We have looked at the potential benefits of a wide number of herbs on the site. Some are far more effective than others and have a wealth of research to back up their uses. Others are far less well-known and lack the type of data that would make you confident in their effectiveness. Blue cohosh is definitely one of the latter.
While it has a history of use and it is still used today, there is very little evidence that it is effective and also some evidence that it may be toxic to humans. If you would like to find out more about the possible benefits of this herb as well as its potential dangers then read on.
What is Blue Cohosh?
Blue cohosh is a a medium sized perennial herb with yellow to green flowers. Known scientifically as Caulophyllum thalictroides, it belongs to the Berberidaceae family. The plant is also known as pappose root and squaw root and has been used medicinally by the native American Indians for centuries.
The flowers which bloom in Spring mature later into bitter blue colored seeds. It can be seen growing mainly on hillsides and in woodland areas of the midwestern and eastern areas of the USA. The roots of the herb are harvested in autumn and used for therapeutic purposes. There is also an Asian species called Caulophyllum robustum Maxim which is also used medicinally.
History of Blue Cohosh
Like so many medicinal herbs, the history of blue cohosh being used as a medicine goes back to the Native Americans. It has been used traditionally by a number of tribes as a mild sedative and its name ‘cohosh’ actually came from the Algonquin name for the plant.
Then as now, the main use of blue cohosh was for women’s issues related to menstruation and labor. The Potawatomi, Meskawi, Ojibwe and Menomini tribes used the herb to suppress profuse menstruation and as a treatment for painful menstrual cramps. It was also used to stimulate contractions during labor.
During the 19th century, blue cohosh was considered to be a natural emmenagogue, antispasmodic and parturient herb. Today, the herb is still used to regulate the menstrual cycle and to induce uterine contractions during labor.
Blue Cohosh : Chemical Composition
According to research done on the contents of the herb, blue cohosh contains alkaloids, glycosides and triterponoid saponins as well as various other constituents such as resins.
Compounds identified so far include hederagenin arabinopyranosides, caulophyllogenin, caulophyllumines andcaulophyllines, magnoflurine, anargyrine, baptifoline, lupanine, caloside, taspine and sparteine. (1)
Blue Cohosh Uses
Cramps and Spasms
Because of its antispamsodic activities, blue cohosh is sometimes used as a natural remedy for cramping. It can be used to soothe various types of cramp including stomach cramp and painful leg cramps. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of research to prove its efficacy as a remedy for cramp and we are reliant on traditional use and anecdotal evidence.
Blue cohosh has a long history of use by women for dealing with menstrual issues. Once again, the antispasmodic properties of the herb means it has been used traditionally to help women overcome painful menstrual cramps.
According to traditional use, blue cohosh can help induce labor in pregnant women. Animal studies have set out to analyze the effects of the herb on uterus and to induce labor naturally.
According to studies, the saponins found in blue cohosh have a stimulant effect on the uterus. In one study conducted back in the 1950s, rats were given extracts of blue cohosh. The herb was found to both inhibit ovulation and to stimulate the uterus. (2)
Other animal studies have found that compounds contained in the herb, namely caulophyllosaponin and caulosaponin stimulated uterine contractions. (3) (4)
Unfortunately, there have been no high quality clinical studies published into the labor inducing effects of blue cohosh. A survey published in 1999 found that midwives in the US had seen widespread use of the herb to induce labor. However, there is no data regarding its effects nor any data regarding the potency and dosage of the preparations.
In 2005, a Cochrane review reported that there was not enough evidence to back the use of the herb to induce labor or ripen the cervix. (5)
Inflammation is at the heart of a host of medical conditions from rheumatism to heart disease. According to a study published in 2012, blue cohosh contains certain anti-inflammatory compounds that can help reduce inflammation naturally.
The laboratory experiments done by the research team found that blue cohosh extracts could help inhibit certain pro-inflammatory cells. The researchers concluded that the herb held promise for the treatment of inflammatory disease but admitted that more research was necessary in the future. (6)
Other potential uses of blue cohosh include the following. But bear in mind that there is no clinical evidence to support the use of blue cohosh for the following conditions.
- Rheumatism, arthritis and joint pain
- Sore throat
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Laxative and diuretic uses
How to Use Blue Cohosh
Blue cohosh is available in supplementary form. Despite its widespread availability and its fairly common use, no clinical trials exist to base a recommended dosage on. In fact, concerns about the potential toxicity and side effects of the herb seem to outweigh the potential benefits.
It should also be noted that the composition of supplements vary while adulteration has also been described. If you are planning to use blue cohosh supplements, make sure that you are buying them from a reputable supplier and follow any dosage instructions very carefully.
Precautions and Potential Side Effects
Blue cohosh is potentially unsafe and is known to have caused a number of adverse side effects including effects on the fetus of pregnant women who used the herb.
Known side effects of blue cohosh include diarrhea, chest pain, nausea, high blood pressure, increased blood sugar levels and contact dermatitis.
The use of blue cohosh during pregnancy has been linked to birth defects. Despite its reputation for inducing labor, pregnant women should avoid using blue cohosh. Research has linked the use of the herb during pregnancy to increased increase of heart disease, stroke and myocardial infarction.
Women who are breastfeeding should also avoid using blue cohosh. There is no data on its safety for nursing moms but concerns about its toxicity mean it should be avoided while breastfeeding.
Children should also avoid using blue cohosh.
Because certain compounds present in blue cohosh might have an estrogen-like effect, it could also be harmful to those with hormone conditions including certain cancers, uterine fibroids and endometriosis.
Bear in mind also that the use of supplements is largely unregulated. The products may differ from those which are advertised and the contents may vary considerably. Adulteration has been known including contamination with heavy metals.
- Blue cohosh is an herb which is native to America. It has been used traditionally to deal with menstrual pain, cramps, sore throat and to induce labor.
- Very few studies exist regarding its efficacy and safety. The studies done to date have either been animal or laboratory studies.
- There are concerns over the safety of blue cohosh and a number of side effects have been reported.
- There is also concern regarding the safety of blue cohosh for the unborn fetus. Pregnant women must avoid using the herb.
- Given the lack of high quality research into the effects of blue cohosh and the concerns over its potential toxicity, we can not recommend using the herb.