Pokeweed is a poisonous, herbaceous plant native to the Gulf Coast of the United States.
Pokeweed is a poisonous, herbaceous plant native to the Gulf Coast of the United States. It has long been used for food and folk medicine in this part of the world and in parts of eastern North America and the Midwest.
In traditional Chinese medicine, pokeweed is known as chui xu shang lu. Due to its potential toxicity, alternative practitioners sometimes refer to it as the “Jekyll and Hyde plant.”
This article looks at the purported benefits and side effects of the herbal supplement pokeweed. It also discusses precautions, interactions, and what to look for when buying pokeweed supplements.
Dietary supplements are not regulated like drugs in the United States, meaning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve them for safety and effectiveness before products are marketed. When possible, choose a supplement that has been tested by a trusted third party, such as USP, ConsumerLabs, or NSF. However, even if supplements are third-party tested, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily safe for all people or effective in general. It is important to talk to your healthcare provider about any supplements you plan to take and to check in about any potential interactions with other supplements or medications.
Active ingredient: Pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP)
Alternate names: American nightshade, cancer root, inkberry, pigeon berry, poke, poke salad (or poke sallet)
Suggested dose: Not enough data
Safety considerations: All parts of the pokeweed plant are poisonous. Never consume fresh pokeweed. The supplement should be taken with extreme caution and under the guidance of a healthcare provider. Pokeweed should not be used in children, pregnant people, or people who are nursing.
Uses of Pokeweed
Supplement use should be individualized and vetted by a healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, pharmacist, or doctor. No supplement is intended to treat, cure, or prevent disease.
Historically, indigenous Americans had two main uses for pokeweed:
As a purgative (to stimulate bowel clearance)
As an emetic (to promote vomiting)
Many traditional cultures believe that this helps “cleanse” the body.
Pokeweed is also an ingredient in traditional Appalachian cuisine. It’s made edible by cooking the young shoots of the plant repeatedly to remove the poisonous toxins. When cooked this way, it has a flavor similar to asparagus.
Pokeweed berries are also used to produce dyes.
Pokeweed’s use in folk medicine can be traced back to a book written in the late 19th century called King’s American Dispensary. This book mentioned pokeweed as a treatment for skin diseases and joint pain.
Despite its toxicity, many alternative practitioners believe pokeweed can treat a number of health conditions, including:
Few of pokeweed’s health claims are supported by science.
Even though pokeweed is known to be poisonous to humans and other mammals, some herbalists believe it can be used safely. These practitioners sometimes claim it is no more toxic than the pharmaceutical drugs used to treat many of the same conditions. Unfortunately, though, there hasn’t been much research into pokeweed’s medicinal properties or its safety.
Many of pokeweed’s purported benefits are attributed to a compound called pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP). Proponents believe PAP can improve skin conditions and prevent or treat viral infections.
Numerous homeopathic preparations used to treat tonsillitis contain trace amounts of pokeweed, capsaicin, lignum vitae, and other natural ingredients. They are believed to lubricate and maintain the mucous membrane of the throat. They are also said to alleviate pain, inflammation, and irritation.
Despite these health claims, there have yet to be reliable clinical trials examining the effectiveness of homeopathy for acute tonsillitis.
Pokeweed is used in folk medicine to treat skin conditions, including:
Scrofula (tuberculosis of the neck)
However, it’s worth noting that pokeweed can cause illness if it comes into contact with broken or scraped skin. Contact with the root, stem, or leaves can also cause a spreading, blister-like rash similar to poison ivy.
Despite this, pokeweed is believed to have powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any studies in humans that confirm it can be used safely and effectively as a treatment for skin conditions.
How Psoriasis Is Treated
Cancer and HIV
Pokeweed proponents also believe PAP may help prevent or treat certain cancers. Some believe the toxins in pokeweed can suppress the mechanisms that trigger the development of cancer cells.
PAP is known to inactivate structures present in all living cells called ribosomes.1 Some ribosomal mutations are loosely linked to certain cancers, including:
A 2015 review of studies suggested that PAP has the potential to be converted into an effective immunotoxin, stimulating immune cells to attack tumors or cells in the same way that targeted therapies do.1
The researchers cited a 1993 study in which mice were successfully treated for leukemia. In this study, the treatment included a combination of PAP immunotoxin and a chemotherapy drug called cyclophosphamide.
Researchers also noted a 1993 study in which a PAP immunotoxin was engineered to bind to CD4 T-cells. CD4 T-cells are the immune cells that HIV primarily targets for infection.
None of this suggests that consuming pokeweed would have the same effect. The dose needed to achieve this would likely be life-threatening. What the evidence does hint at is a promising, new avenue of drug design. However, it is one that would likely take years to develop.
What Are Targeted Therapies?
What Are the Side Effects of Pokeweed?
Pokeweed contains phytolaccine. This is a powerful irritant that can cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms in humans and other mammals.
