Black salve. Black ointment. Bloodroot capsules. Organic bloodroot extract. Do any of these sound familiar? Have you tried any of them? Numerous preparations based on sanguinaria, or the bloodroot plant, are capturing attention due to such claims as
- Helps digestive problems
- Makes warts and boils disappear
- Cures skin cancer
- Prevents sinus and respiratory issues
- Destroys tumors, including prostate cancer
Fact or fiction?
It is not uncommon to read that an herbal product is “proven in hundreds of studies” to heal one condition or another. The idea that a humble, readily available, inexpensive plant could cure cancer has undeniable appeal. While we all wish it were so, such statements are usually grossly overblown. Such articles are rarely reports of randomized, blinded and controlled scientific studies with large populations. Let’s face it: a laboratory dish full of cancer cells that died when exposed to a toxic substance, or a beloved Labrador retriever whose lump behind the ear went away after become heavily scabbed, is hardly proof that cancer patients should begin to self-dose with the product.
So it is with bloodroot. This flowering plant, native to eastern North America, has toxic properties that kill animal cells. The most obvious effect occurs when applied to the skin, e.g. to treat a wart. It destroys tissue, and generally a large scab will form. In fact, many people who have used a bloodroot product called black salve without medical supervision have ended up with facial disfiguration. Therefore, it’s important to separate fact from fiction about bloodroot.
The facts, ma’am, just the facts
Native Americans used bloodroot for centuries before colonists arrived. Not only did they use it as an insect repellent and a source of red dye, they also recognized its medicinal use for respiratory ailments, and to induce vomiting if needed. Today, science shows that it offers the potential to treat cancer.
The active ingredient in bloodroot is sanguinarine. When tested on cells in a lab dish, sanguinarine appears to damage cancer without harm to normal cells. This may make them more amenable (treatable) to chemotherapy’s effects. However, at high doses, it kills healthy cells as well.
In lab analysis, the biochemical and molecular effects of sanguinarine are well-documented. These include antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory as well as anticancer properties.[i] Encouraging data from both laboratory and animal studies support the following actions of sanguinarine:
- It interrupts the cell cycle of cancer cells
- It triggers apoptosis (programmed cell death that cancer cells appear to avoid) in cancer cells.
- It inhibits cancer cell proliferation.
- It inhibits the ability of cancer tumors to develop their own blood supply (angiogenesis)
- It interferes with cancer’s ability to invade other structures in order to spread (metastasize)
This evidence is repeatable, and has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments with cancer cells as diverse as prostate, cervical, breast, leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma, colorectal, lung, pancreatic and more.[ii] If this is scientific fact, it sounds pretty darn good. So where’s the fiction?
“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” Mark Twain
Many people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, suffering from tuberculosis and other poorly understood maladies found that many quackery claims made sense. For instance, Pinkard’s Sanguinaria Compound was promised to be effective as “a treatment, remedy, and cure for pneumonia, coughs, weak lungs, asthma, kidney, liver, bladder, or any stomach troubles, and effective as a great blood and nerve tonic.”[iii] These benefits were fictitious enough to bring Mr. Pinkard before a judge. He pleaded guilty and paid a $25.00 fine (a lot of money in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression).
Regarding corrosive salves such as black salve, which can be effective for minor noncancerous skin growths or warts, a word of caution. No universal usage or dosing guidelines exist, and there are many different formulations (read product labels). Many people have been severely disfigured, or thought they had “cured” a skin cancer only to be diagnosed later with metastatic disease.[iv]
While it’s true that judicious use of black salve on human warts and veterinary skin lesions can be quite effective, as mentioned earlier it can also leave ugly scars. The greater risk comes with internal use. Not only is there a complete lack of documentation that ingesting sanguinaria ever cured anyone’s cancer, there is ample evidence that it can lead to coma, even death. According to one source, the action of sanguinarine “disrupts an enzyme called Na+/ K+-ATPase, which does the vital task of pumping sodium out of cells as well as pumping potassium in. When that does not happen, all functions break down.”[v]
What does the future hold?
At present, it is our position that any use of an herbal product containing bloodroot should only be done under a doctor’s supervision. But looking toward the future, there is tremendous clinical and research interest in the promising anticancer properties of bloodroot. With time, it seems likely that its plant-based chemotherapeutic potential will be harnessed as an effective solo or adjunct cancer treatment.
[i] Saeed M, Mahmoud N, Sugimoto Y, Efferth T, Abdel-Aziz H. Molecular Determinants of Sensitivity or Resistance of Cancer Cells Toward Sanguinarine. Front Pharmacol. 2018; 9: 136.