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Is Traditional Chinese Medicine a Replacement for Modern Medicine?

I studied traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as part of my mandatory courses at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM). Among all the disciplines, CCNM gives Chinese medicine a special place. In Ontario, anyone with an ND (Naturopathic Doctor) license is knowledgeable about Chinese medicine, while in BC, it requires separate certification for NDs. I have a respectful attitude towards Chinese medicine and use it in my practice when I find it appropriate and effective as a treatment method. However, it is never my first-line therapy. Yes, an acupuncture session may be cheaper than a visit to an ND, but you would need at least six sessions to see any noticeable effect. I rarely use TCM due to the significant increase in treatment costs. If I can achieve results faster and, therefore, more cost-effectively, I opt for other alternative treatment approaches. However, if I am asked to use TCM for treatment, I never refuse. This usually applies to pain syndromes.

A bit of history. Traditional Chinese Medicine in Modern China

As there are specialists who do not have other techniques in their arsenal, some may think that Chinese medicine is self-sufficient and can replace modern medicine. Let’s delve into history a bit. In the 1920s, outdated treatment methods began to be phased out in China. At that time, Chinese medicine was perceived similarly to how we perceive grandmother herbalists or folk healers, in other words, it was actively fought against as a relic.

The average life expectancy of Chinese people at that time was 35 years (according to WHO data), and it was the introduction of modern Western medicine that increased the average age in China to 70+ years. In the 1950s, the government faced the challenge that rapid population growth prevented them from providing everyone with access to the modern medical system, so they supported the integration of Chinese medicine and modern medicine. After all, Chinese medicine was relatively inexpensive and still popular among the population.

The modern modification of ancient Chinese medicine was created by the Chinese communists, and the first English-language treatise appeared in China in 1955. Mao Zedong, known to all of us, supported the revival of TCM, although he himself did not use or believe in it. He promoted the practice of acupuncture and traditional medical methods as a simple solution to provide medical assistance to China’s vast population, which lacked an adequate number of doctors, and as a better alternative to “imperialist” medicine.

Therefore, in China itself, Chinese doctors trained in Western medicine also began to study TCM as an additional discipline.

Why is it important for a TCM specialist to also a doctor?

I can tell you where the danger lies: the lack of knowledge among specialists about symptoms that can lead to a fatal outcome if modern techniques are not used can put patients’ lives at risk. That’s why all licensed alternative medicine specialists in Canada are required to study such situations and must refer patients to a hospital if there is even a slight possibility of such a problem. We call these hospital situations.

Development of TCM in Hong Kong

But let’s get back to Chinese medicine. One thing is Communist China, another is Hong Kong. Yes, there was Chinese medicine in Hong Kong, and since Hong Kong had its own way of life, the history of Chinese medicine there was slightly different. As early as the beginning (1841), the British government promised the people of Hong Kong that they would govern them in accordance with all historical rituals and rules. Therefore, no one in Hong Kong persecuted or rewrote TCM; it was not regulated at all until a certain point.

The promotion of Western medicine in Hong Kong began in 1940. Until the end of the last century, the Hong Kong government did not provide official support for traditional medicine but did not hinder its development either. It was a budget alternative for certain segments of the population. TCM doctors usually practiced in herb shops, and the expenses for herbs were not high—around US$2-3, and the consultation itself was also affordable at US$7-8. In Hong Kong, patients still visit both Western doctors and Chinese medicine doctors.

Is TCM really 2,000 years old?

What is now practiced as TCM is actually a modern modification, and it has strayed quite far from the medicine with a thousand-year history. One of the main components is acupuncture. We now use sterile disposable needles, but not long ago, needles were made of stone, ceramics, or animal bones. Then there were reusable metal needles, and there simply were no methods for their proper sterilization. There is no need to convince anyone now of how dangerous that could be. Compared to all of this, our grandmother-healers were innocent.

Researchers also say that very selective treatises were taken as the modern version of TCM. Some things were translated incorrectly, and some intentionally distorted. Certain elements that seemed ineffective were simply ignored. All attempts to scientifically substantiate the foundations of TCM have so far yielded no results. But this should not bother anyone because our modern Western medicine pays no attention to the energy in our bodies, which is the basis of TCM.

When TCM demonstrates effectiveness supported by research

However, there are studies that show the effectiveness of Chinese medicine for pain syndromes. Conducting a double-blind study using acupuncture needles is challenging because any patient would notice if there are no needles. Therefore, researchers place needles in the appropriate points for the main group and in points that should not show results for the control group. In the end, both groups show effectiveness, but a statistically significant result compared to the control group cannot be obtained within the confines of the research. In other words, the therapy works, but the theory that the points must be chosen correctly for TCM to be effective is not confirmed.

I also want to point out that for pain syndromes, we usually use local points near the treatment area. And another remark: in Chinese medicine, the prescription should be individualized; it’s not an allopathic approach. However, in research studies, the same set of points is used for all participants, which also does not help researchers adequately assess the quality of TCM treatment.

However, there is objective information that the life expectancy of Chinese people increased after the introduction of Western medicine, and infant mortality decreased to the extent that China had to implement birth restrictions due to overpopulation. For all enthusiasts of Ayurveda, which I also respect: the same story happened in India.

What do surveys say in Hong Kong?

Since Hong Kong has been able to preserve Chinese medicine as closely as possible to its original form, let’s look at the survey results in Hong Kong.

