The Health Benefits of the Coptis Chinensis

Angelica and coptis chinensis

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Coptis chinensis, also known as the Chinese goldthread, is a species of a flowering plant used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It is, in fact, one of the 50 fundamental herbs of TCM, where it is referred to as huang lian. Widely sold as dietary supplements, extracts, tinctures, and dried whole leaves and roots, Coptis chinensis is often used to treat gastrointestinal disorders and other medical conditions.

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. Berberis has a bright yellow color and is traditionally used as a fabric dye.

Health Benefits

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

  • Cholera
  • Diabetes
  • Diarrhea 
  • Ear infection
  • Heart disease 
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Respiratory infections
  • Sore throat
  • Vaginal infections

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

There is little evidence that Coptis chinensis offer any health benefits. Most of the research 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 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 the 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 intestine 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, such as sepsis.

Diabetes

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 (whose primary ingredient 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 Coptic 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 Coptic chinensis in treating diabetes "needs to be interpreted with caution." Not only is much of evidence contradictory, but scientists have yet to pinpoint the mechanisms that are said to promote these effects.

Heart Disease

Coptis chinensis may also 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 an alarming drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia).

Coptis chinensis can interact with the immunosuppressive drug cyclosporine 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, Coptis chinensis should be avoided if you are being treated with cyclosporine.

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, as well as tinctures, extracts, teas, and dried whole roots and leaves.

Some of these products will be labeled Coptis chinensis or Chinese goldthread, while others may go by the Chinese names huang lian, huang lian su wan, or huang lian jie du pian.

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.

Never used a Coptis chinensis product after its expiration date. Discard of any product that changes in color, consistency, smell, or taste, most especially dried roots or leaves.

Other Questions

How do you know if a herbal remedy is safe?

Because herbal supplements are not strictly regulated in the United States, it can be hard to determine which are safe. It's even trickier since 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:

  • Always read the product label. It should clearly list Coptis chinensis as the main ingredient rather than any of the other 10 or so Coptis species. Be wary of any added ingredient that you don't recognize.
  • 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 you cannot read. Moreover, don't assume that natural is the same thing as safe.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, imported TCM products frequently test positive for undeclared plant or animal materials, pesticides, heavy metals, and even pharmaceutical drugs.

This is not to suggest that all TCM remedies are problematic. But, without the means to confirm that a product is untainted, you have to use your best judgment and not be swayed by claims that may or may not be true.

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