Chinese herbal medicines have been used for thousands of years and the formulations have been worked out over time based on intensive study of the local herbs and impacts on the body. Since Western science has started to penetrate Asia, and the study of these medicines has intensified, some of the therapeutic benefits of these medicines have been confirmed, while additional research is still needed to understand the benefits of others.
The more reputable Western medical journals take a keen interest in publishing good studies of herbal medicines in an effort to myth-bust some inaccuracies but also to support the promotion of combinations that actually do offer benefit. Eastern journals have been found to be more biased in their selection of articles for publication, tending to avoid printing studies that find negative results for herbal medicines. They can also have less rigid scientific review processes and have been found to print studies with less rigorous scientific methods that have not been able to be replicated in follow up studies. This is unfortunate as it is impeding the desire for greater understanding of the vital ingredients used in some Chinese herbal medicines.
An interesting result of the increasing focus on the efficacy Chinese medicines is that some ingredients in Chinese medicines are found to offer no complementary benefit. They may have been included in the formulation for historical rather than therapeutic reasons. Over time, it has become “the way it is done” and to question the methodology has been frowned upon.
That said, a number of ingredients have been found to offer benefits or potential benefits, especially in certain combinations.
More transparent and more rigorous science around the study of Chinese herbal medicine is a desirable pathway for another reason, beside human benefit. As populations grow and demand for Chinese medicines increase, this is also putting pressure on the populations of a number of vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered animals. Parts of certain animals have been traditionally included in some medicines, though the therapeutic benefit of this is highly questionable. This commitment to traditional practices has helped maintain the various practices over many hundreds of years, but in this era of human over-population, the stresses on populations of flora and fauna can no longer be justified. For ingredients that are found to be active within the formulations, scientists are learning to synthesize the ingredient so it can be substituted.
New DNA investigation techniques are making it easier for border patrols and inspections of imported ingredients to determine whether powered herbs and supplements (the raw ingredients used to create the herbal pills) contain restricted animal parts.
These genetic audits will help make it easier to identify the ingredients in the medicines, but also, potentially, the criminals involved along the chain in procuring these illegal substances by killing off endangered animals for little or no therapeutic benefit. It’s also good news for vegetarians who may be unwittingly consuming endangered animal proteins in their Chinese herbal supplements!
It’s a fascinating area and Chinese herbs are definitely becoming a more mainstream consideration as we are taking greater ownership of our health; not continually outsourcing it to doctors. As more is understood about the traditional formulations and their ingredients we may slowly unlock the keys to all kinds of therapeutic secrets to human health.
Katherine West is a health freak and freelance writer who in 2003 studied for a Diploma of Nutrition. She is also into yoga and pilates.