While corydalis might not be well-known in the West, this plant is indispensable in the arsenal of any Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner. Praised for its ability to reduce pain, corydalis can also help you relax, keep blood pressure in check, and soothe belly aches. Read below to find out what science has to say about these claims.
What is Corydalis?
Corydalis encompasses over 470 types of plants that grow in the plains of Northern China, Japan, and Siberia. In this article, we’ll focus on Chinese corydalis.
Chinese corydalis is a small (8-inch high) plant with thin leaves and pink flowers. This plant belongs to the poppy family and is closely related to the opium (red) poppy. It mostly grows in the mountain regions of Zhejiang, an Eastern Chinese province, where people call it Yan hu suo [1+].
Some herbalists claim corydalis is the second most effective pain reliever, right behind opium. Unlike opium, corydalis does not seem to cause severe side effects or lead to addiction. But beware: the evidence to back up its use is limited and it is not safe during pregnancy [2+].
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), corydalis is said to invigorate the blood and move Qi (“life energy”). It is a key ingredient in many TCM formulas for reducing pain and discomfort from the following conditions :
- Menstrual cramps
- Stomach pain and abdominal issues
- Hernia soreness
- Traumatic injuries and nerve damage
- THP: Tetrahydropalmatine
- L-THP: L-Tetrahydropalmatine
- DHCB: Dehydrocorybulbine
- DHC: Dehydrocorydaline
Their painkilling properties have not yet been investigated in humans, but animal studies are promising.
In several animal studies, all above-mentioned compounds reduced pain caused by tissue injury, nerve damage, bone cancer, and chronic inflammation. In one animal study, DHCB did not cause drug tolerance or dependence in animals – unlike morphine and other opioids [10, 11, 2, 12, 13].
- Natural pain reliever
- May reduce gut discomfort
- May promote relaxation
- May stabilize blood pressure and protect the heart
- May help with substance abuse
- LImited clinical research
- Unsafe during pregnancy or breastfeeding
- May be toxic in large amounts
- Might interfere with other drugs
Corydalis for Pain
How Does It Work?
- Opioid receptors
- Dopamine receptors
The opioids you normally produce – endorphins and enkephalins- help you cope with everyday social situations minimizing fear, pain, and anxiety. These molecules also play an important role in the acute stress response and appetite – all through the opioid receptors .
Opioid painkillers strongly activate these receptors and ease chronic, severe pain. DHC in corydalis also activates opioid receptors, while other compounds in the plant may prevent the side effects [18, 13+].
Lastly, inflammation is part of the body’s natural response to infection and injury. However, persistent inflammation can turn into chronic pain and DHC helps to lower inflammatory markers (TNF-alpha, IL-1b, and IL-6) [22, 23, 13].
Osteoarthritis and Cancer Pain
Over a third of pain-relieving TCM herbal cocktails use corydalis as a key ingredient. It is particularly popular in remedies for premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menstrual cramps, and endometriosis. A couple of clinical studies support its painkilling effects [24+, 25].
Corydalis supplementation for two weeks reduced pain in 36 cancer patients. Its worked as well as diclofenac (Voltaren) – a popular nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Importantly, corydalis caused minimal side effects, while those who received diclofenac suffered from gut discomfort, liver, and kidney damage .
In a small clinical study of 79 patients suffering from osteoarthritis, corydalis was as effective as diclofenac at lowering knee pain .
Corydalis root is a key ingredient in a popular pain-relief TCM mixture called “Yuanhua analgesic capsule.” In one study, the capsules reduced arm pain after cold temperature exposure in 15 healthy volunteers. Higher doses provided faster results (6.5 g vs. 3.25 g) [3+].
Everyone has gotten a belly ache at one point or another in their life and for most people, it quickly resolves on its own. Some, however, suffer from stomach pain on a daily basis, usually due to stomach ulcers or low stomach acid [28+, 29, 30].
Stomach ulcers are sores on the lining of the stomach or small intestines that can cause a dull, throbbing pain .
Bacterial infection with H. Pylori and chronic use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are two common causes of most ulcers. H.pylori infection may not cause any distress. However, when the bacteria overgrow, they can create painful ulcers by [32+, 33, 34]:
- Weakening the protective stomach lining
- Making stomach tissue more sensitive to acid
- Increasing tissue inflammation
Jinlingzi and HZJW are two popular corydalis-containing TCM herbal powders prescribed to help with ulcers and stomach pain. In animals with stomach ulcers, both powders protected the stomach lining, decreased ulcer size, and lowered inflammation. HZJW could also directly kill H.pylori [4, 35+, 36].
Low Stomach Acid
Besides ulcers, persistent burning-like stomach pain can be a sign of low stomach acid or functional dyspepsia. Symptoms of dyspepsia include sluggish digestion, a heavy feeling after meals, and chronic constipation [37+].
Corydalis root is a key ingredient in DA-9701 or Motilitone – an herbal remedy for functional dyspepsia. In 2 clinical trials with over 800 patients, Motilitone (30-50 mg daily for 4 weeks) greatly improved symptoms of low stomach acid and provided relief from stomach pains and cramps [38, 39, 40].
When nerves become damaged, the body often responds with sharp, burning-like pain. This type of pain is called neuropathic and it impacts about 10% of adults .
What is worse, standard treatments for neuropathic pain (antidepressants and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) often aren’t effective. For many people, neuropathic pain becomes a chronic, life-long condition that greatly reduces their quality of life [42, 43].
In animals with spinal nerve damage, corydalis reduced neuropathic pain. Unlike most painkillers, even high doses of the herb didn’t cause sleepiness or dependence .
In another study, corydalis reduced burning sensations and pain in rats with a pinched sciatic nerve. It worked for both sudden (acute) and chronic pain .
