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Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine: Ancient Treatments in Modern Medicine

On the application of traditional Chinese herbal medicine in today's pharmaceutical-based society

Around 70% of Americans are taking one or more prescription drugs, with the most common ones being antibiotics, antidepressants, and pain-killing opioids (1). Such an emphasis on pharmaceutical drugs in western countries has resulted in consequences such as antibiotic resistance, which potentially invalidates some of the treatments we depend on most. With such consequences, it may become a need to turn to other forms of treatment, such as traditional Chinese medicine.

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Traditional Chinese medicine is one of the oldest forms of medicine, with its major components being traditional Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, and tai chi martial arts (2). Chinese herbal medicine is considered the largest sector of traditional Chinese medicine, and many of these herbs’ ancient uses show signs of a promising treatment for today’s diseases.

An herb known as sweet woodworm, or Qing Hao, had been used by the Chinese to treat fevers. This herb allowed the creation of a drug primarily used to treat Malaria, a disease mostly found in impoverished areas in Africa, where mosquitoes carry and spread deadly parasites (3). The World Health Organization found a compound in sweet woodworm, artemisinin, that reduced the number of parasites in the blood and fevers associated with Malaria (4). This compound from the Chinese herb is used in ACTs, or artemisinin-based combination therapies, which have been highly effective in curing patients of the disease.

Another Chinese herb is known as Gou Teng, or cat’s claw, has been found to be a potential mainstream treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Cat’s claw was originally used in China to treat tremors and the unintentional shaking of the body (5). Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease that results in impaired movement, with side effects such as tremors, rigidity, and slow movements. Researchers from the Hong Kong Baptist University School of Chinese Medicine found that patients with Parkinson’s who received a Chinese herbal decoction that included cat’s claw were significantly less prone to sleeping problems like insomnia (6). Additionally, these patients experienced less difficulty with speech and were more able to communicate properly (6).

With herbs like sweet woodworm and cat’s claw providing treatments for diseases like Malaria and Parkinson’s, it is to wonder why not more of these herbal remedies are being applied today. However, many trials testing for herbal remedies have been ruled out for being of poor quality, and therefore, they are not regarded as scientific evidence (2). There is also a possibility that Chinese herbal medication may not interact well with other drugs, and generally, there may be multiple side effects to taking an herb.

This, however, does not change the growing need for other forms of treatment. Jack Miller from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine says, “As more bacterial strains become resistant to pharmaceutical antibiotics, some reliance on herbs will become very important” (3). Considering that at least a few Chinese herbs have successfully shown the benefits of the integration of herbs into treatment and medication, research should continue to fully utilize herbs as medicine.

References and Footnotes:

(1) Nearly 7 in 10 Americans are on prescription drugs. (2013, June 19). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130619132352.htm

(2) Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth. (2017, March 23). Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/chinesemed.htm

(3) Chinese Herb Transformed into Western Medicine’s Cure for Malaria. (2017, December 18). Retrieved from https://www.pacificcollege.edu/news/blog/2014/07/04/chinese-herb-transformed-western-medicines-cure-malaria

(4) Q&A on artemisinin resistance. (2018, March). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/malaria/media/artemisinin_resistance_qa/en/

(5) Weil, A. (2016, November 15). Cat’s Claw: An Herbal Treatment For Parkinson’s Disease? Retrieved from https://www.drweil.com/vitamins-supplements-herbs/herbs/cats-claw-an-herbal-treatment-for-parkinsons-disease/

(6) Kum, W. F., Durairajan, S. S., Bian, Z. X., Man, S. C., Lam, Y. C., Xie, L. X., . . . Li, M. (2011). Treatment of Idiopathic Parkinson’s Disease with Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine: A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Pilot Clinical Study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine,2011, 1-8. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ecam/nep116

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