The January 19th issue of National Geographic highlights how traditional Chinese medicine is taking the scientific community by storm. This ancient medicine is accumulating an evidence base that rivals the best in modern medicine even a Nobel prize in Medicine in 2015. Scientists from leading universities in the United States and Europe, including Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, UCLA, Duke, and Oxford University are looking at the scientific underpinnings of some traditional treatments for diseases such as pain, depression, anxiety, and even heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Parkinson’s.
Chinese Medicine becoming mainstream
Traditional Chinese Medicine is gaining increasing acceptance in modern medicine. The Cleveland Clinic, one of the worlds top hospitals, has opened a Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal clinic as well as acupuncture and massage as a part of it’s integrative medicine unit. Referrals for the clinic come from doctors in oncology, rheumatology, neurology and fertility clinics. The clinic is run by board certified masters degree level health professionals in Chinese Medicine. Highly trained herbalists are important because of the risk of interactions between herbs and western medications.
The subject of Chinese Herbal Medicine is a vast one and proficiency requires years of professional medical training. Yet most Chinese households have a basic understanding of commonly used herbal formulas that can be safely used to improve overall health and even treat many common complaints like coughs, colds, stomach ache, bruises, arthritis, and many others.
The herbal remedies are generally considered safer than western over-the-counter medications because they are more akin to nutritional supplements than to Western pharmaceuticals.
World Health Organization
According to the World Health Organization, 80% of the world’s population rely on herbal medicine. In the United States use of herbal medicine quadrupled from 3% to 12% between 1990 and 1997.10 The U.S. Food and Drug administration regulates these patent medicines under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. It states that they may be sold bearing claims of “structure and function” but not making claims of any ability to prevent or treat disease. The manufacturers must also have on file documentation to back up any claims that they do make.
National Institutes of Health
According to a report to the National Institutes of Health, despite any misgivings about herbal medicine that Western doctors may have, a growing number of Americans are using them. Chinese herbal medicines are sold in most U.S. health food stores and many people view herbal remedies as less expensive and less toxic than pharmaceutical drugs. People are increasingly willing to self-prescribe herbs, especially people without insurance or people for whom Western medicine has no hope.11 We can argue that if people are going to be using herbs anyway, there is a need for greater education in their appropriate use.
Safety and Efficacy
According to the World Health Organization it is acceptable to use documentation of traditional use as evidence of efficacy. In the case of traditionally used preparations and combination formulas, documentation of their traditional use in the TCM classic texts and experience can serve for documentation of efficacy. Traditional use without demonstrated harm is enough to show safety, and no specific regulatory action should be taken unless new evidence demands it. A review of the relevant literature should be provided, if available. Long-term traditional use without any evidence of risk may indicate harmlessness; however, it is not certain to what extent this can be relied upon.
Barefoot Doctor programs in China teach extensive use of herbs, and practitioners are affiliated with local TCM medical practitioners for referral in complex cases. Western Barefoot Doctor programs should also encourage affiliations with experienced practitioners in the use of herbs.