Every part of the pokeweed plant is poisonous, including the roots, stems, leaves, and berries. Older plants contain higher concentrations of phytolaccine. The berries are more poisonous when green.
If eaten, pokeweed usually causes symptoms within two to six hours, including:
Abdominal cramps and spasms
Burning sensation of the mouth, throat, and esophagus
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Irregular heart rate
Less severe but similar symptoms may occur if any part of the plant comes into contact with broken skin. Some people may also develop contact dermatitis after touching the plant with unbroken skin. Contact with the plant can trigger inflammation and a painful, blistering rash.
Call 911 or seek emergency care if you experience vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, or irregular heart rate or breathing after eating or coming into contact with pokeweed.
There are no guidelines for the safe use of pokeweed or pokeweed remedies in humans. As a rule, the consumption of fresh pokeweed should be avoided.
Due to the lack of research, pokeweed medicines should never be used in children or people who are pregnant or nursing.
Pokeweed dried herb
Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak
Dosage: How Much Pokeweed Should I Take?
Always speak with a healthcare provider before taking a supplement to ensure that the supplement and dosage are appropriate for your individual needs.
There is no known safe dose of pokeweed. Follow the dosage recommendations on the label, but remember that the right dose also depends on factors such as your age and general health. Higher doses of pokeweed may induce vomiting or cause other severe side effects. Never take fresh pokeweed or use the berries, leaves, or roots to make tea or wine.
How to Recognize and Treat Poisoning
What Happens If I Take Too Much Pokeweed?
Symptoms of severe pokeweed poisoning include:
Bloody diarrhea (hematochezia)
Bloody vomiting (hematemesis)
Severe poisoning may cause death, which usually occurs as a result of respiratory paralysis.
If you or someone you love is experiencing symptoms of pokeweed poisoning, call 911 or the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222), where you will be connected to a poison control center in your area.
Do not induce vomiting unless a healthcare provider or someone with poison control tells you to. Doing so can risk chemical aspiration (the inhalation of vomit and poison into the lungs).
Treatment may involve gastric lavage. This procedure involves the administration and removal of small volumes of fluid to clear the stomach. Other treatments may include:
Hospital observation may be needed. Mild to moderate cases tend to improve within one to two days.
Not much is known about how pokeweed affects other drugs you may be taking. However, based on how the body responds to pokeweed, it would be safe to assume that interactions do exist. Some could be potentially significant.
Pokeweed contains compounds that are known to cause the agglutination (clumping together) of red blood cells. As such, it may need to be avoided if you are taking anticoagulants (blood thinners) like:
Pokeweed can also cause a drop in blood pressure. This could trigger hypotension (low blood pressure) in people on antihypertensive drugs like:
Diuretics (water pills)
Always talk to your healthcare provider about any supplements or herbs you may be taking to avoid potentially serious drug interactions.
How to Store Pokeweed
Pokeweed tinctures, powders, and other forms should be kept in the original containers in a cool, dry place. Make sure to keep pokeweed out of reach of children.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Does pokeweed have any health benefits?
How do you treat pokeweed rash?
Can you eat pokeweed berries?
Sources of Pokeweed and What to Look For
For health purposes, pokeweed is most often sold as tinctures or extracts. Appalachian herbalists often create tinctures by preserving the root or juice of the berry in whiskey.
Modern homeopaths may use steam and solvent distillation to obtain the extract. The extract is then infused in a carrier oil, lotion, or wax-based balm.
Many commercial tinctures and extracts are sold in dropper bottles. These can be purchased either online or through specialty homeopathy stores. Most products do not disclose how much pokeweed they contain. For this reason, you should never exceed the recommended dosage on the product label.
Other manufacturers sell dried “wild-crafted” pokeweed or pokeweed powder. These are used by home herbalists to make tinctures and salves. Consumers should avoid these products due to the high risk of toxicity.
Commercially produced ointments and balms are also available.
Ensuring that a pokeweed product is safe can be difficult. Few of these products undergo testing by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or another independent certifying authority.
In the absence of such certification, purchase products that include the concentration of pokeweed in the product label. Generally, look for products containing no more than 20%. Also, aim for products that are certified organic under the standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Child Safety and First Aid
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Pokeweed is a poisonous plant that is said to have health benefits when taken as a homeopathic remedy. It is important to remember that there has been little research into the effectiveness of pokeweed as a treatment for any condition, and the purported health benefits are not supported by science.
Contact with the leaves, roots, or berries of the pokeweed plant can cause a painful blistering skin rash. Swallowing any part of the fresh pokeweed plant can cause severe toxicity and even death. The safe dose for pokeweed isn’t known.
As an herbal remedy, pokeweed is often sold as a tincture. If you do plan to take commercial formulations of pokeweed, follow the dosage instructions on the label. Always consult your healthcare provider before taking any supplement.
By James Myhre & Dennis Sifris, MD
Dennis Sifris, MD, is an HIV specialist and Medical Director of LifeSense Disease Management. James Myhre is an American journalist and HIV educator.