Could this Chinese herb end the opioid epidemic?

A man walks away from a food pantry operated by the American Rescue Workers in the struggling city of Williamsport, which has recently seen an epidemic of opioid use among its population on July 13, 2017 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
A man walks away from a food pantry operated by the American Rescue Workers in the struggling city of Williamsport, which has recently seen an epidemic of opioid use among its population on July 13, 2017 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Photo credit Getty Images

Scientists looking to end overdose deaths in the United States are investigating an herb that's been used for centuries in Chinese medicine.

An extract known as YHS is made from the root of the plant Corydalis yanhusuo which Chinese medicine practitioners use as a pain reliever. However, it does more than simply relieve pain.

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Scientists believe the properties in YHS could reduce the tolerance opiate users build over a period of heavy drug abuse after looking at studies on morphine dependency.

"We find out that it would block the addiction to morphine," Olivier Civelli, UC Irvine professor of pharmaceutical sciences, told KCBS Radio.

More research is required before the extract can be regarded as a key to solving the opioid epidemic, but the current data is promising, showing that YHS can reverse morphine dependence and possibly opioid dependence.

"In China, traditional Chinese medicines are very important," Civelli said. "They are mostly plants that have been used for centuries, but they are not regulated, nobody knows exactly what it is."

Scientists are now investigating how YHS works and if it could somehow be harmful. What they do know is the extract doesn't seem to lose its potency when taken regularly as an analgesic, which could be pivotal in reducing tolerance and addiction levels.

Health officials project that the United States could see 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021.

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