Science and Traditional Chinese Medicine

June 30, 2019 Joe Brady

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has evolved over the last 5000 years into one of the modern world’s most popular forms of alternative and integrative medicine. Science and Traditional Chinese Medicine have come a long way. This is an exciting time to be involved in Traditional Chinese Medicine. When I went to my first scientific conference back in 1988, and doctors and other scientists heard that you did Tai Chi, Qigong or Traditional Chinese Medicine they treated you as if you were a witch doctor wearing a grass skirt and shaking a rattle. Now we are treated as respected colleagues with active recruiting efforts underway for greater research to improve the evidence base for TCM and to increase its use and efficacy in the modern world. This year for the first time all freshman at the Harvard Medical School will be required to take courses in TCM and Integrative Medicine.

In recent years TCM practitioners use various mind and body practices (such as acupuncture and tai chi) as well as herbal products to address health problems.  

With the help and encouragement of the Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, my wife Jacqui Shumway and I were able to present some local research we conducted at the 2018 Integrative Medicine Network Forum for the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Harvard Medical School.The main theme of the conference was Genetics, Epigenetics & Lifestyle. As technology advances in the field of genetic engineering there is great excitement about the idea of “personalized” medicine in which treatments can be tailored to individual patients’ genes. Research is also showing that the expression of genes is not fixed, but can be modified by environmental factors and lifestyle factors. These modifications can actually be passed down to future generations. Genetic modifications of passing along the genes of alcoholism can be harmful as we know, however exciting new research is suggesting that self-awareness, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, exercise, lifelong learning, and other healthy behavior changes can improve gene expression patterns and lead to healthier outcomes.


Our own research entitled, Community Med School: A Pilot Study in Lifelong Learning, Health Promotion, and Integrative Medicine, was designed to prove the feasibility of a public education program intended to improve community health promotion efforts using approaches from TCM and integrative medicine. Our paper was well received and generated great feedback and encouragement in doing a larger, longterm study in the near future.

Read the abstract

What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of Traditional Chinese Medicine

for more see


Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body, usually by inserting thin needles through the skin. Studies suggest that acupuncture stimulates the release of the body’s natural painkillers and affects areas in the brain involved in processing pain; however, some trials suggest that real acupuncture and sham acupuncture are equally effective, indicating a placebo effect. Results from a number of studies, however, suggest real acupuncture may help ease types of pain that are often chronic, such as low-back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis/knee pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome. It also may help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches. For more information, see NCCIH’s acupuncture fact sheet

Tai Chi

Tai chi combines certain postures, gentle movements, mental focus, breathing, and relaxation. Research findings suggest that practicing tai chi may improve balance and stability in older people and those with Parkinson’s disease, reduce pain from knee osteoarthritis, help people cope with fibromyalgia and back pain, and promote quality of life and improve mood in people with heart failure. For more information, see NCCIH’s tai chi fact sheet.

Chinese Herbal Products

Chinese herbal products have been studied for many medical problems, including stroke, heart disease, mental disorders, and respiratory diseases (such as bronchitis and the common cold), and a national survey showed that about one in five Americans use them. Because many studies have been of poor quality, no firm conclusions can be made about their effectiveness. For more information about specific herbs, see NCCIH’s Herbs at a Glance Web page. You can find additional information on botanical (plant) dietary supplements on the Office of Dietary Supplements Web site.

Calling for More Research

Although the conference is over, the research networking opportunities aren’t. One purpose of the forum was to encourage practitioners and researchers to get involved in research. This is an exciting time and there is a need for more research at every level. According to Dr. Gloria Yeh from Harvard Medical School there is an active call for acupuncturists, Tai Chi and Qigong practitioners, and herbalists to help contribute to true evidence base studies for integrative medicine. She made a point to say, “… just because you cannot do big money clinical trials that should not stop you”. If you are sincerely interested in furthering the medicine there are all sorts of opportunities to contribute to this exciting field. 

To give you an idea of the scope of researchers and practitioners involved visit the custom-built, online network map for this year’s IM Network Forum. This map shows all 464 registered delegates for the conference and their respective institutions, including CSTCM.

Positive Changes Afoot

This month, the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Harvard Medical School,  announced that Dr. Peter Wayne, Osher Research Director, and author of the Harvard Medical School’s Guide to Tai Chi, has assumed the role of Interim Director, following the departure of former director, Dr. Helene Langevin. Dr. Langevin was selected to lead the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the NIH. This is great news for TCM and the entire Integrative Medicine research community. The following are a few of the initiatives that NCCIH will be pursuing.

NCCIH Priorities for Pain-Related Research

NCCIH pain research spans basic, mechanistic, and translational studies and clinical trials. Priorities include:

  • Elucidating pathways by which complementary/integrative approaches (e.g., natural products, mind and body interventions) have clinical benefit for analgesia, especially for chronic pain conditions
  • Ascertaining the duration of physiological effects and the optimal dose for sustained analgesic benefits
  • Examining interactions of non-pharmacologic (ie. acupuncture) and pharmacologic interventions for potential additive effects, possible synergy, and potential for safe reduction of opioids and other analgesic drugs
  • Developing methodologies and early phase feasibility to appropriately stage clinical trials (see Framework for Developing and Testing Mind and Body Interventions)

NCCIH Funding Opportunities

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