Forskolin is a chemical compound produced by a plant known as the Indian coleus, or Plectranthus, among many other names. It is an aromatic plant that is native to Brazil, tropical zones of Africa, India and Sri Lanka that was widely used for medicinal and food purposes. After much scientific research, the active compound found in the leaves and roots responsible for medicinal properties was forskolin, which is now extracted for application in multiple settings (1).
While forskolin is growing in popularity for use in treating a variety of ailments and conditions, from obesity, constipation, and other digestive issues to liver disease and amoebas, it is important to keep in mind that it is a chemical that has a direct effect on how our body works. In other words, if it used freely or without medical supervision, its side effects and dangers can be very serious.
In this article, we review scientific research to describe if and how forskolin works for different ailments, as well as provide information about the potential dangers and side effects of taking forskolin.
Traditional Uses of Indian coleus, the Source of Forskolin
Around the world, there are multiple names for the plant forskolin comes from, which makes it difficult to track its history and uses. One study made an effort to analyze the references to different species in scientific literature to determine similarities and differences in their use. Here, researchers found that the 62 species of Plectranthus, when grouped based on genetic differences, did have similarities in their traditional use (2).
It was found that, throughout history, one group of Indian coleus species was frequently used as medicines to treat ailments like digestive, skin, infective and respiratory problems. This first group of Indian coleus happens to be the source of forskolin, which may explain why it has been used to treat ailments. The other group was mostly used for food, flavor, fodder, and materials (2).
Indian coleus plant root has been used since ancient times for heart problems, including high blood pressure and chest pain, as well as to improve breathing (3).
In Brazil, the leaves of the coleus plant, the source of forskolin, are prepared as a tea for heart and digestive problems or made into a paste with water to use on the skin for headaches or skin problems (1).
In India, the root tubers of the Indian Coleus are used as food, while certain species are used in traditional Ayurvedic healing (3, 13).
Hospital and Clinical Uses
While forskolin is still used in holistic medicine or phototherapy (plant therapy), it also has a purpose in hospital and clinical settings. Forskolin, also known as labdane diterpene forskolin or coleonol, is extracted from the plant and used for research and therapeutic purposes.
In research, it is used to study the role of certain enzymes (like adenylate cyclase and cyclic-AMP, among others) in cellular biology. Since it modulates enzyme function, there is hope that it may be used as a drug to treat hypertension, glaucoma, asthma and certain cancers (4).
Currently, it is used by some healthcare providers to people via IV (intravenously) for heart failure (4, 5).
People are buying forskolin pills, powders, and drops over the counter to treat a series of ailments, including overweight and obesity, period pains, skin conditions insomnia, IBS, high blood pressure, and even erectile dysfunction. There is insufficient evidence to support any of these claims (6).
Some small human and lab studies have examined the effectiveness for weight loss, and seem to show an initial indication that taking forskolin favors a reduction in body fat percentage, while also increasing bone mass and testosterone levels (7, 8).
The only uses of forskolin there is some scientific evidence to support is its use for a heart condition called idiopathic congestive cardiomyopathy, asthma, and glaucoma (9, 10, 11, 12).
Side Effects and Dangers
Because forskolin can be purchased over the counter relatively easily, abuse of the product is not uncommon, which can lead to some side effects. These include (13, 14):
- Bleeding disorders: Since forskolin causes the blood to thin, it may cause bleeding disorders in some people, especially if they are taking anti-clotting medicine.
- Interference with heart disease treatment: Forskolin has shown to interact with some treatments prescribed for heart disease, which either lower blood pressure or thin the blood.
- Might cause low blood pressure: If you already have low blood pressure, this could be dangerous as blood pressure that is too low causes dizziness, fainting, and heart problems.
- Increased bleeding after surgery: Forskolin may keep the blood from clotting, due to its effect on enzymes. After surgery, this could be problematic if they aren’t able to stop it.
Forskolin and the plant it comes from has been used for generations around the world for both medicinal and food purposes. Only recently has the western medical world discovered how this compound could be beneficial for use in hospital and clinical settings. Simultaneously, however, supplement companies have tried to capitalize on forskolin and have made pill, powder, and liquid forms of the chemical easily accessible to the general public. This has led to the misuse of forskolin to self-medicate, and, in turn, to a range of dangerous side effects.
It is always important to consult with your physician before taking on any supplement regimen to ensure that it won’t interfere with any treatments or worsen any conditions you may have.