The Health Benefits of Coptis Chinensis

A plant used in TCM to improve digestive health, diabetes, and more

Coptis Chinensis capsules, tincture, dried herb, and tea bags

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

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Coptis chinensis is a species of flowering plant used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It is, in fact, one of the 50 fundamental herbs of TCM and is often used to treat gastrointestinal disorders and other medical conditions.

Coptis chinensis is widely sold in the form of dietary supplements, extracts, tinctures, and dried whole leaves and roots.

Also Known As

  • Chinese goldthread
  • Huang lian
  • Huang lian su wan

Health Benefits

Coptis chinensis contains several compounds thought to enhance health, including a salt known as berberine. Berberine belongs to a class of compounds called alkaloids that are known to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Among TCM practitioners, Coptis chinensis is said to enter the meridians of the heart, liver, stomach, and large intestine. Because its properties are bitter (astringent) and cold, Coptis chinensis is believed to aid in the treatment of the following conditions:

  • Bacterial dysentery
  • Acute gastroenteritis
  • Pulmonary turberculosis
  • Suppurative otitis media (ear infection)
  • Arrythmias
  • Hypertension
  • Osteomyelitus

In addition, Coptis chinensis is believed by some to prevent cancer and protect against liver disease.

Despite being used for an array of health issues in TCM, there is little evidence that Coptis chinensis offers any health benefits. Most of the research on the herb tends to be small or poorly designed with conclusions that are often exaggerated or limited by the size and design of the study.

With that being said, there are some areas of research in which Coptis chinensis offers some promise.

Gastrointestinal Health

One of the primary uses of huang lian In TCM is the treatment or prevention of gastrointestinal disorders, including diarrhea, gastroenteritis (stomach flu), and bacterial dysentery.

In addition to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects, Coptis chinensis is believed to increase intestinal motility, aiding in digestion and preventing constipation. Sadly, these effects have been little investigated in research.

One key study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2011 reported that rats with chemically induced sepsis of the gut sustained less intestinal injury if fed Coptis chinensis prior to the induction.

According to the researchers, the rats were fed either a Coptis chinenesis extract containing 9.9% berberine or varying doses of refined berberine. Compared to untreated rats, those treated with supplements experienced little intestinal damage due to sharp rises in the antioxidants superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase.

This suggests that Coptis chinensis offers protective benefits to the gut and intestines even in extreme scenarios like sepsis.


A number of animal-based studies suggest that Coptis chinensis may have anti-diabetic properties.

According to a 2011 study in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, rats fed a formulation called Tang-Min-Ling (the primary ingredient of which is Coptis chinensis) had less fluctuation in their oral glucose response than rats that were not. This suggests that Coptis chinensis may improve glucose tolerance and aid in the prevention or treatment of type 2 diabetes.

Despite the positive findings, there is no way to know how much Coptis chinensis may have contributed to this effect given that many other herbs—including Chinese skullcap, Chinese rhubarb, and bupleurum—were included in the formulation.

A 2014 review of studies in BioMed Research International concluded that the evidence supporting the use of Coptis chinensis in treating diabetes "needs to be interpreted with caution." Not only is much of the evidence contradictory, but scientists have yet to pinpoint the mechanisms that are said to promote these effects.

And, as with all animal research, results must be replicated in people to be considered applicable for human use.

Heart Disease

Coptis chinensis may aid in the treatment or prevention of heart disease, says a 2016 review of studies in Frontiers in Pharmacology. It appears to do so, in part, by normalizing blood lipids, including cholesterol and triglycerides.

This, in turn, has a knock-on effect, preventing the buildup of arterial plaque and the development of atherosclerosis while reducing the accumulation of visceral fat.

Berberine is believed to account for many of these effects. In eight of the 43 reviewed studies, berberine appeared to reduce the impact of heart attacks by minimizing collateral tissue damage. With that said, most of the evidence was limited to animal or tissue studies.

Possible Side Effects

There is not a lot known about the long-term safety of Coptis chinensis. While the herbal remedy is generally well tolerated, it may pose risks in some.

Among the concerns, berberine is known to cause an increase in a naturally occurring compound known as bilirubin. While this effect is unlikely to cause harm in most, it may cause brain damage in both newborns and developing fetuses.

For this reason, Coptis chinensis should never be used in children, during pregnancy, or while breastfeeding.

Berberine can also lower blood glucose and should be used with caution in people taking diabetes medications. In some instances, the combined use may trigger a significant drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia).

Coptis chinensis can interact with the immunosuppressive drug cyclosporine, which is used to prevent organ rejection and treat certain autoimmune diseases. Coptis chinensis may speed the breakdown of cyclosporine and reduce the drug's efficacy. As such, the herb should be avoided if you are being treated with cyclosporine.

According to TCM, pork consumption should also be avoided while taking huang lian.

Coptis Chinensis capsules

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Selection, Preparation, and Storage 

Coptis chinensis can be found online or in an increasing number of specialty drugstores and nutritional supplement shops. It is commonly sold as a dietary supplement, either in capsule or tablet form. Tinctures, extracts, teas, and dried whole roots and leaves are also available.

Because herbal supplements are not strictly regulated in the United States, it can be hard to determine which are safe. In addition, few TCM manufacturers voluntarily submit their products for testing by an independent certifying body like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International. This leaves it up to you make the wisest choice.

There are several ways you can do this:

  • Look for manufacturers who use good manufacturing practices (GMP). A product with a GMP seal provides assurance that it meets significant quality standards set by the US Food and Drug Administration.
  • Always read the product label. It should clearly list Coptis chinensis (or one of the alternative names listed above) as the main ingredient rather than any of the other 10 or so Coptis species. Be wary of any added ingredients that you don't recognize. Also, look for GMP certification on products.
  • Choose pure, organic products. These are less likely to expose you to pesticides and other harmful chemicals. (The word "pure" simply means there are no other added ingredients.)
  • Be careful about imported remedies. Even though you may be inclined to buy "real" huang lian from a Chinese manufacturer, never buy a product whose label you cannot read.

There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of Coptis chinensis. As a rule of thumb, always use the product as directed and never exceed the recommended dose. This doesn't mean that the product is safe or effective; it simply reduces the risk of overdosing. Most Chinese herbs should be used under the supervision of a licensed herbologist.

Never use a Coptis chinensis product after its expiration date.

Store products in a cool, dry place. Discard anything that changes in color, consistency, smell, or taste, most especially dried roots or leaves.

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