Poke Root

Health Benefits
Historically, pokeweed has been used by Native Americans as a purgative (to stimulate bowel clearance) and an emetic (to promote vomiting). Many traditional cultures believe that doing so "cleanses" the body.

Its use in folk medicine can be traced back to a book written in the late 19th century called King’s American Dispensary, in which pokeweed was said to treat skin diseases and joint pain. Despite its toxicity, there are many alternative practitioners who believe that pokeweed can effectively treat a number of health conditions including tonsillitis, laryngitis, acne, scabies, painful menstruation, mumps, and even skin cancer and AIDS.

Few of pokeweed’s health claims are supported by science. Even though pokeweed is known to be poisonous—not only to humans but to mammals as well—there are herbalists who believe that it can be used safely and is no less "toxic" than the pharmaceutical drugs used to treat many of the same conditions.

However, there is little in the way of current literature exploring pokeweed’s medicinal properties. Many of the purported benefits are attributed to a compound called pokeweed antiviral protein (PAP) which proponents believe not only improve the condition of the skin, but also prevent or treat viral infections ranging from herpes to HIV.

There are numerous homeopathic preparations used to treat tonsillitis that 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 while alleviating pain, inflammation, and scratchiness.

Despite the health claims, there have yet to be reliable clinical trials examining the effectiveness of homeopathy for acute tonsillitis.

Skin Conditions
Pokeweed has frequently been used in folk medicine to treat skin conditions, including psoriasis, eczema, and scrofula (tuberculosis of the neck). This is a paradoxical association given that pokeweed can cause illness if it comes into contact with broken or abraded skin. Moreover, contact with the root, stem, or leave can cause a spreading, blister-like rash similar to poison ivy.

Despite this, pokeweed is believed to exert powerful anti-inflammatory effects that may help relieve localized pain and swelling.

One of the few studies to have investigated this dates back to 1975 in which pokeweed was among the substances that could suppress the inflammatory immune response when applied topically to the skin of sheep.

Whether this response can be rendered safely (and consistently) in humans is debatable given the high risk of toxicity.

Cancer and HIV
One of the bolder claims made by proponents of pokeweed is that PAP may help prevent or treat certain cancers. It is, in fact, the toxic nature of pokeweed that some believe can suppress the mechanisms that trigger the development of cancer cells.

PAP is known to inhibit a molecule in all living cells called a ribosome. Some ribosomal mutations are loosely linked to certain cancers, including breast cancer, melanoma, multiple myeloma, and leukemia.

A 2012 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.

The researchers cited a 1993 study in which mice were successfully treated for leukemia with a combination of a PAP immunotoxin and the chemotherapy drug called cyclophosphamide. They also noted a 1993 study in which a PAP immunotoxin was engineered to bind to immune cells, known as CD4 T-cells, that HIV primarily targets for infection.

None of this suggests that consuming pokeweed would have anywhere near the same effect. (The dose needed to achieve such clearance would all but certainly 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.