Chinese Medicine: Ancient Hero or Modern Villain?

practicalities - Saigon/HCMC: today

On a trip to Cat Ba Island a few months ago I got chatting to a very charming and energetic local Vietnamese man who I guessed was around 40 years old. In fact he turned out to be in his mid-50s. I’m sure that you will have had similar experiences of being impressed by Vietnamese people’s ability to delay the ageing process. He put this down to 2 things: eating monkey meat for strength (flexing his impressive muscles to prove this) and drinking snake whisky to maintain a healthy spine.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) tells us that monkey brain can make you more intelligent and tiger penis enhances sexual virility

There was no doubt that this guy was in great physical shape. Monkey, like all meat, contains a lot of protein which helps to build muscle. Coupled with regular exercise this could contribute to staying strong. Drinking snake whisky to keep a healthy back was less easy to explain. I asked more about it. Pointing to his spine he fetched a bottle containing a coiled specimen surrounded by brown liquid. But I was still confused. Where could such a belief stem from? I came up with an explanation on the way back to my hotel - snakes are basically one long spine with a head plonked on the end. The logic being that the snake’s spinal flexibility was absorbed by the whisky and then transferred to the drinker. Using the same thought process, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) tells us that monkey brain can make you more intelligent and tiger penis enhances sexual virility.

Photo by: Victoria Reay

A number of doctors in the UK have slammed the Prince of Wales’ proposal, saying it would add credibility to an unproven pseudoscientific version of medicine

TCM is believed to have originated about 3000 years ago, refined by trial and error to take a basic version of its current form 1,000 years later. It is becoming increasingly popular in the UK, even gaining positive academic attention from Middlesex University (ranked as number 75 in The Guardian’s list of top UK universities for 2013) that now offers a 4-year BSc course in the subject. The study, in partnership with the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, includes placements in UK government-funded hospitals. The Prince of Wales, Britain’s next king, is a keen supporter of alternative medicine and has called for it to be regulated in the same way that mainstream medicine is. So, TCM is backed by significant support, but does that mean that it works? After all, a number of doctors in the UK have slammed the Prince of Wales’ proposal, saying it would add credibility to an unproven pseudoscientific version of medicine.

Not only might some TCMs not work, a number are known to contain toxic substances such as heavy metals. These could actually cause harm to the patient and complicate the recovery when used alongside effective medicine or speeding up the decline when used alone. Sweet berry is commonly prescribed by herbalists to patients as an anti-rheumatic. Although painful, arthritis is not a life threatening illness. However, methyl salicylate is found in sweet berry and if taken at high enough doses it can be fatal. So, taking too much of what might seem like a harmless holistic medicine could do you serious damage. But take an overdose of the most common modern drugs found in a home’s medicine cupboard and you could die, too. Whilst this is true, we know how much of a modern drug to take because toxicologists test it in clinical trials and the resulting safety information is displayed on the label. TCM products are not regulated so strictly. In the name of safety rather than credibility, perhaps Prince Charles is right in calling for regulations to be tightened on holistic medicine.

 

Photo by: egorgrebnev

During its 3000 year development, TCM has found lots of plants that do have healing powers. Indeed lots of modern medicines, including the world’s most important malaria drug, have been developed from ancient Chinese remedies. We owe a lot to the early herbalists who discovered the medical properties of Chinese sweet wormwood (the plant from which is extracted), particularly given that UNICEF lists malaria as the largest killer of children worldwide.Modern medicine has found the active ingredient and packaged it into handy pill form, thus rendering the previous version redundant. It would be even better if the scientists could synthesis rather than simply isolating it and so end the need for expensive extraction processes. This has been done for acid (UDCA), a chemical used to treat hepatitis C that was developed from TCM. By synthesizing UDCA in the laboratory, pharmacologists have shed the need for the raw material – bear bile.

Bear bile farms are some of the most horrifically cruel places imaginable

Bear bile farms are some of the most horrifically cruel places imaginable. Asiatic black bears (otherwise known as moon bears due to the yellow patterning on their chest) are kept in cages just a little bigger than their bodies for up to 25 years. Often these are “crush cages”, designed to be so short that the bear is pinned to the base thus giving farmers easier access to its gall bladder. Bears are milked for their bile twice a day through a permanently open wound in the abdomen. Apart from the mental trauma inflicted, physical damage includes liver cancer, blindness, necrotic ingrown claws, infected ulcers and missing teeth from either biting the cage bars or because the farmer has removed them to make the bear less dangerous.

Photo by: Matteo X

Bear farms were made illegal in Vietnam in 1992 and China hasn’t issued a license since 1994, but current estimates suggest that there are 12,000 farmed individuals in these two countries alone, with more in Korea and Laos. One might expect that because we can now sythesise the active ingredient found in bear bile demand should be decreasing. In fact, as with the general popularity of TCM, the opposite is true. Bear bile is expensive, costing around US$3,000 per kilogram. With the growing number of rich in Asia, more people can afford it. There’s an element of showing off here, with some of the new social elite taking bile to prevent a hangover, mirroring the increased use of rhino horn for the same reason. It is also claimed to be an aphrodisiac, as so many TCMs are. But for these claims there is no scientific evidence.

But here, efforts are being made... We no longer depend on TCM but a future for endangered species depends on its demise

It seems like an impossible task to change attitudes based upon a belief system that has been part of Asian culture for three millennia. But here, efforts are being made. Vietnam banned massage oil containing bear bile and authorities have acknowledged a need to get rid of the misconception that rhino horn cures cancer. Such steps, if continued, will lead to the eventual demise of this dated discipline. If you want to get stronger, lift weights and drink protein shakes. If you lack sexual virility, consult a legitimate doctor who may prescribe Viagra. We no longer depend on TCM but a future for endangered species depends on its demise.

Header photo by: Spot Us