Purported Benefits, Side Effects & More


Purported Benefits, Side Effects & More

Common Names

  • Poke Root
  • Pocan
  • Red plant

For Patients & Caregivers

Tell your healthcare providers about any dietary supplements you’re taking, such as herbs, vitamins, minerals, and natural or home remedies. This will help them manage your care and keep you safe.

What is it?

Pokeweed has toxic effects and should not be used to attempt to treat any medical condition.

Pokeweed products are extracts from all parts of the plant: leaves, root, and berries. Pokeweed contains chemicals that are known toxins, but several of its other components have shown biological activity in lab experiments. For example, pokeweed antiviral protein is able to stop replication of viruses such as herpes simplex, influenza and poliovirus in the test tube, while pokeweed anti-fungal protein does the same to fungi. Certain saponins from pokeweed also reduce inflammation in rats. None of these effects have been seen in the human body.

What are the potential uses and benefits?
  • To treat cancer

    There are no data to back this claim.
  • To treat infections

    Lab studies suggest pokeweed extracts may stop the growth of certain fungi and viruses, but human data are lacking.
  • To reduce inflammation

    Although pokeweed extracts reduced inflammation in an animal study, clinical trials are lacking.
  • To treat tonsillitis

    There are no data to support this claim.
What are the side effects?
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Vomiting blood
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fast heart rate
  • Toxicity from high doses or prolonged use of pokeweed can cause protracted vomiting, bloody diarrhea, difficulty breathing, muscle spasms, convulsions, and death.
What else do I need to know?

Patient Warnings:

  • Significant toxicity results from taking pokeweed by mouth or applying it topically.

For Healthcare Professionals

Scientific Name
Phytolacca americana, Phytolacca decandra
Clinical Summary

Pokeweed is derived from various parts of the plant, including root, leaf, and berry. Some have attempted to use this herb to treat rheumatoid arthritis, infections, and cancer (as part of the Hoxsey herbal tonic).

However, pokeweed has not been studied extensively. A few in vitro studies suggest it has antioxidant and acetylcholinesterase inhibition properties (5). Pokeweed antiviral protein, an N-glycosidase ribosomal-inactivating protein isolated from the plant, demonstrated antiviral effects against encephalitis infection (6).

Pokeweed causes significant toxicity following oral or topical administration.

Purported Uses and Benefits
  • Cancer
  • Infections
  • Inflammation
Mechanism of Action

Pokeweed mitogens and glycosidic saponins are known toxins that possess mitogenic and irritant properties (1). Pokeweed antiviral protein shows broad antiviral activity in vitro, and inhibits replication of herpes simplex, influenza and poliovirus, possibly via inactivation of eukaryotic ribosomes (2). Saponin extracts, chiefly phytolaccagenin, exhibit antiinflammatory activity as demonstrated by carrageenan rat paw edema tests. Pokeweed’s histamine and GABA content may have hypotensive effects. An antifungal peptide extract from pokeweed displayed fungistatic effects against a variety of species in vitro (3).


Significant toxicity results from oral and topical administration of pokeweed.

Adverse Reactions

Reported: Nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, weakness, hematemesis, hypotension, tachycardia.
Toxicity: Prolonged vomiting, bloody diarrhea, dyspnea, muscle spasms, convulsions, death.

  1. Newall C, et al. Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health-Care Professionals, 1st ed. London: Pharmaceutical Press; 1996.
  2. Irvin JD. Pokeweed antiviral protein. Pharmacol Ther 1983;21:371-87.
  3. Shao F, et al. A new antifungal peptide from the seeds of Phytolacca americana: characterization, amino acid sequence and cDNA cloning. Biochim Biophys Acta 1999;1430:262-8.
  4. Takahashi H, et al. Triterpene glycosides from the cultures of Phytolacca americana. Chem Pharm Bull 2001;49:246-8.
  5. Zheleva-Dimitrova DZh. Antioxidant and acetylcholinesterase inhibition properties of Amorpha fruticosa L. and Phytolacca americana L. Pharmacogn Mag. 2013 Apr;9(34):109-13.
  6. Ishag HZ, Li C, Huang L, et al. Inhibition of Japanese encephalitis virus infection in vitro and in vivo by pokeweed antiviral protein. Virus Res. 2013 Jan;171(1):89-96.
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