Latin: Phellodendron amurense
Chinese: Huang bai
WHAT IT DOES: Phellodendron bark is bitter in taste and cold in action. It reduces inflammation and dampness, especially from the lower parts of the body. It has broad-spectrum anti-bacterial and anti-viral activity, and has been found useful for autoimmune conditions.
RATING: yellow, due to limitations of use
SAFETY ISSUES: Do not use during pregnancy. Avoid long-term use due to alkaloid content.
• Dried powder: three to10 grams per day
• 4:1 dried decoction: one to three grams per day
“Huang” means yellow in Chinese, and phellodendron bark is one of the “three huangs,” or bright yellow plants used for treating inflammation and infection (the other two are scute root and coptis rhizome). The yellow color comes from an alkaloid called berberine, a substance that is slightly-to-mildly toxic in pure form, which is why it is not recommended for use in pregnancy. Berberine is also found in goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis), Oregon grape root(Mahonia aquifolium) and several other well-known herbs.
The clinical differentiation among these three yellow TCM plants serves as an excellent argument against concentrating on a single chemical or group of chemical compounds in a plant. While valuable at times, this practice can limit our perspective. It is tempting to make a general statement that all plants containing berberine are basically the same in their actions. However, TCM doctors tell us that scute root is most useful for treating inflammation in the lungs and upper respiratory tract, including allergies. On the other hand, coptis rhizome is useful for treating upper body inflammation, but not allergy. Rather, it is most effective when there is strong heat in the heart and other organs, high fever, and sore throat. Phellodendron bark is more appropriate for treating inflammation in the lower parts of the body and for heat cause by deficiency.
For menopause, a deficiency condition, it can be used to control hot flashes. In the lower parts of the body it is used to control thick yellow vaginal discharges, hemorrhoids, foul-smelling diarrhea and dysentery. It is also used to treat dampness and heat in the legs, such as red, swollen and painful knees, legs or feet. A fellow herbalist from New York was suffering from a chronic and painful lower leg and skin inflammation. An experienced herbalist, but not in TCM, she tried various formulas in vain. When Nai-shing prescribed a phellodendron bark formula, her problems disappeared. This may be due in part to phellodendron’s interesting actions on the immune system.
• Berberine comprises only about 0.6 to 2.5% of the plant’s material, so researchers decided to study the rest of the plant without this compound. The berberine-free fraction of phellodendron bark exhibited anti-ulcer activity, anti-inflammatory properties, reduction of gastric acid secretion, and anti-cholera toxin effects (Uchiyama et al., 1989).
• Chinese studies on phellodendron bark show a broad-spectrum antibiotic effect against organisms that cause diptheria, dysentery, typhoid fever, staph infections, pneumonia, conjunctivitis, trachoma and meningitis. It is often used in injectable form (reported in Huang, 1999, reported in Yeung, 1983).
• Studies have shown action against various forms of candida, as well as viruses (Park et al., 1999).
• In tests examining eight different herbs, phellodendron bark proved to be the most potent suppressor of immune inflammation in animal graft-versus-host reactions (Mori et al., 1994). In a later study, the same researcher discovered that unlike cortisone-like drugs, phellodendron bark did not suppress antibody production (Mori et al., 1995).
• Studies also indicate a possible applicaqtion in cataract prevention. A water extract of phellodendron bark and aralia cortex applied to the eye lenses of diabetic rats “dramatically” reduced high sorbitol levels as well as other cataract-causing chemicals (Lee et al., 1999).
• Many herbalists believe that berberine-containing herbs only work topically, not internally. Dr. Duke reports that there is increasing evidence of systemic antimicrobial effects (Brennan, M. 2000).