Speaking of coptis root, which is also known as rhizoma coptidis and Huang Lian, bitterness may be the first thing that comes to mind for most people. Its bitterness is so strong and distinct that seemingly its bitterness could even sting your eyes when you lay your eyes on it. No wonder in China there is a widespread old saying, “The dumb man eating the coptis herb – he had to suffer the bitterness in silence.” As you may know, this is one of commonly used Chinese herbs, which was initially recorded in the Shennong Bencao Jing (Shennong Emperor’s Classic of Materia Medica) and listed as one of the best herbs. Today this herb becomes one of the 40 kinds of large bulk herbs and also one of the 30 kinds of most valuable Chinese herbal medicines. It is quite normal that you have an aversion to the bitter flavor as bitterness would stomp on the back of your tongue. However, you may not know the fact that the extensive coptis medicinal uses actually derive from this unsavory taste – bitter pills may have blessed effects. As it turns out, coptis is that type of blessed herb used for a variety of diseases, especially for gastrointestinal disorders.
What is coptis?
Medicinally it mainly means the dried root and rhizome of Coptis chinensis Franch. (Wei Lian), Coptis deltoidea C. Y. Cheng et Hsiao (Ya Lian), or Coptis teeta Wall. (Yun Lian), which are plants in the family Ranunculaceae. As you can see, these three species are different from coptis japonica that is native to Japan. Therefore, other common names of this herb are coptis rhizome, rhizoma coptidis, Chinese gold thread, Chuan lian, coptidis rhizoma, coptis chinensis root, coptis goldthread, etc. Commercially most of them are from cultivation and mainly produced in Sichuan, Yunnan, and Hubei. The one collected during autumn is usually considered superior medicinally. And after the harvest, it needs to remove its fibrous roots and dirt attached and dried. And it is used raw, fried alone, or processed with ginger juice, rice wine, or evodia decoction.
The plant of coptis chinensis is a perennial herb. Root & rhizome is yellow, branched often, and densely covered with many fibrils. All leaves are basal. Petiole is from 5 to 16cm. Blade is papery, ovate-triangular, 10cm wide, and 3-lobed. Flower stems are 1 to 2 in number, equal or longer to leaf in length. Dichotomous or pleiochasium cyme has 3 to 8 flowers. Bracts are lanceolate and 3 to 5 pinnatipartite. Seeds are 7 to 8 pieces, oblong, about 2mm, and brown. Its flowering period is from February to April and fruiting period from March to June.
Major chemical constituents of Coptis chinensis are 5.56% to 7.25% berberine, coptisine, epiberberine, berberrubine, palmatine, columbamine, jatrorrhizine, worenine, magnoflorine, ferulic acid, obakunone, and obakulactone.
Coptis root benefits
As one of articles of tribute in Ming and Qing Dynasties, this herb has a long history of treating illness. Actually coptis is a household name because there are tons of famous herbal formulas that contain this ingredient. As far as Shang Han Lun (On Cold Damage) is concerned, there are 12 prescriptions containing coptis, which accounts for about 10% of total number of this book. This book was introduced to Korea, Japan, and countries in Southeast Asia in Tang Dynasty and, more importantly, these formulas are still frequently put to use by the doctors of traditional Chinese medicine in these places. What’s more, according to the statistics there are as many as more than 260 formulas included in Qian Jin Yao Fang (Thousand Golden Essential Prescriptions) and Wai Tai Mi Yao (The Secret Medical Essentials of a Provincial Governor). It is thus clear that how widely this herb is used medicinally. So far, there are various coptis preparations available on the market, such as coptis chinensis root extract, tea, oil, tablets, teapills, ointment, cream, supplement, tincture, capsules, etc. And these products are mainly used for lyme, diabetes, insomnia, endometriosis, acne, weight loss, and so on. And here is its pharmacology to justify its health benefits.
