Traditional Chinese Medicine Is Ancient and a Scam

A doctor of Chinese medicine, diagnosing me

Today if you get a degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in Beijing you will read from the original text of Li Shi Chen who first categorized the pharmacy of TCM 500 years ago. He put together various herbs and portions that are used by the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physicians even today. Using the “argument to antiquity” TCM will state that these have been used for 5000 years, and are still  of value for treating a variety of ailments.
Many of the medications prescribed in the United States today were not available when I graduated medical school in 1986. Cleaning out my desk I found samples of Viox, now off the market, a once highly touted pain medication. Vioxx came to the market in 1999, and was one of the most widely prescribed pain medicines until a few cases of cardiac deaths convinced the FDA to pull it from the market in 2004. Medications change in the modern world of medicine, we get more effective, better and less toxic alternatives. If a physician today only used medicine from 500 years ago  they would lose their medical license:

In China and Tibet it was thought to prolong life, help heal fractures. Mercury was so revered that the tomb of the first Emperor of China, Qin, has “rivers of mercury” so he would have a good after life. In the west it was used as a treatment for infections including syphilis.

Hippocrates (460-377 BCE) used arsenic as medicine. Galen (130-200 ACE) recommended arsenic to treat ulcers. In the 19th century arsenicals were used to treat acne. In the early 1900’s physicians were using arsenicals to treat pellagra and malaria, and was the mainstay treatment for syphilis until penicillin.

A potent pain reliever was once bottled as Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, used to keep babies quiet, and for teething. While it kept the children quiet during the Victorian Era, when children were to be seen and not heard, it may have led to  addiction at the least and some children died from overdosing.

Snake Oil
A liniment used for arthritis – and sold widely by “snake oil salesmen.” Once it was discovered that it didn’t work very well (has a bad odor also).

Old in medicine does not translate to effective, or tested, or non-toxic. Still people get the impression that TCM is not harmful, and can be used since it has been used for over 5000 years. But TCM is harmful in several ways:
Two British women who took a Chinese herbal remedy called Mu Tong have renal failure and need kidney transplants. They remedies were found to contain aristolochic acid, toxic to kidneys. Dr. Graham Lord, a consultant kidney specialist from the Hammersmith and Charing Cross Hospitals NHS Trust last year stated, “We have no idea how many people consumed this herb, but there are hundreds of Chinese herbal medicine clinics in Britain, so the number is probably substantial.”
A DNA analysis of some traditional Chinese medicines found that they contained DNA of endangered animal species. Researchers at Murdoch University in Australia found samples contained DNA from animals listed as “trade-restricted” according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Legislation. Animals clearly died for their use in TCM.

Many things are used in Chinese medicine, some endangered

The rhinoceros is nearly extinct because its horn, used in Traditional Chinese medicine, is highly prized. When the rhino horn is ground into a powder, the 16th century Chinese pharmacist Li Shi Chen said it could cure snakebites, typhoid, headaches, vomiting, and food poisoning.  Contrary to popular belief it is not prescribed as an aphrodisiac. Tested, high doses can lower fevers in rats, however, Tylenol is cheaper, works better, and does not endanger a species. The last rhinoceros of one species in South Africa was slaughtered – bled to death by removing the horn with a chain saw. There is still, in South Africa an abundance of white rhinoceros, although they are still killed for their horn.
The dose of the medication is unknown. Different plants, herbs, and species have different levels of active ingredients in them. Some ingredients, even if they have an effective dose, that dose cannot be determined without chemical analysis. You could get a dose that is ineffective, a dose that is effective, or a dose that is toxic.

TCM represents a group of medicines that have been classified in the 16th century, and have not been updated since that time. The argument to antiquity would not work with modern medicine here, as the Food and Drug Administration is keeping America safe.

A contrast TCM with modern medicine is seen in the Yew Tree. The Yew Tree is highly poisonous and was found to have an anti-cancer agent, now called Taxol, which is used to treat ovarian Cancer. Taxol was purified from the Yew tree initially and now is chemically synthesized without using the now endangered species of Yew Trees. However, TCM still uses extracts of Yew Trees for their medicines. From the synthesized taxol, and number of chemical modifications have been done to provide more effective anti-cancer agents, with lower toxicity to humans. Practitioners of TCM might point to this as a win, however, ground bark from the Yew tree to treat ovarian cancer would have only two results: either ineffective or toxic.

To diagnose a patient needing medications western medicine uses comprehensive physical examinations in combination with laboratory tests, perhaps x-ray tests such as the CAT scan. TCM physicians will look at the palms of your hands, as they prescribe herbs from Tibet, without having the foggiest notion of what the herbs/dried rhino horns/ bear gallbladders, or whatever potions, come from.

They diagnose based on the palm

Finally, the older something is does not mean that it is better. When it comes to medicine it often means it is worse. TCM fails with a part of their argument to antiquity when they cannot even substantiate how long the medicines have been used, nor can they point to any good trials of the medicines. If your doctor used a western medical text that is over 10 years old it would be considered out of date, as would the doctor. It is time that the world realize that TCM is out-of-date, ineffective, possibly toxic, and a threat to endangered plants and animals.

