Centipedes, also known as Wu Gong in Pinyin, are an important animal Chinese herb with thousands of years of medicinal history. However, the facts about centipedes aren’t always that interesting. Being the leading one in the notorious “Five Deadly Venoms”, along with snakes, scorpions, gecko, and toads, it can secrete large amounts of venom and then poison the prey by injecting them under the skin. Nevertheless, it is the centipede venom that is frequently used as a secret weapon in Chinese herbal remedies to treat incurable disease. Such practice is often referred to as “fighting deadly diseases with deadly poison.” It makes sense too from the point of view of West Medicine since the modern pharmacological research confirmed that its medicinal ingredient is exactly its toxic ingredient, histamine-like substances and hemolytic protein. No wonder these days centipede is widely used for the treatment of tuberculous pleuritis, tuberculosis, bone tuberculosis, mammary (breast) tuberculosis, cervical lymphatic tuberculosis, esophageal cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer, lung cancer, uterine cancer, lip cancer, etc.
What is centipede?
Medicinally it mainly refers to the dried body of Scolopendra subspinipes mutilans L. Koch or Scolopendra multidens Newport, a species in the family Scolopendridae. In China it is primarily produced in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hubei, Hunan, Henan, and Shaanxi. The medicinal centipedes are typically captured in spring and summer, inserted with a bamboo chip from head to tail, kept the body straight, and dried.
Centipede has a pair of limbs with stings on the lower part of the head. At the end of the stings there is a venomous sting opening, which can discharge venom to poison small animals or resist foreign invasion. During the day it hides in the shadows and hunts at night. It feeds on earthworms, insects and other animals. The medicinal centipede is only with 21 pairs of ambulatory leg and 1 pair of maxillipede. Common house centipedes like scutigera coleoptrata is its close relatives that have 15 pairs of walking legs and 1 pair of jaws foot; stone centipedes (Lithobius) have 15 pairs of walking legs too. But other some species are with much shorter ambulatory legs, for example, 35 pairs, 45 pairs, or even 191 pairs.
It contains 2 toxic ingredients that resemble bee venom – histamine-like substances and hemolytic protein. It still contains fatty oils, cholesterol, formic acid and the like. And other ingredients isolated include δ-hydroxylysine and amino acids like histidine, arginine, ornithine, lysine, glycine, alanine, valine, leucine, phenylpropyl leucine, serine, taurine, and glutamic acid. Besides, it contains carbohydrate, protein and trace elements like iron, zinc, manganese, calcium, and magnesium.
Medical facts about centipedes
There have been some reports that some cancer patients had ever tried to swallow live centipedes to fight this disease and it turned out that their life span and quality of life had been improved. This fact gives a glimmer of hope to a lot of cancer patients. No doubt centipedes have anti-cancer effect but swallowing live centipedes is quite dangerous since its venom is still strong enough to kill a person even though their head and feet have been removed beforehand. Following the formal medical approaches is highly recommended. As you may know, the centipede used in Chinese medicine has to go through some special processing steps before the application.
Else, for different cancer patients centipedes require to combine with different herbs to bring the best out of them, e.g., treating breast cancer needs to combine some herbs that reduce swelling, remove blood stasis and nourish liver; treating leukemia still needs herbs with healing properties of tonifying spleen and enriching blood; treating lung cancer needs herbs that can nourish Yin and tonify lung too.
So far, centipede has achieved a certain effect in the treatment of a variety of cancers, such as esophageal cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, colon cancer, cervical cancer, liver cancer, and so on. However, this is a comprehensive process. And if necessary, using it as an auxiliary mean to surgery and chemotherapy is also a good idea.
Modern pharmacological actions of centipedes
1) Its water extract has obvious antagonism to strychnine-induced convulsions;
2) Its water extract has different degrees of inhibition on mycobacterium tuberculosis and a variety of skin fungi;
3) Its decoction can improve microcirculation, prolong clotting time, and reduce blood viscosity in mice. In addition, it has a significant analgesic, anti-inflammatory effects.
