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California Poppy for Pain, Does it Really Work?

Tim Boyer's picture

On a recently televised health program, an alternative medicine/naturopath physician promoted the claim that an extract of the California Poppy is a little-known, but safe and effective pain reliever that the pharmaceutical industry does not want the public to know about.

In his promotion he discusses its availability and low cost in health food stores and that it requires only 3/4 of a teaspoon per night that will not only help people with their muscleoskeletal pain, but will work as a safe sleep-inducing aid as well. He stated that multiple studies have shown that this is an effective medicine and that the drug industry is not interested in it because it cannot patent a natural product.

While the patenting of pharmaceuticals is a complex process and there is no easy way to determine a company’s real reason for not pursuing a potentially effective medication, what is easier to do is to search for relevant studies to see if there is scientific support for the claim that the California poppy is a pain reliever. The following is a summary of two studies that are most likely the “multiple studies” claim made in support of the California Poppy extract by promoters of the herbal drug.

Plant Medica article

In the journal Plant Medica, a journal of medicinal plants and natural product research, researchers published a 1991 study that investigated the analgesic effects and sedative properties of the California Poppy—Eschscholzia californica. The basis for their research of these properties was due to reports that Native Americans in the rural areas of California used the plant in their traditional medicine for pain relief.
In the study, mice were administered a range of doses of aqueous extracts of the plant, and their behaviors observed as they were put to tests commonly used when analyzing the anxiolytic effects of potential anti-anxiety drugs.

One of the tests performed involved isolating an extract-treated mouse in a box with a small stairway. Apparently, the less anxious a mouse feels due to the sedative-like effects of the extract, the higher it will climb up the steps in comparison to non-treated mice.

What the researchers determined was that a relatively high dose of aqueous extract derived from the California Poppy induced the mice to sleep, while lower doses appeared to decrease the anxiety in treated mice and led them to climb higher up the stairway than non-treated mice.

The authors of the paper also noted that there did not appear to be any toxic side effects from the extract.

Current Medical Research and Opinion article

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In a more recent article published in 2004 in the journal Current Medical Research and Opinion, researchers tested the effect of a combination of the California Poppy with magnesium and extracts from the hawthorn plant (Crataegus oxyacantha) as an anti-anxiety medication on humans.

In the study 264 patients presenting with generalized anxiety of mild-to-moderate intensity were randomly assigned to two groups: One group was given the study drug under the name of “Sympathyl” while the other group was given a placebo.

What the researchers found was that patient-rated anxiety fell during treatment, indicating clinical improvement and determined that their preparation containing fixed quantities of hawthorn, California Poppy, and magnesium proved safe and more effective than placebo in treating mild-to moderate anxiety disorders.

It should be noted that the drug Sympathyl is not prescribed in the U.S., but is prescribed in Europe and is available over the internet. However, an article published in 2007 in the journal American Family Physician warns against using several anti-anxiety herbal drugs including Sympathyl due to that no studies have conclusively shown that they either safe or effective.

Therefore, the evidence that taking an extract of the California Poppy as a safe and effective pain reliever is based on very little actual research that demonstrates safety and efficacy in humans. In spite of televised claims that an extract of the California Poppy is a legal and natural remedy for pain, the truth is that the “multiple studies” claim to support the promotion of the product really just isn’t there. However, if you decide to try this pain cure for yourself, please see your physician and discuss with him your plans to do so and find out if you have an underlying condition that may contraindicate taking California Poppy for pain or as a sleep aid.

Image Source: Courtesy of Wikipedia


“Behavioural Effects of the American Traditional Plant Eschscholzia californica: Sedative and Anxiolytic Properties” Planta Medica 1991 ; 57(3): 212-216; Alain Rolland, Jacques Fleurentin, Marie-Claire Lanhers, Chafique Younos, René Misslin, François Mortier and Jean Marie Pelt.

“Double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study to evaluate the efficacy and safety of a fixed combination containing two plant extracts (Crataegus oxyacantha and Eschscholtzia californica) and magnesium in mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders” Current Medical research and Opinion 2004, Vol. 20, No. 1 , Pages 63-71; Michel Hanus, Jacqueline Lafon and Marc Mathieu.

“Herbal and Dietary Supplements for Treatment of Anxiety Disorders” American Family Physician. 2007 Aug 15; 76(4):549-556; Atezaz, Saeed, Richard M. Block, and Diana J. Antonacci.