I look forward to the People’s Republic of China taking control of this group and forcing them to comply with standards of safety for their people and the people of the world.

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit

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Latest Comments

  1. octavia logan says:

    To me your article seems like the propaganda of a medical community that has sold itself to the highest bidder being the pharmaceutical companies. You said in 1986 you found a sample of Vioxx which didn’t go to market till 1999 and was removed in 2004.then you minimized the actual damage and number of people who died from using Voixx. The list of medication that was once approved by the FDA and later taken off the market by the same FDA is longer than your list of “bad” TCM. (list attached)
    Next you mentioned how bad Arsenic is. Which leads me to ask where is the medical community now? When there is arsenic deliberately being put in the public water source? You should check out cities like Dallas Texas.
    In my opinion what you are doing is trying to portray modern medicine as perfect and TCM as a mistake when you really can’t separate the two. It is like me saying “my grandma is old and useless” but the fact of the matter is I would not be here if it was not for my grandma. I have learned many things from her and have updated and adapted them to my life. The same goes for modern medicine without TCM. Modern medicine would not be here if it wasn’t for ancient people trying to help heal each other. Maybe that’s what modern medicine is confused about: it is here to help heal humans and not only to make a profit off of human suffering. You have proved my point yourself. In your article you said that morphine was once used as a Soothing Syrup for babies and led to the addiction and dead of many babes. But somehow morphine is still widely used in modern hospital today.
    Think about it like this if modern medicine was so prefect why are people still seeking ancient remedies for illnesses today? And why hasn’t TCM been forgotten?
    Maybe instead of knock TCM you should be working to integrate TCM with modern medicine; found out what works and what does not work. Then teach healthcare providers what works and why it works.

  2. thedoc says:

    NEVER said modern medicine was perfect – but it has a system. It has been abused – but there is a mechanism that we have that can be used to report. When it comes to TCM – well, there is no system there.
    We do try to find out what works- that is the point. But the issue is simply a difference in using the scientific method and not –
    If we do a trial- and something doesn’t work, then we abandon it. We do not accept “they have done this for years,” as a trial – that is a logical fallacy.
    Regarding morphine – it is no longer available over the counter, and now it is prescribed by physicians who have an idea of how much morphine to use.

  3. Carolyn Asbury says:

    Dear Doc, I grew up in a family of three generations of western doctors. And yet two of my sisters were nearly killed by M.D. malpractice (they didn’t sue of course), and another by plain medical negligence. I have several stories of misdiagnosis on the part of M.D.s from friends and family and have some of my own. Acupuncture, qigong exercises and Chinese herbs prepared by a trained TCM practitioner have helped me have more energy and improved other conditions. There are good western doctors and bad ones. There are good TCM doctors and bad ones. You are writing off a theory of universal energy and healing that you do not understand. You are over simplifying TCM and lumping all good and bad practices together. I know of two M.D.s that have family practices. They both subsequently trained with a TCM master and use TCM to treat patients.Results are so positive that both no longer use western techniques. Study with a master then write about it.

  4. thedoc says:

    No – I quite understand TCM – have been there, and know of what it is based on. One person is not a series – and TCM has neither rigorous scientific background, but a rich tradition. The problem is just that: there is no regulation with the herbs, there is no regulation as to how much ingredient is in it. There is no study saying one herb is better than another- just tradition, and all things must come down to studies. Yes, doctors can be bad, stupid, lazy, but that does not indict all physicians. In terms of a doctor who goes to TCM “master” – well, having been in China, there is no such designation – none. There is coursework, and a way of going through it. If the physician is TCM, then they will have coursework and training- not just an apprenticeship.

  5. diana says:

    TCM is the biggest scam the medical world has seen in recent times. They want to make it legal worldwide, but it’s based on stories rather than facts. I live in China atm and I have some fertility issues. Doctors have no idea of immunity issues such as imune reactions to sperm (the commonly used term is sperm allergy) and other conditions. I would not recommend anybody to seek investigations in China due to the precarity of hygene in hospitals and to the doctors speaking very little to no English or any other international language. You will often hear things like our cat is responsible for our lack of fertility, coming from mouths of medical practitioners here, not only TCM practitioners, which is an absolute primitive mumbo jumbo. This is a country where people abandon their pets on a regular basis and the villagers have the pig’s place next to the kitchen, because they are too lazy to walk a few meters and feed it the kitchen scraps, so they’d rather do it while still in the kitchen. In some villages the pig is slaughtered using boiling which leads to agonizing tortures for the animal, simply because they are too weak or lazy to cut the jugular or smack it in the head with an axe. These guys are going to teach me what is useful for my body? Really? Oh, come off it! For any issue you may have you are recommended Chinese herb tea, but regular herbs used everywhere in the world in cooking and medicinal tea are missing in China! At least I wasn’t able to find them anywhere. Frankly you have more chances to get cured by a witch in Papua New Guinea or in Vanuatu (btw. I visited Vanuatu and their medical principles are more solid than the Chinese ones, not to mention they are a 6000 years old culture, just as much as Chinese claim to be) than by these quacks of China. But yeah, it’s the last fairytale in the world, the last magic and people worldwide still crave magic. Look: just pick up Harry Potter and knock yourselves out!

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