Valuable Herb is a Threatened Species in the Wild
Goldenseal is a plant that was once very common in the deciduous woodlands of eastern North America. It is a Carolinian species that primarily grows south of the Great Lakes, but it was once common in the forests of Southern Ontario. It is primarily the rhizomes of goldenseal that are used medicinally. Since it doesn’t produce a large taproot like many medicinal species, a fairly large amount must be harvested and dried to produce a kilogram of this herb.
Historically, goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) was used by Native American tribes that lived in its natural range. European settlers began using it in the late 18th century, and by the late 19th and early 20th century it had become popular in North America and Europe as well. With the renaissance in herbalism that has occurred since the 1960s, it is still one of the most popular herbs in commerce.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, most of the goldenseal rhizome on the market was still being wild harvested. As a result, this herb became threatened, endangered, or extirpated from much of its original range due to the combined effects of habitat destruction and over-harvesting. In Ontario, goldenseal is a threatened species. It has been wiped out of all but the extreme southwestern part of the province. The situation is not much different in most of the states where it was once common.
I became aware of the declining status of wild goldenseal populations in the late ’90s. Although I consider it to be a valuable herb, at that time I eliminated its use from my practice and stopped teaching my students about its uses, except as an example of the consequences of over-harvesting.
Thankfully, in the last five years the situation with goldenseal has changed significantly. Agricultural production of this herb has been rapidly increasing and much of it is being grown organically. As a result, less than half of the goldenseal on the market is now coming from wild harvested sources and this amount is steadily decreasing. Given current trends, I have begun to use this herb once more and have reintroduced it into my curriculum. Goldenseal is one of the most expensive herbs and the price alone will limit use. Nevertheless, it is very important that we only use the rhizome from organically grown sources.
Treats Inflammation, Irritation, Infection
Having dispelled some of the misconceptions about goldenseal, now let’s look at ways that it can be used effectively. This is an excellent herb for treatment of conditions of the epithelial tissues – the skin and mucus membranes. Externally it will reduce inflammation and speed up the healing of wounds, rashes, bites, stings, and other irritations. It also reduces bleeding or running from wounds and sores. Taken internally, goldenseal will help heal ulcers of the mouth and digestive tract. It is also one of my favourite herbs for the treatment of irritation and inflammation of the digestive tract including diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, diverticulitis and more.
Although goldenseal is not a good antiviral, it is an amazing antibacterial, antifungal and antiprotozoal herb. In addition to its healing properties, this is also effective for the treatment of many kinds of infections of the skin and mucus membranes. It is great for infected wounds, boils and other kinds of skin infections. The tea can be used as an eyewash for conjunctivitis (pinkeye), a condition that medical doctors often have difficulty treating. (Always filter it through a coffee filter to eliminate particles.) Used correctly, goldenseal will usually knock out pinkeye in a day or two. The tea can also be used as a douche for treatment of infections and irritations of the vagina and cervix.
Goldenseal is also one of my favourites for treatment of most kinds of non-viral infections of the mouth, throat, and digestive tract. It is helpful for digestive yeast infections, many forms of food poisoning, dysentery, and it helps to reduce Helicobacter pylori – a common infectious organism sometimes associated with ulcers and other inflammatory conditions.
Goldenseal is most often used to treat infectious conditions of tissues to which it can be directly administered. For treatment of these kinds of conditions it should not be combined with purple coneflower. Instead, combine it with other antimicrobial herbs. Goldenseal works well with many aromatic antimicrobials such as garlic bulb (Allium sativum), oregano herb (Origanum vulgare), thyme herb (Thymus vulgaris), cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum), clove buds (Syzygium aromaticum), and yellow avens root.
Goldenseal is also useful for the treatment of non-viral systemic infections. (Many of these infections are potentially life threatening and you should not try to treat them without proper medical supervision.) An exception is urinary tract infections. Here goldenseal is very effective for the infection itself, but it must be combined with other herbs that support the urinary system. Some excellent examples include Joe-Pye root (Eupatorium spp.), Queen Ann’s lace herb, dandelion leaves and flowers, and horseweed herb (Conyza canadensis).
Goldenseal also has many other important uses. It is a very detoxifying herb, making it useful for treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, acne, eczema and psoriasis. It is also recommended for excessive watery discharge from the nasal passages due to infections or allergies; it improves digestion; it is useful for many conditions of the stomach, liver and gallbladder; it can help reduce excessive menstrual bleeding or uterine hemorrhage; and it is helpful in treating some forms of cancer of the mucus membranes, liver, pancreas, and female reproductive system.
Due to its potency, there is a mild risk of toxicity from goldenseal with excessive long-term use. So it is best to use it in formulations only, in the 20-25% range. It is also fairly astringent and using it in higher proportions or combining it with too many other strong astringents may result in gastrointestinal irritation.
Due to its potency and influence on the uterus, goldenseal is not recommended during pregnancy or lactation.
Goldenseal is effective taken as a tea, but it works best when used as a tincture. It is preferable to take it on an empty stomach, at least 15 minutes before and two hours after meals. It is also best to hold it in your mouth for 20-30 seconds before swallowing. Some people may find this difficult because this herb is very bitter. The bitterness can be mitigated by combining it with better tasting herbs.