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.
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.
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.
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
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 www.terrysimpson.com.