Modern pharmacological actions of rhizoma coptidis
1. It has a strong antibacterial effect on staphylococcus, streptococcus, pneumococcus, Vibrio cholerae, Bacillus anthracis, and dysentery bacterium except Shigella sonnei;
2. It also has an antibacterial effect on Klebsiella pneumoniae, Corynebacterium diphtheriae, Bacillus subtilis, Bordetella pertussis, yersinia pestis, brucellosis, and tuberculosis;
3. It has poor antibacterial effect on E. coli, Proteus, and Salmonella typhi;
4. The berberine can stimulate the heart, increase its contractility, and increase coronary blood flow when used in small dose and suppress the heart and weaken its contraction when used in large dose;
5. The berberine can reduce the heart rate of toad and stimulate the isolated atria of rabbit, guinea pig, and rat. It can also resist arrhythmia, have good cholagogic action, inhibit gastric secretion, arrest diarrhea, prevent acute inflammation, fight cancer, reduce tissue metabolism, and so on. And small dose of berberine can strengthen the excitability process in mouse’s cerebral cortex while large dose instead can strengthen the inhibition process;
6. Berberine and tetrahydroberberine can reduce myocardial oxygen consumption;
7. Berberine and its extracts have anti-ulcer effect.
Popular herbal coptis formula
Chinese Materia Medica believes that it is bitter in flavor and cold in properties and covers four meridians, such as heart, liver, stomach, and large intestine. Essential coptis effects and functions are clearing heat-fire, eliminating dampness, and relieve internal heat. Fundamental coptis root uses and indications include high fever due to the attack of heart channel by heat pathogen, irritability, delirium or hematemesis and nosebleed caused by excess heat forcing blood’s hyperactivity, feeling of stuffiness in chest due to damp heat, diarrhea, dysentery, annoyance and insomnia caused by heart-fire hyperactivity, vomiting swift digestion with rapid hungering caused by stomach heat, liver-fire induced swelling and pain of eye, heat-toxicity sore and ulcer, furunculosis, swelling and aching of gum, mouth sores, acute or chronic suppurative ear disease, swelling and pain in the pudenda, hemorrhoid bleeding, eczema, burns. Recommended coptis dosage is from 1.5 to 3 grams in decoction and 0.3 to 0.6 grams in powder or in pills.
1. San Huang Xie Xin Tang (coptis and rhubarb combination). From Jin Gui Yao Lue (Essential Prescriptions of the Golden Cabinet), this formula combines it with Da Huang (rhubarb) and Huang Qin (Scutellaria) for the treatment of spitting blood and bleeding from five sense organs or subcutaneous tissue because of blazing internal fire inducing blood’s hyperactivity.
2. Huang Lian E Jiao Tang. From Shang Han Lun, this prescription is mainly formulated for the impairment of yin by excessive heat and vexation and sleeplessness. Other major herbal ingredients include Baical Skullcap, Bai Shao (White Peony), E Jiao (Donkey-Hide Gelatin), etc.
3. Huang Lian Shang Qing Wan. From 2002 Addendum to 2000 Pharmacopoeia, the recipe is primarily designed for wind heat in upper warmer induced head spinning, swollen gums, mouth sores, sore throat, earache, tinnitus, dry stools, and yellow urine. Other herbs include Zhi Zi (Cape Jasmine Fruit), Lian Qiao (Forsythia), Man Jing Zi (Vitex), Fang Feng (Saposhnikovia Divaricata), and so on.
4. Huang Lian Jie Du Tang (coptis decoction to relieve toxicity). From Wai Tai Mi Yao, the Coptis Detoxifying Formula uses it along with Scutellaria, Huang Bo (Amur Cork Tree Bark), and Gardenia to cure carbuncle and swollen boils.
5. Qing Wei San. From Lan Shi Mi Cang (Secrets from the Orchid Chamber), it is basically made for unbearable toothache because of stomach fire attack. The rest major herbs are Sheng Di Huang (Rehmannia), Sheng Ma (Black Cohosh Rhizome), Mu Dan Pi (Tree Peony Root Cortex), and more.
Coptis root side effects and contraindications
The most common adverse reactions about Chinese coptis root are vomiting and nausea in large dose taken in a long term. What’s more, it should be avoided by patients who are using antihypertensive medications and infants with jaundice. TCM wise, it shouldn’t be used in those who are suffering from deficiency-cold in spleen and stomach because overdose or long-term use of extremely cold-bitter natured herb may lead to the impairment of spleen and stomach. In addition, use with care in the case of deficiency of yin and body fluid impairment.