In the United States, about 130 people die daily from a drug overdose. Overdose-related deaths have increased 6-fold in the past two years, indicating an opioid use crisis. Many of these drugs are potent pain-killing opioids .
Although beyond the scope of its traditional uses, corydalis might help battle addictions. Aside from relieving pain, which may lessen the use of synthetic opioids, it also reduces drug cravings .
In a clinical study of 119 heroin-addicted patients, L-THP from corydalis (60 mg 2X a day) for one month significantly reduced heroin craving and withdrawal symptoms .
Other Health Benefits of Corydalis
Anxiety and Insomnia
TCM herbalists describe corydalis a sedative and tranquilizer. It is usually prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome .
Corydalis is an ingredient in JWZXG, a popular TCM mixture of 9 herbs. An analysis of 14 clinical trials confirmed it reduces anxiety. Its effects were similar to azapirones – a class of anti-anxiety drugs. It did not reduce anxiety as much as SSRI antidepressants, yet it was safer and better tolerated .
In animals, an active compound from corydalis root called dl-THP promoted calmness and reduced agitation. It improved symptoms associated with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [56, 57, 58].
Corydalis roots are often used by TCM practitioners to help treat various heart conditions, like high blood pressure and irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia). L-THP, an active compound in corydalis, carries this benefit .
In a small clinical trial, 300-600 mg of dl-THP per day improved heart rhythm in patients suffering from a specific type of heart arrhythmia (supra-ventricular premature beat or SVPB). These arrhythmias make people feel as if their heart skipped a beat or is fluttering .
- Lower blood pressure
- Regulate heart rate and rhythm
- Minimize heart tissue damage after heart attacks
- Decrease markers of inflammation (TNF-alpha, myeloperoxidase)
Claims Lacking Evidence
Traditional Chinese Medicine herbalists claim that corydalis root can help with [68+]:
- Limb tremors/Parkinson’s disease
- Mood disorders
- Mild depression
- Parasitic infections
- LIver disease and hepatitis
- Persistent cough
The scientific research is currently lacking to back up these claims.
Limitations and Caveats
Despite centuries-long use, only a handful of clinical studies on corydalis exist. It was investigated for relieving pain, healing stomach ulcers, reducing anxiety, and lowering blood pressure.
- Small sample size
- Corydalis used in herbal mixtures, not alone
- Focused on the effects of single active components (alkaloids) rather than whole plant extracts
- Published in China, without access to the study details in English
To uncover the full medical potential of this plant, quality clinical trials are needed.
Corydalis Side Effects & Precautions
General safety information on corydalis is lacking. In limited clinical trials, the plant was well tolerated with minimal side effects.
However, if you plan on using corydalis, here are the precautions you should take:
Due to a lack of safety information and testing, corydalis is not recommended for use by pregnant or breastfeeding women.
TCM doctors advise to avoid corydalis during pregnancy, as it causes uterine contractions that can lead to miscarriages [69+].
Risk Of Poisoning
Corydalis might be toxic in very large amounts due to the effects of L-tetrahydropalmatine (L-THP).
Ingesting large doses of L-THP can cause the following reactions [72+]:
- Low blood pressure
- Shallow breathing
- Muscle weakness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Liver damage and failure
It is important to remember that corydalis roots contain only a small fraction of pure L-THP. Thus, the risk of poisoning is minimal when taking the whole plant extracts as opposed purified L-THP.
- Opioid painkillers: Oxycontin, Vicodin, codeine, morphine
- Sedatives: clonazepam, lorazepam, phenobarbital, zolpidem
- Antiarrhythmic drugs: amiodarone, flecainide, ibutilide, propafenone
- Blood pressure: ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers
- Blood thinners: warfarin
- Antidepressants (SSRIs): Celexa, Lexapro, Luvox, Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft
Talk to a doctor before supplementing if you take prescription medication.
Can It Cause Hallucinations?
Many alternative health websites claim that corydalis can lead to hallucinations. There is no reported evidence to support these claims.
Corydalis Dosage for Pain & Reviews
After harvest, corydalis roots are dried and can be used for medicinal purposes. You can buy the whole root, powder (in bulk or capsules), or tinctures. To help relieve pain, most TCM practitioners recommend the following doses:
- Powder: 5-10 grams of powder dissolved in water, with food, 2 times a day.
- Tincture (20% alcohol): 6-12 drops in juice or water, or under the tongue. May be taken 3 times daily.
- Tea infusion: Boil 10 g of corydalis root with 3 g of cinnamon in 2 cups of water for 5-7 minutes. Drink 100 mL (¾ cup) as needed.
Frying corydalis roots in vinegar or alcohol (as in tincture) increases the alkaloid content, which might provide more potent pain relief [68+].
Most supplements are available as capsules, with 400-500 mg of corydalis root per capsule. However, corydalis is rarely used alone in TCM. It’s usually combined with other herbs for synergistic effects, which lowers its dose.
Most users reported good results with corydalis for pain relief. Reviewers mention it helped them with the following:
- Chronic back pain
- Joint pain
- Nerve pain in the feet
- Stomach cramps caused by Crohn’s disease
- Menstrual cramps
However, corydalis did not work for everyone. Some users thought the supplement was not more effective than standard painkillers. One person mentioned it made them feel sluggish and impaired their focus.
Where to Buy
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Corydalis is a time-tested herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Its active compounds act in synergy to calm pain-triggering pathways in the body.
Corydalis helps reduce the pain and inflammation caused by nerve injuries, stomach issues, and osteoarthritis. It may also reduce cancer pain and drug addiction. Plus, it might help with anxiety, insomnia, and irregular heartbeat.
Although generally safe, high doses can cause side effects. Pregnant women should also avoid it. Corydalis is best used in combination with other herbs and under the guidance of a TCM practitioner.