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Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

The Cherokee, Iroquois and other Native American tribes valued goldenseal as a remedy for everything from insect bites and bloating to eye infections and stomach aches.  Today, the herb is officially recognized as a medicine in eleven countries – but not, surprisingly, in the US.

What it is?

The dried root of this perennial herb has long been used to soothe inflamed or infected mucous membranes.  Today, it is appreciated for its ability to help the body fight infection.  The plant was first called goldenseal in the nineteenth century, deriving its name from the rich yellow of the root and the small cuplike scars found there.  These scars, which appear on the previous year's root growth, resemble the wax seals formerly used to seal envelopes – hence the name 'goldenseal'.

Related to the buttercup, goldenseal is native to North America and once grew wild from Vermont to Arkansas.  As interest in its medicinal properties grew, however, the plant was extensively harvested.  Currently, most of the goldenseal on the world market is commercially cultivated in the states of Oregon and Washington.  The key medicinal compounds in goldenseal are the alkaloids berberine and hydrastine.  Berberine is also responsible for the root's rich yellow colour – Native Americans and early American settlers used goldenseal as a dye as well as a medicinal herb.  Because the alkaloids taste bitter, goldenseal tea often includes other herbs or is mixed with a sweetener such as honey.

What it does?

The primary benefit of goldenseal is its overall effect on immunity.  Not only does it increase the immunity system's production of germ-fighting compounds, it can combat both bacteria and viruses directly.


Taking goldenseal at the first sign of a cold or flu may prevent the illness from developing fully – or at least greatly minimize the symptoms – by enhancing the activity of virus-fighting white blood cells and by strengthening the mucous membrane of the respiratory tract.

Additional Benefits

Goldenseal fights bacteria, making it useful for mild urinary tract infections (if you begin taking it early enough) and sinus infections.  It may also help to soothe nausea and vomiting by stimulating digestive secretions and working to destroy the bacteria that may be causing the symptoms.

As one of several herbs that stimulate the immune system – others include echinacea, pau d'arco and astragalus – goldenseal may play a role in relieving the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, a disabling disorder that may be partially caused by a weakened immune system.  It also helps fight cold sores and shingles (both caused by the herpes virus).  Use it for no more than a week or two at a time.

Applied topically, goldenseal tincture is beneficial for mouth ulcers and warts.  The tincture promotes the healing of the ulcers and directly fights the human papilloma virus that causes warts.  Once cooled and strained, goldenseal tea can be used as an eyewash to relieve eye infections such as conjunctivitis.  Prepare a fresh batch daily, and store it in a sterile container, so that the tea won't be contaminated.  (Have one eye bath for each eye, and label them 'left' and 'right'.)

Common Uses

  • Promotes healing of mouth ulcers and cold sores.
  • Helps destroy the virus that causes warts.
  • Boosts the immune system.
  • Calms a nauseated stomach.
  • May combat urinary tract infections.
  • Treats eye infections.


  • Capsule.
  • Tincture.
  • Liquid.
  • Dried herb/tea.
  • Ointment/cream.


  • Goldenseal should not be used by pregnant women or people with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or glaucoma.
  • Reminder:  If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.

How to take it?


For colds, flu and other respiratory infections:  As soon as you begin to feel unwell, take 125 mg of goldenseal (in combination with 200 mg of echinacea) five times a day for five days.
For urinary tract infections:  Drink several cups of goldenseal tea a day.
For nausea and vomiting:  Take 125 mg every four hours as needed.
For chronic fatigue syndrome:  Use 125 mg twice a day in rotation with other immune-stimulating herbs.
For cold sores:  Take 125 mg of goldenseal with 200 mg of echinacea four times a day.
For shingles:  Take 125 mg of goldenseal with 200 mg of echinacea four times a day.
For mouth ulcers and warts:  Apply goldenseal tincture directly to the sores three times a day.
For eye infections:  Use 1 teaspoon of dried herb per 500 ml of hot water.  Steep, finely strain and cool; apply as an eyewash three times a day.  Make a fresh solution every day.

Guidelines for use:

Take goldenseal supplements with meals.  Unlike echinacea and other herbs that stimulate the immune system, goldenseal should be used only when you feel that you're coming down with a cold, flu or some other illness, and only for the duration of the illness.  The single exception is when you're taking goldenseal in rotation with other herbs to strengthen the immune system.

Possible side effects

When taken at recommended doses and for suggested lengths of time, goldenseal is safe to use and has few side effects.  Very high doses may irritate the mucous membranes of the mouth and cause diarrhoea, nausea and respiratory problems.

Shopping Hints

  • When buying goldenseal, look for extracts standardized to contain 8-10% alkaloids or 5% hydrastine.

Did you know?

Goldenseal is still available, but it may fast be becoming an endangered species.  Herbalists have been advised to look for alternative herbs.