Corydalis — Is It the “Best-Ever” Pain Reliever?
With concern about pain relief at an all-time high, the herbal supplement known as corydalis is under close scrutiny. Journal articles, magazine features and television programs all tout the potential benefits of corydalis. Sufferers of both acute and chronic pain are looking for an effective approach to feel better fast. North America has possibly the worst opioid crisis anywhere in the modern world with more than 40 deaths daily from overdose. Could corydalis be the answer to prayer here?
Many experts believe that corydalis is effective to treat chronic, low-intensity, persistent pain. They appreciate, too, that it does not carry the risk of addiction that many pharmaceutical opiate drugs do. On a recent television broadcast of The Dr. Oz Show, for example, Dr. Mehmet Oz recommended corydalis. He suggested using it for relief of headaches, menstrual pain and backaches — even back pain caused by nerve problems and muscle spasms.
History of Corydalis Use
Corydalis has been in use since the eighth century A. D. as a blood vitalizer in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) compounds. The herb is native to the Chinese province of Zhejiang. It now grows abundantly from the temperate Northern Hemisphere to the high mountains of tropical eastern Africa. It is also known as Chinese corydalis, yellow poppy or Yan Hu Suo (corydalis yanhusuo) in China, Engosaku in Japan and Yonhosaek in Korea.
In the Far East corydalis is thought to invigorate the blood, to move qi (energy that travels through the body) and to ease pain. It is classified as a powerful blood-moving herb, which relieves the stasis that causes pain according to TCM theory. Traditional practitioners often recommend it for relief of menstrual, abdominal and hernia discomfort. They also praise it for its mild analgesic, tranquilizing properties which relieve pain in general.
Corydalis: Its Current Use in TCM
This Chinese poppy plant, though non-addictive, exerts a powerful effect that can last as long as two hours. Many herbalists consider corydalis to be the second most effective pain reliever right behind opium. According to Chinese research, corydalis has an analgesic effect approximately 1% that of the strength of opium. Corydalis, though, does not have opium’s brutal side effects nor its potential for addiction. Corydalis appears as a potent ingredient in almost every TCM formula intended to manage pain. It is used, for example, to treat discomfort from the following condition:
- menstrual cramps
- abdominal/stomach ache
- chest pain
- hernia soreness
- discomfort from traumatic injuries
Typically corydalis is blended with other botanicals to enhance specific treatments. This approach is known as the synergistic effect. Its efficacy is well documented both in TCM and through current scientific studies using modern pharmacology methods. For example, corydalis can be combined with herbs such as frankincense and myrrh to relieve pain from injuries. Cinnamon bark is routinely added to treat menstrual pain. Fennel is incorporated to manage the discomfort of hernia. Herbalists also recommend the combination of liguisticum with corydalis for headache. In addition the ancient tradition of frying the whole herb in vinegar may enhance its pain-relieving properties in general.
Some traditional medicine websites claim that corydalis can also be successful in treating other conditions such as:
- mild depression
- emotional disturbances and mild mental disorders
- severe nerve damage
- limb tremors
- high blood pressure
- spasms in the small intestine
Further research is needed, though, before making final conclusions about the effectiveness of the herb for each of the conditions listed above.
What Does Western Research Reveal about Corydalis?
According to researchers who recently published in Current Biology: “We have good medications for acute pain: codeine or morphine, for example. We have pain medication for inflammatory pain such as aspirin or acetaminophen. We do not have good medications for chronic pain.”
Those authors studied dehydrocorybulbine (DHCB), a compound isolated from roots of the corydalis plant. They found DHCB to have a positive effect on all three types of human pain — acute, inflammatory and chronic/neuropathic pain. Even better, it did not cause dependence, tolerance or side effects among laboratory test animals. They speculate that DHCB acts not through the morphine receptor but through other receptors that, instead, bind dopamine and block the pain signal pathway.
