Coptis is the underground stem (rhizome) or root of the plant Coptis chinensis. It is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a stomachic (a medication to improve digestive functions) and an antiseptic. Other related species are also called coptis and used in similar ways in other parts of the world. Coptis anemonaefolia is used in Japan. Coptis trifolia is used in North America, and Coptis teeta grows in India and is used in Ayurvedic medicine .
Coptis is a low, creeping perennial evergreen that grows in damp boggy spots in woods. The plant produces a mass of thread-like golden rhizomes that are used in healing. C. chinensis is native to the cooler parts of Asia and is extensively cultivated in Szechwan province in China. C. trifolia is native to eastern North America as far south as the mountains of Tennessee. Other names for the various species of coptis used in healing include goldthread, Chinese goldthread mouth root, cankerroot, yellowroot, coptidis, mishmi bitter, and chonlin. The Chinese name for C. chinensis is huang lian.
Coptis, or huang lian, has a long history of use in China. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), coptis is used to treat conditions associated with excess dampness and excess heat, such as insomnia and irritability. Heat in TCM means excessive activity, not high temperature, although the diseased part of the body could be red or inflamed. Coptis is said to have a cold nature and a bitter taste. In TCM, coptis is considered one of the 50 fundamental herbs. It is associated with the heart, liver, stomach, and large intestine.
More specifically, coptis is used to treat such gastrointestinal problems as diarrhea, vomiting , and bacterial dysentery. It is also used to treat chronic gall bladder inflammations. Other gastrointestinal conditions treated with coptis include abdominal cramps, acid reflux (heartburn ), ineffective or painful bowel movements, and bloody stools. Coptis is effective as a hemostatic, which means that it can be used to stop bleeding.
Chinese herbalists also use preparations made from coptis to relieve high fever and delirium. These preparations can be used as a gargle to relieve sore throats. Externally coptis can be used as a mouthwash to treat all kinds of mouth sores, including canker sores , tongue ulcers, and swollen gums. As an eyewash it is used for conjunctivitis (pink eye). On the skin it is used topically to treat acne, boils , carbuncles, burns , and infected cuts.
C. triflora is used in North America in some similar ways. In an interesting parallel, some Native American tribes used their native species of coptis as a wash for eye and mouth problems in much the same way as the Chinese. It was also used as a gargle for sore throats. Although it is not as popular in North America as in China, modern North American herbalists use coptis to treat indigestion . It is also used externally as a douche to treat vaginal infections . The herb is used in similar ways in India.
Modern scientific research supports many of the traditional uses of coptis. All species of this herb contain the compound berberine, which is a white or yellow water-soluble alkaloid. Berberine is known to have strong antibiotic effects. In test tube studies, berberine was shown to inhibit the growth of streptococcal bacteria responsible for some forms of pneumonia . This antibacterial activity supports the use of coptis to treat skin, mouth, eye, and vaginal infections.
Berberine also is known to stimulate the production of saliva, gastric juice, pancreatic juice, and bile, suggesting that there is a chemical basis for the traditional use of coptis in treating gastrointestinal disorders. Berberine is also found in such other healing plants as goldenseal, barberry , and Oregon grape. Preliminary test tube studies of berberine suggest that it may also be effective against fungal infections , some viruses, and certain intestinal parasites. The high level of interest in berberine in the research community means that more studies of coptis may soon be available.
The rhizomes and roots of coptis are harvested in the in the autumn and are used either dried or fresh. The herb is available powdered or as a tincture. The dosage varies according to the condition being treated. The actions of coptis are similar to the actions of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis ), and it is sometimes substituted for goldenseal in herbal remedies.
In Chinese herbalism, coptis is rarely used alone, but can be found as an ingredient in many formulas. These include hoelen and polyphorus, leonoris and achyranthes, tang gui and gardenia , and at least half a dozen other formulas.
Berberine is known to cause contractions of the uterus in laboratory animals. For this reason, it is recommended that pregnant women not take coptis or any other herb containing berberine.
No unwanted side effects have been reported when coptis is used in the amounts recommended by herbalists.
Coptis is has been used for thousands of years in China in conjunction with other herbs with no reported interactions. Since coptis is used most extensively in Asian medicine, there are no studies of its interactions with Western pharmaceuticals.
Chevallier, Andrew. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 1996.
Molony, David. Complete Guide to Chinese Herbal Medicine. New York: Berkeley Books, 1998.
PDR for Herbal Medicines. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics Company, 1999.
American Association of Oriental Medicine (AAOM). 433 Front Street, Catasauqua, PA 18032. (610) 266-2433.
"Coptis chinensis."Plants for a Future. http://www.pfaf.org.