  • Patients believe that TCM helps with mild ailments, such as coughs or colds. They use TCM as a complement to Western drug therapies, which allows them to expedite recovery.
  • If Western medicine does not help, patients turn to TCM doctors.
  • Some patients find TCM methods effective in alleviating side effects from taking Western medicine.
  • TCM is considered gentler and less likely to cause side effects in Hong Kong.
  • Patients note that TCM methods are not always convenient; herbs need to be brewed. These herbs often have a bitter taste, which some patients also dislike.
  • It takes multiple visits to a TCM doctor before results are achieved. If a patient initially visits a TCM doctor, there is a chance of allowing the disease to progress or worsen, which could have been treated by Western medicine.
  • However, in Hong Kong, it is popular to initially use a Western approach and then visit a TCM doctor to further treat the problem. And I think this is precisely the middle ground that everyone should follow when it comes to any alternative therapies. First, undergo modern examinations and laboratory tests, and only then can you choose how to treat yourself.

Where do medications come from in Chinese herbs?

Herbal preparations in Canada are classified as dietary supplements, and therefore they should not contain medications. Not long ago, all supplements in Canada had to undergo testing for prohibited drugs. It was during this process that it was discovered that many herbal Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) preparations contained medications.

As we discussed before, in China, TCM doctors are also trained medical professionals. It has been noticed that the effectiveness of medications can be increased while reducing their dosage through simultaneous use with traditional Chinese herbs. This practice is permissible and even encouraged in China, but in Canada, it is considered illegal sale of pharmaceuticals disguised as supplements. As a result, even the brands that were previously considered high-quality and sold exclusively to professionals have disappeared from the Canadian market. Therefore, it is crucial to exercise extreme caution when purchasing Chinese herb formulations imported from China and lacking Natural Product Number (NPN) labeling. While this number does not guarantee the quality of the supplement, it does ensure that there are no pharmaceutical drugs or dangerously high levels of toxins in the bottle.

Herbs vs. Medications

It is incorrect to assume that herbs are always safe while medications are always dangerous. There isn’t much difference between them; herbs are also medications and often interact with pharmaceutical drugs. Moreover, there are highly dangerous herbs. Well-known herbs used in Chinese medicine can lead to fatal outcomes due to incorrect dosages or interactions with pharmaceutical drugs.

For example, there have been reports of a dozen deaths caused by heart attacks and strokes due to ephedra (known as Mahuang in TCM) overdose—a well-known formula used for treating colds. The use of ephedra is prohibited in Canada and the United States, despite it being a simple herb. By the way, ephedra is included in weight loss formulas illegally imported into Canada. This is due to the risks associated with this herb.

Other issues with herbs from China

Medications imported from China can be inexpensive, but there have been several studies highlighting their hazards. These include contamination by rodents, high levels of arsenic, and elevated levels of mercury.

In 2015, a study conducted genetic analysis to assess the molecular composition of 26 widely available TCM products. It revealed that 90% of them were not suitable for human consumption. Mass spectrometry detected heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, and cadmium, with arsenic levels exceeding the permissible limit by 10 times and surpassing recommended safe ingestion guidelines.

Conclusion

What conclusions should be drawn? The main thing to remember is that if Chinese medicine could completely replace Western medicine, the life expectancy in China would not have been 35 years, as it was before the adoption of Western treatment methods in the country. What was justified 100 years ago, namely, patient deaths from certain diseases that Chinese medicine could not cure, is unacceptable today.

Therefore, before applying Chinese medical methods, it is essential to visit a specialist who is well-versed in Western diagnostics. This can be an MD (Medical Doctor) or ND (Naturopathic Doctor). However, it should be noted that TCM doctors (excluding those with only an acupuncture license) are also now required to possess knowledge of such conditions, and they are obligated to inform patients that they need to seek hospital treatment rather than just receiving acupuncture or consuming herbs. However, they cannot conduct laboratory tests and are not deeply familiar with Western diagnostics, unlike MDs and NDs.

Even in non-hospital situations, there are diseases that can be treated with TCM methods, but it is not the most effective or cost-effective solution.

TCM is beneficial as a complement to Western medical practices, but not as a replacement for them.

Since some herbal remedies in TCM can interact or be toxic in combination with medications, it is important to inform your doctor if you are using herbs or herbal teas.

As an ND, I believe it is more appropriate to visit an ND who is knowledgeable in both Western diagnostic methods and familiar with Chinese medicine, homeopathy, physiotherapy, chiropractic techniques, pharmacological medications, can initiate laboratory tests, and is skilled in working with herbs and many other approaches.

TCM diagnosis should not replace laboratory tests; it is done to formulate a TCM protocol.

Remember the key point: if you are visiting a Chinese medicine doctor, it is not enough to ensure a comprehensive approach to your treatment. You must also have a family doctor, MD, or ND. TCM should not be used as a substitute for traditional or allopathic treatment, especially for serious illnesses that previously had high mortality rates.


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PERFORMANCE ENHANCERS FACTS AND BOTTOM LINE EPHEDRA / EPHEDRINE

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Zhou X, Li CG, Chang D, Bensoussan A. Current Status and Major Challenges to the Safety and Efficacy Presented by Chinese Herbal Medicine. Medicines (Basel). 2019 Jan 18;6(1):14. doi: 10.3390/medicines6010014.PMID: 30669335PMCID: 6473719

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