A member of the mint family, Coleus forskohlii grows wild on the mountain slopes of Nepal, India, and Thailand. In traditional Asian systems of medicine, it was used for a variety of purposes, including treating skin rashes, asthma, bronchitis, insomnia, epilepsy, and angina. But modern interest is based almost entirely on the work of a drug company, Hoechst Pharmaceuticals.
Like other drug manufacturers, Hoechst regularly screens medicinal plants in hopes of discovering new medications. In 1974, work performed in collaboration with the Indian Central Drug Research Institute found that the rootstock of Coleus forskohlii could lower blood pressure and decrease muscle spasms. Intensive study identified a substance named forskolin that appeared to be responsible for much of this effect.
Like certain drugs used for asthma, forskolin increases the levels of a fundamental natural compound known as cyclic AMP.1,2 Cyclic AMP plays a major role in many cellular functions, and some drugs that affect it relax the muscles around the bronchial tubes.
The scientific evidence for the herb Coleus forskohlii as a treatment for any disease is weak. What is known relates to the substance forskolin rather than the whole herb.
Two preliminary controlled studies have found that oral forskolin may be beneficial for treatment of asthma.10,14 Forskolin may work by stabilizing the cells that release histamine and other inflammatory compounds.3, as well as by relaxing smooth muscle tissue.4,5
Based on these apparent effects, Coleus forskohlii has been suggested as a useful treatment for eczema and other allergic conditions, dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps), angina, irritable bowel syndrome (spastic colon), crampy bladder pain (as in bladder infections), and hypertension (high blood pressure). However, there is no direct evidence that it works.
One small double-blind study indicates that a concentrated forskolin extract might increase the rate of "fat burning," thereby potentially enhancing weight loss.12 In addition, forskolin eyedrops have shown promise in improving glaucoma.11
Coleus forskohlii has also been proposed as a treatment for psoriasis, because that disease appears to be at least partly related to low levels of cyclic AMP in skin cells.
A common dosage recommendation is 50 mg 2 or 3 times a day of an extract standardized to contain 18% forskolin. However, because such an extract provides significant levels of forskolin, a drug with wide-ranging properties, we recommend that Coleus forskohlii extracts be taken only with a doctor's supervision.
The safety of Coleus forskohlii and forskolin has not been fully evaluated, although few significant risks have been noted in studies done so far. Caution should be exercised when combining this herb with blood-pressure medications and "blood thinners."
In 2005, several cases of acute poisoning were reported in Italy, apparently caused by accidental contamination of Coleus forskohlii products with similar-appearing plants in the deadly nightshade family.13 Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established.
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Seamon KB, Daly JW. Forskolin: a unique diterpene activator of cAMP-generating systems. J Cyclic Nucleotide Res. 1981;7:201-224.
Laurenza A, Sutkowski EM, Seamon KB. Forskolin: a specific stimulator of adenylyl cyclase or a diterpene with multiple sites of action? Trends Pharmacol Sci. 1989;10:442-447.
Marone G, Columbo M, Triggiani S, et al. Forskolin inhibits the release of histamine from human basophils and mast cells. Agents Actions. 1986;18:96-99.
Ammon HPT, Muller AB. Forskolin: from an Ayurvedic remedy to a modern agent. Planta Med. 1985:473-477.
DeSouza NJ. Industrial development of traditional drugs: the forskolin example. A mini-review. J Ethnopharmacol. 1993;38:177-180.
Kreutner W, Chapman RW, Gulbenkian A, et al. Bronchodilatory and antiallergy activity of forskolin. Eur J Pharmacol. 1985;111:1-8.
Schlepper M, Thormann J, Mitrovic V. Cardiovascular effects of forskolin and phosphodiesterase-III inhibitors. Basic Res Cardiol. 1989;84(suppl 1):197-212.
Dubey MP, Srimal RC, Nityanand S, et al. Pharmacological studies on coleonol, a hypotensive diterpene from Coleus forskohlii. J Ethnopharmacol. 1981;3:1-13.
Yousif MH, Thulesius O. Forskolin reverses tachyphylaxis to the bronchodilator effects of salbutamol: an in-vitro study on isolated guinea-pig trachea. J Pharm Pharmacol. 1999;51:181-186.
Bauer K, Dietersdorfer F, Sertl K, et al. Pharmacodynamic effects of inhaled dry powder formulations of fenoterol and colforsin in asthma. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 1993;53:76-83.
Meyer BH, Stulting AA, Muller FO, et al. The effects of forskolin eye drops on intraocular pressure. S Afr Med J. 1987;71:570-571.
Godard MP, Johnson BA, Richmond SR, et al. Body composition and hormonal adaptations associated with forskolin consumption in overweight and obese men. Obes Res. 2005;13:1335-1343.
Contaminated Coleus forskohlii products cause adverse reactions in Italy. Available at: http://www.nutraingredients.com/news/ng.asp?n=60364m=1nie6...=tbtcgrwexqoosjy. Accessed January 6, 2005.
Gonzalez-Sanchez R, Trujillo X, Trujillo-Hernandez B et al. Forskolin versus sodium cromoglycate for prevention of asthma attacks: a single-blinded clinical trial. J Int Med Res. 2006;34:200-207.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.