Over the course of this century, traditional Chinese medicine has grown in popularity in Western countries, yet it still faces a stigma. This is an approach to medicine and the wider understanding of the body that utilizes literally thousands of different substances – far too many to have been subjected to scientific testing to date. Yet while it may emerge that some treatments work primarily because those receiving them believe in their effectiveness, others have been shown to have much further-reaching applications. Being open to the potential of Chinese medicine can have massive benefits for people across the globe.
Old traditions – new drugs
Since the 1960s, scientists trained in the Western tradition have been systematically working their way through traditional Chinese medical literature in an effort to understand it better and identify the reasons for its popularity. This includes scientists in China itself, who, thanks to the recent tightening of the rules by the NMPA (National Medical Products Association), are finding that their work now receives the same respect as that done elsewhere. Because traditional Chinese medicine is a system of working, not just a series of drugs, it’s advantageous for people who have already had experience of working with this system to be able to bring that to bear in designing trials.
One such drug is arteminisin, which won its discoverer, Tu Youyou, the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Tu’s research began during the Vietnam War, when the Vietcong experienced serious problems due to its soldiers being overcome by malaria. With the standard rest cures used at the time out of the question, Tu turned to ancient Chinese medical texts to see if there were older cures that might help, and found that Chinese wormwood (Artemisia annua) was effective at reducing symptoms. Arteminisin was refined years later as a result of this work and it has gone on to save millions of lives around the world. Further research is now being conducted to see if it can help to combat some types of cancer.
A highly effective drug used to modulate immune system activity in patients with multiple sclerosis, fingolimod is derived from a fungus that frequently parasitizes certain types of wasp and cicada. Traditionally, Chinese medical practitioners have long prized these wasps as the source of an elixir of eternal youth, recommending that the extract be used as a tonic. Some 25 years ago, this came to the attention of Japanese pharmacologist Tetsuro Fujita, who recognized its potential as an immunosuppressant. It was subsequently refined to identify its active ingredients and reduce toxicity. In those MS patients for whom it’s suitable, fingolimod halves the risk of relapse.
This is a drug that you may not have heard of outside strictly medical contexts. It’s banned by some institutions, but not because it presents any danger to the average person. Rather, it’s controversial among educators because it improves cognitive ability and memory, potentially helping students to improve their performance. It’s derived from huperzia moss, which has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine to treat fever and problems related to blood loss. Studies are ongoing to see if it can be used to help treat conditions involving cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
One staple ingredient of traditional Chinese medicine that has now been widely adopted as a complementary medicine in the West is ginger, and this is a substance that barely needs to be processed in order to be used, as well as being safe enough for you to use in whatever quantity suits you. Used in cooking, candied as a sweet snack, made into a tea or – for those who don’t like the flavor – ground up and swallowed in capsules, it’s highly effective in the treatment of nausea. It acts as a diuretic, helping to reduce swelling in all parts of the body, and it also has some antibacterial properties. Ongoing research suggests that it may be effective in lowering blood sugar and reducing the build-up in the body of fatty substances associated with heart disease.
Used in cooking as well as medicine, the bitter melon plant is respected for its healing properties in both Chinese and African traditions and is gradually attracting enthusiasm elsewhere. It’s used for gastrointestinal maladies and to help with the management of non-drug-dependent diabetes. It may also be effective when used topically to improve the healing of wounds, and some preliminary research has been conducted into its use as an anti-carcinogen.
Continuing research into traditional Chinese medicine promises to yield many more exciting discoveries. For instance, daidzin, extracted from the leaves of the soybean plant, is a traditional compound used to cure alcoholism, and seems likely to gain formal recognition within the next few years. Furthermore, researchers are just starting to get to grips with the way Chinese medicine makes use of recipes rather than single ingredients, something that’s easier to model and understand with the help of artificial intelligence. All things considered, this is an exciting area that is well worth keeping an eye on.