The Health Benefits of Bloodroot

North American plant root has health benefits and risks

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a flowering plant native to the eastern part of the United States and Canada. When cut, the root and budding rootstalk (called the rhizome) secrete a red fluid that gives the plant its name. During the fall months, the root and rhizome are routinely harvested by herbalists for use in medicines.

Bloodroot has long been used by Native Americans to induce vomiting, the practice of which is believed to cleanse the body of harmful toxins. Practitioners of alternative medicine contend that it can also treat a wide array of medical conditions, from acne all the way up to cancer.

Bloodroot has a long history of use in quack medicine, starting in the 1920s with a health tonic known as "Pinkard's Sanguinaria Compound." The cure-all tonic was seized by federal authorities in 1931 due to false health claims and potentially deadly toxicities. Similar actions have been taken in recent years to halt the unscrupulous marketing of bloodroot as a cancer cure.

Also Known As

  • Bloodwort
  • Canada puccoon
  • Indian red paint
  • Pauson
  • Red puccoon
  • Redroot
  • Sweet slumber
  • Tetterwort

Health Benefits

Bloodroot is often used in alternative medicine as a topical or oral antibacterial agent. When used internally, bloodroot is believed to relax smooth muscles, particularly in the heart and lungs. Doing so may improve cardiovascular and respiratory health.

At present, there is little clinical evidence that bloodroot can treat any medical condition when taken internally. While it may offer benefits when used topically (on the skin), much of the current research remains conflicted and inconclusive.

Dental Health

There is some evidence that bloodroot can reduce dental plaque and prevent or treat gingivitis and other gum diseases. A 2012 study in Phytotherapy Research concluded that toothpaste and mouthwashes infused with S. canadensis exert antibacterial properties beneficial to oral health.

When used for this purpose, S. canadensis is generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). With that said, bloodroot extracts are less commonly used today after studies revealed they may cause precancerous lesions (known as oral leukoplakia) if overused.

Skin Problems

Bloodroot is often used in topical skincare products due to its high antioxidant content. It is believed to treat skin conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis and to debride (reduce) skin growths such as warts, moles, and benign tumors.

Despite these purported benefits, a 2009 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology concluded that the excessive use of topical bloodroot can lead to tissue injury and death (referred to as cutaneous necrosis)

The risk appears greatest in those who apply undiluted bloodroot salves (known as black salve) directly to the skin. Even diluted compounds are known to cause skin irritation. It is unclear at what concentration topical bloodroot may be safe and effective.

Respiratory Health

Bloodroot is often used to treat flu, common colds, sinus infections, and lung infections. It is believed to act as an expectorant, eliminating phlegm and mucus in the airways.

Research also suggests that S. canadensis may have inotropic effects, meaning that it strengthens the contraction of the heart muscle. Doing so may improve the delivery of oxygen to and extraction of carbon dioxide from tissues, making the lungs and respiratory tract more effective.

Despite its popular use as a respiratory supplement, there is no evidence that bloodroot can prevent or treat any viral or bacterial infection when taken internally.

Heart Health

Proponents of alternative medicine believe that bloodroot has positive effects in people with cardiovascular disease. A chemical unique to bloodroot, called sanguinarine, is said to reduce blood pressure while preventing the buildup of plaque that can lead to atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries").

Clinical studies investigating these claims typically fall short. High doses have been linked to cardiovascular events (such as arrhythmia) and, in rare cases, coma. The overuse of bloodroot can also lead to an abnormal drop in blood pressure, known as hypotension.

Cancer

A chemical compound in bloodroot, called berberine, has shown promise in triggering apoptosis (programmed cell death) in prostate, breast, and skin cancer cells in test tube studies.

(Apoptosis is a normal biological process in which older cells die so that they can be replaced with new ones. With cancer cells, apoptosis no longer occurs, allowing tumors to grow unchecked.)

As significant as this finding may seem, there are many compounds known to induce apoptosis in the test tube but few that can do so in animals or humans without causing toxicity or injury.

Claims that bloodroot has anti-cancer effects are largely exaggerated. In fact, the FDA lists S. canadensis as one of 187 cancer "cures" consumers should actively avoid.

Possible Side Effects

Bloodroot is generally safe when taken as a short-term dietary supplement, although some people may experience stomach upset. The topical use of bloodroot may cause skin irritation, including redness, itching, and swelling.

Bloodroot is not intended for long-term use. The compound sanguinarine is a potent toxin known to cause serious harm if used in excess. Symptoms of sanguinarine poisoning include:

  • Dizziness
  • Blurry vision
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Bradycardia (abnormally slow heartbeat)
  • Fainting
  • Dilated pupils
  • Diarrhea

Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek medical attention right away.

Bloodroot may interact with anti-hypertensive drugs used to treat high blood pressure, amplifying their effects and leading to a potentially serious hypotensive event. It can also interact with anti-arrhythmic drugs, leading to bradycardia and other heartbeat irregularities.

Bloodroot may also slow blood-clotting and intensify the effects of anticoagulants ("blood thinners") like warfarin, causing easy bruising and bleeding.

To avoid interactions, let your doctor know if you are using bloodroot in any form, as well as any other prescription or non-prescription drugs you may be taking.

Due to the lack of safety research, bloodroot should not be used during pregnancy or while nursing. Moreover, it should never be used in children or in people with low blood pressure or heart rhythm disorders.

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Bloodroot is commonly sold as a supplement in powder, extract, or capsule forms from various health food stores and online retailers. There are also suppliers of dried "wildcrafted" roots, which can be used to make teas and decoctions.

Because herbal products are not strictly regulated in the United States, it can be hard to know which are safe and/or ethically produced. This is especially true of wildcrafted bloodroot, which is sometimes exposed to pesticides, heavy metals, and other toxins.

To reduce the risk of contamination, only buy products that have been certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Certified products can be recognized by the USDA seal on the product label.

Another sign of quality is certification by an independent testing authority like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF International, or ConsumerLab. Certification does not mean that the product is safe or effective; it simply indicates that it contains the listed ingredients in the correct amounts without any contaminants or impurities.

There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of bloodroot in any form. As a rule of thumb, never exceed the dose listed on the product label.

Black salve, sometimes marketed a black draw salve, should be avoided given the potential for disfiguring skin damage. This includes veterinary formulations intended for use on horses.

Most bloodroot supplements can be stored safely at room temperature in a cool, dry room. Never use a supplement past its expiration date or if there is evidence of moisture damage, mold, or mildew.

Common Questions

How do you make bloodroot tea?

The easiest and safest way to make bloodroot tea is with organic bloodroot powder. Simply add a level tablespoon to one cup of boiling and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Be sure to strain the tea with a fine tea strainer to avoid excessive ingestion.

Making bloodroot tea with dried whole root or rhizome can be tricky since you can't always control the concentration of the tea.

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Article Sources

  1. National Library of Medicine. 19890. Misbranding of Pinkard's sanguinaria compound. U. S. v. John Henry Pinkard. Plea of guilty. Fine, $25. Washington, D.C.; 1933.


  2. Croaker A, King GJ, Pyne JH, et al. Sanguinaria canadensis: Traditional Medicine, Phytochemical Composition, Biological Activities, and Current Uses. Int J Mol Sci. 2016 Sep;17(9):1414. doi:10.3390/ijms17091414


  3. Mazzio EA, Soliman KFA. In Vitro Screening for the Tumoricidal Properties of International Medicinal Herbs. Phytother Res. 2009 Mar;23(3):385-98. doi:10.1002/ptr.2636


  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 187 Fake Cancer "Cures" Consumers Should Avoid. Silver Spring, Maryland; updated July 9, 2009.


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