Bags of fentanyl pills
Bags of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. Courtesy Drug Enforcement Administration

Researchers say an herbal treatment used in conjunction with opioids could lessen dependency and help curb the risks associated with the potent painkillers.

After years of opioid addiction and overdoses surging in the U.S., the study focused on YHS, an extract of the plant Corydalis yanhusuo.

YHS has been used as analgesic in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, the researchers said.

In the a study published in the October issue of the journal Pharmaceuticals, UC Irvine researchers called the extract a “possible solution” that could be used as a “co-medication,” in tandem with morphine, to help manage pain while minimizing the negative effects of opioids.

Their findings show that YHS, when co-administered with morphine, inhibits morphine tolerance, dependence and addiction.

That suggests, they said, that if YHS is used with morphine at the start or during pain management, patients will have less need of morphine. In turn, they added, that leads to less risk of addiction.

The epidemic was triggered by overprescription of opioid analgesics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half a million Americans died of opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2019.

“Opiate tolerance is of utmost importance to opiate users,” said Olivier Civelli, a professor at the UCI School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences and one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

“They need to constantly increase the need of opiates to reach the same analgesic response. This is what leads to opiate overdose. YHS prevents opiate tolerance, so there is less need to increase opiate consumption,” he said.

Civelli said the extract, when used in animals, prevents pain along with the negative effects of opiate use. He hopes to test it with humans next.