypertension.7

Possible adverse effects include the fact that in high doses Goldenseal has been noted to cause: oral and pharyngeal irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, paresthesia, dizziness, nose bleeds, skin irritation, convulsions, hypotension, and death from respiratory or cardiac paralysis.  However, the lack of adverse reactions reported from the widespread use of Goldenseal in many countries suggests that these potential reactions may be exaggerated.2   Death from berberine poisoning has occurred but, generally speaking, it is unlikely to produce any serious adverse reactions at a dose at or below 1,500 mg per day.  9

However, patients with congestive heart failure, cardiac arrythmia (irregular heart beat) or high blood pressure should not take Goldenseal without proper monitoring by their physician as Goldenseal has been shown to prolong the duration of ventricular action potentials and increase vasodilation.  It also has anti-arrhythmia effects on the heart and increases the cardiac synthesis of ATP through its inotropic properties. 8   As well, jaundiced individuals should not use Goldenseal.  10

Drug-Nutrient Interactions

  1. Paclitaxel: The efficacy of this chemotherapy drug is diminished by the ingestion of Goldenseal and therefore, should not be taken concurrently with this medication. 11
  2. Tetracycline and Doxycycline: Berberine has been shown to reduce the absorption of tetracycline and possibly other antibiotics in one study, and appears to diminish the antibiotic effect of tetracycline against cholera. Thus, it may not be wise to use Goldenseal concurrently with antibiotic therapy. 12
Pregnancy and Lactation

During pregnancy and lactation, the only supplements that are considered safe include standard prenatal vitamin and mineral supplements.  All other supplements or dose alterations may pose a threat to the developing fetus and there is generally insufficient evidence at this time to determine an absolute level of safety for most dietary supplements other than a prenatal supplement.  Any supplementation practices beyond a prenatal supplement should involve the cooperation of the attending physician (e.g., magnesium and the treatment of preeclampsia.)

References:  Pregnancy and Lactation

1.     Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements. Murray M. Prima Publishing 1998.

2.     Reavley NM. The New Encyclopedia of Vitamins, Minerals, Supplements, and Herbs. Evans and Company Inc. 1998.

3.     The Healing Power of Herbs (2nd edition). Murray M. Prima Publishing 1995.

4.     Boon H and Smith M. Health Care Professional Training Program in Complementary Medicine. Institute of Applied Complementary Medicine Inc. 1997.

  1. Leung AY, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, John Wiley & Sons: New York, 52-52, 1980, 189-190.
  2. Boon H and Smith M, Health Care Professional Training Program in Complementary Medicine, Institute of Applied Complementary Medicine Inc, 1997, 204-207.
  3. Kumazawa T,, Activation of Peritoneal Macrophages by Berberine Alkoloids in Terms of Induction of Cytostatic Activity, Int J Immunopharmacol 6, 1984, 587-592.
  4. Sabir M,, Further Studies on Pharmacology of Berberine, Indian J Physiol Pharmacol 22, 1978, 9-23.
  5. Murray M, The Healing Power of Herbs (2nd edition), Prima Publishing, 1995, 162-172.
  6. Kumazawa Y,, Activation of Peritoneal Macrophages by Berberine Alkaloids in Terms of Induction of Cytostatic Activity, Int J Immunopharmacol 6, 1984, 587-592.
  7. Mills S, The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine (2nd edition), London: Penguin Publishing, 1991, 677.
  8. Lau CW, Yao XQ, Chen ZY et al. Cardiovascular actions of berberine. Cardiovasc Drug Rev. 2001; 19 (3): 234-44.
  9. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy. Mills S and Bone K. Churchill Livingstone Publishers. 2000: 294-295.
  10. Chan E. Displacement of bilirubin from albumin by berberine. Biol Neonate. 1993; 63 (4):201-208.
  11. Lin HL et al. Berberine modulates expression of Mdr1 gene product and the response of digestive tract cancer cells to paclitaxel. Br J Cancer. 1999; 81 (3): 416-22.
  12. Healthnotes, 2001. Goldenseal
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