Traditional practitioners have successfully used corydalis in China since ancient times. Much of modern research done according to protocols of Western medicine, though, is still in early stages. Laboratory animal studies suggest that corydalis may work to treat pain triggered by cold. Research also shows it to be effective in blocking inflammation and nerve pain. Corydalis appears to work in a way like that of prescription drugs that block pain signals in the brain. When used long term, corydalis does not appear to lose its effectiveness. Neither does it lead to antinociceptive tolerance, where the patient needs ever-increasing dosages to get the same effect.
According to Chinese research, the root of corydalis plant is a source of more than 20 different alkaloids. In laboratory research these compounds exhibit pharmacological actions on the central nervous system. Pain relief and sedation are among the most prominent. Besides DHCB, its tetrahydropalmatine (THP) component is another alkaloid with analgesic activity. Corydalis also contains bulbocapnine, occasionally used to treat convulsions, Parkinson’s disease and Meniere’s disease. It has been used experimentally, too, in the treatment of muscular tremors and vestibular nystagmus.
How Much/What Kind of Corydalis Should I Take?
Corydalis can be purchased online, at health food stores or from some TCM practitioners such as acupuncturists and herbalists. It is available in several forms: whole herbs, granules or capsules and softgels. Liquid extracts of corydalis root are also available in some markets.
You will need boil the whole herb to prepare a drink, a tincture or a decoction. You can also prepare potent tinctures by immersing the whole herb in vodka (or other alcoholic beverage) for two weeks. In granular form it is a single herb that can be mixed with hot water as a tea and sipped throughout the day. The beverage, though, is somewhat bitter and acrid; so, the granules can, instead, be mixed into yogurt or applesauce. As a capsule, corydalis is sometimes blended with a second herb, angelica. Capsules, too, may need a little longer to take effect. You might have to combine multiple capsules to equal one dose; so, check the bottle label carefully. For liquid extracts, follow label or package insert instructions.
The appropriate dose of corydalis depends on multiple factors including the user’s age, health and other conditions. There is only scanty scientific information to establish a precise range of doses for corydalis. Some experts recommend taking three to nine grams total per day, broken up into two or three doses. Be sure to follow relevant directions on each product label. Always consult with your pharmacist, physician or other healthcare professional before using any new herbal product.
Corydalis is generally considered to be safe for healthy adults. Experts recommend, though, to use it only for significant pain and not just to relieve occasional, minor discomfort. It should not be used at all by pregnant or breastfeeding women. The herb could possibly bring on vaginal bleeding and even cause the uterus to contract, eventually resulting in miscarriage. Not enough is known about the safety of using corydalis while breast-feeding; so, it is probably best to avoid use until breast feeding ends. People with an irregular heart rhythm or severe liver or kidney disease should not use corydalis without specific advice from a healthcare professional. Always keep it out of the reach of children.
Corydalis may have some interactions with certain medications. Use it with caution if you are also taking hypnotics, sedatives, cancer medications or anti-arrhythmic drugs. Corydalis may enhance the effects of sedatives, including alcohol and benzodiazepines. It also contains substances that reduce the formation of blood clots. People taking anticoagulant drugs, therefore, should use corydalis only under physician’s advice. In fact it is wise always to talk to a doctor or pharmacist about potential risks and benefits before trying any new herbal remedy or supplement. Overuse (many times the recommended dosage) could possibly lead to corydalis toxicity. In excess, it has potential to cause liver injury, nausea, fatigue or vertigo in some people.
Many herbal corydalis supplement products on the market today consist of ground herbs or corydalis granules. The highest quality product, though, results from a hot-water extraction process. This procedure assures technical purity as well as high potency of the concentrated, active ingredients. State-of-the-art extraction by hot water also safeguards against contamination by harmful chemicals or pollutants. Be sure to read the label carefully.
Before you begin taking corydalis, survey the range of other pain-relief treatments available on the market today:
Over-the-Counter Oral Analgesics
Topical Pain Relievers
Hot- and Cold-Packs
Natural (Alternative/Complimentary) Pain Remedies
You probably should also consult with your healthcare team for recommendations about the best pain reliever protocol for your specific needs.