Sample centipede recipes on herbal remedies
The “Chinese Pharmacopoeia” believes that centipede is acrid in flavor and warm, toxic in nature. It covers meridian liver. Essential functions are calming liver wind to relieve spasm, counteracting toxic substances, removing stasis, and activating meridians to stop pain. Prime centipede uses and indications include convulsions in young children, twitching spasms, drooping mouth corners and hemiplegia due to stroke, tetanus, rheumatism, chronic arthralgia, sore, scrofula, and snake bites. Recommended dosage is from 3 to 5 grams.
1) Zhu Feng Tang from Yi Xue Zhong Zhong Can Xi Lu (Records of Heart-Felt Experiences in Medicine with Reference to the West). It is combined with Sheng Jian Qi (Wikstroemia dolichantha root), Dang Gui (Dong Quai), Qiang Huo (Notopterygium), Du Huo (Angelica Root), and Quan Xie (Scorpion) to treat twitching spasms due to stroke or tetanus;
2) Wan Jin San from Tai Ping Sheng Hui Fang (Taiping Holy Prescriptions for Universal Relief). It is formulated with Dan Sha (cinnabar) and Qing Fen (Calomel) to cure acute infantile convulsions;
3) Wu Gong San from Ru Men Shi Qin (How the Literati Care for Their Parents). It is matched with Wu Tou (Radix Aconiti Carmichaeli), Fu Zi (aconite), and scorpion to heal tetanus;
4) Wu Gong Xing Feng San from Yi Zong Jin Jian (Golden Mirror of Orthodox medicine). It is coupled with Jiang Biao (swim bladder of river fish), Dan Nan Xing (Jack in the Pulpit Rhizome and Bile), and Fang Feng (Ledebouriella Root) to treat tetanus-induced limb spasm and lockjaw;
5) Wu Gong San from Yang Yi Da Quan (A Compendium of External Diseases). It is equipped with scorpion and Xiong Huang (realgar) to cure snake-head furuncle that is swollen, red, extremely painful, and accompanied with fever;
6) Wu Gong San from Dong Tian Ao Zhi (Profound Essence of the Heaven). It works with Bai Zhi (Angelica Dahurica), realgar, and Zhang Nao (camphor) to heal snake bites.
Clinical research of centipede
a) According to reports, the centipede powder capsules can be used in the treatment of intractable migraine. And it is often with satisfactory results;
b) 16 cases of herpes zoster have been treated by the paste of Huang Lian (Coptis Root) 20g, centipedes 5, and Bing Pian (borneol). And after the affected area is applied with this paste, all of them were cured;
c) A large number of clinical cases showed that the pairing of Centipede and Scorpion is good for the treatment of hemiplegic paralysis caused by stroke.
Poisonous centipede facts
True facts on centipede bites are so scary. So are its side effects when used as drug. The reason for the centipede poisoning is twofold: overdose plus allergic reactions. Poisoning symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, unconsciousness, slow heartbeat, difficulty breathing, decreased body temperature, lowered blood pressure and so on. What’s more, when hemolytic reaction occurs, the brown urine, black stool, and hemolytic anemia usually follow. Allergic reactions include a rash or hives somewhere on the body in mild cases or even anaphylactic shock in severe cases. It was also reported that taking centipede powder ever induced liver dysfunction and acute renal failure. So, clinically the dose of centipede should be strictly controlled and the individual physical differences should be given special attention.
The general therapies for centipede poisoning include emetic method and gastric lavage in early stage; patients with bradycardia can be given with intramuscular atropine; for patients with respiratory and circulatory failure, central stimulants, cardiac and vasopressors can be a good way to go; allergic patients should receive anti-allergy treatment. And it can be relieved by herbal remedies by frequently taking tea or decoction of Feng Wei Cao (phoenix-tail fern), Jin Yin Hua (Honeysuckle Flower), and Gan Cao (Licorice Root).
a) Xin Zhong Yi (New Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine), 1995; 3:13;
b) Liao Ning Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Liaoning) 1982; 3:24;
c) Shan Xi Zhong Yi (Shanxi Traditional Chinese Medicine), 1987; 1:37.