Traditional Chinese Medicine: Fact or fantasy?

Another great article by James Palmer, one of the very smartest people it’s been my pleasure to meet in Beijing. His in-depth look at the efficacy of TCM — “an odd, dangerous mix of sense and nonsense” — and its future in China is a delightful read.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 17 Comments

Western docs could not do anything for my asthma, which after 20 years was getting worse. So I went to the TCM hospital, was off my inhalers in a week, and three years later I have been off all medicine since November, and I am breathing freely in mid-June.

Don’t tell me that TCM is bunk.

June 15, 2013 @ 1:13 pm | Comment

Palmer is being a little unkind. TCM does undoubtably work – the problem lies in that no-one knows what the active ingredient is in each specific preparation that treats the problem. And there’s the rub: without identifying the active ingredient, you just can’t be sure how it reacts under different conditions or even different people. Without that knowledge, what may work for one individual can prove fatal to another.

The subject is of huge importance to China, but they resist having Western companies examine these treatments because they don’t want the patents on any new drugs going to Western pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile, China’s own research into the issue is poorly funded – which is frankly, bizarre.

So we end up with a state of perpetual battle between Western drugs (properly tested) and TCM, which has great potential yet remains in the dark ages. The “preventative” argument versus “treatment” angle is just pure nonsense. TCM works – but until someone can identify the active ingredient amongst all the other associated crap, it may also be the last medicine you ever take.

June 15, 2013 @ 6:06 pm | Comment

Much of TCM is nonsense and based on superstitious silliness. The medicines whose potency is ascribed to their coming from ‘virile’ animals such as rhinos and tigers, for example. Some TCM is based on herbs that contain pharmacologically active ingredients such as ginseng. Acupuncture is hocus pocus. I’ve had it a few times and it was worse than useless. A lot of TCM is based on the placebo effect, which can be very powerful.
I had a Chinese colleague who was a rational, well-educated guy with a background in scientific research – but when his mother got sick with a curable cancer he rejected western medicine in favour of TCM for her, with tragic results.

June 17, 2013 @ 5:27 pm | Comment

@Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Quick thanks to you – used one of your articles for my Master’s thesis.

June 19, 2013 @ 8:12 pm | Comment

@Narsfweasles – Good to hear it. Many people do. Congrats!
CDE

June 23, 2013 @ 8:16 pm | Comment

western drug is not properly tested, and most work no better than placebo. 100,000 Americans Die Each Year from Prescription Drugs
http://www.alternet.org/story/147318/100,000_americans_die_each_year_from_prescription_drugs,_while_pharma_companies_get_rich
I guess this is considered advanced and cutting edge.

Read Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile for a good take-down of the western medical establishment.

June 25, 2013 @ 10:04 pm | Comment

I don’t like sock puppets and I don’t like the turn this thread has taken. It’s about TCM — only.

July 2, 2013 @ 5:43 am | Comment

#7 was the give away. Also similar stuff over at Tao’s BJC.

FOARP. You will be reincarnated as a secret police man with bit of Robespierre thrown in.

Why CDE indulges in this astroturfing is something best left to his analyst. For someone who has never enrolled in an institution of higher learning, he has pretty decent writing skills and his article on officially sanctioned Russian classical music was an original contribution to knowledge, at least in terms of the general standards of the Sino-English blog world.

July 2, 2013 @ 6:22 am | Comment

Tubby, no more, ok?

July 2, 2013 @ 6:36 am | Comment

@ Richard. What was so objectionable about my general observations in #12?

If it is a temperature thing you are experiencing, I understand, being a volunteer fire fighter six months each year. Fact.

July 2, 2013 @ 4:50 pm | Comment

KT, it was off-topic. No more about CDE.

July 3, 2013 @ 12:12 am | Comment

I have deleted all references to CDE in this thread. Please, do not reference him on my blog again in any way or in any context. Thank you.

July 3, 2013 @ 4:04 am | Comment

I use TCM on a regular basis and it works. Also, I know what’s in my prescription because the names of the herbs are listed. If all the times that cured me was only the placebo effect then I say let it be! You don’t have to be a believer in TCM. It’s been here for 3000 years and it’s not going away because it is not proven enough to some of you. For us believer, we just have an alternative choice for our ailments.

July 4, 2013 @ 9:50 am | Comment

Compared to Western medicine, TCM starts at a much ‘higher viewpoint’ of the human body. That is to say, TCM understands that the human body is not just the sum of all its parts, but rather problem in one part in one could be a result and could result in problems from other parts; the entire human body is a universe, and to properly care for the human body means properly taking a holistic and universal view of it.

Western medicine rejects the above notion, and treats the human body as a machine, no different from other machines. It starts with the most microscopic perspective, and treats every part separately. You got headache? Must be something wrong with the head. You got pain in your feet, must be something wrong with your feet. You got pain? Take some pain meds. You got stomach ache, take some stomach meds. This kind of mechanical perspective on the body results in mechanical treatment, or ‘treating the symptoms but not the cause’.

The reason TCM is not as practically effective today is that we humans haven’t developed the knowledge and science to truly handle this ‘universal’ view of our body, but that doesn’t mean the universal view of the body was wrong to begin with.

July 5, 2013 @ 9:25 am | Comment

Oh yes, eating ground up tiger penis to make ones cock hard is oh so “universal”

July 7, 2013 @ 12:00 am | Comment

Here’s one thing about TCM, or any other type of medicine for that matter. My background is in process control/automation/engineering.

If I designing a solution to a problem in a large process (say steel making), I have to take into account all of the physical properties of all of the raw materials, in-situ. If you vary the situation by any considerable amount, say a 100 degree F change in temperature, you affect the process.

As anyone here who lived continuously in China for a couple of years, eating only native foods knows, our body takes on may changes. To be specific, your “output” changes size and consistency.

The change in diet “input” also affects the system. There are tremendous changes in the pH of various boodily fluids, changes in body chemistry, all that are a result of the “input” and our physical habits.

Different substances (medicines) whether they are synthesized are ground up from plants will react differently in this situation.

We now this well in the coatings field. Sometimes we add more of a surfactant, othertimes less. The point being, I personally know of instances where TCM has succeeded, and where it has failed. the placebo effect not withstanding, it is highly unlikely that a TCM treatment with a history of working in a mainland Chinese person is going to have the same affect on a red-meat eating mainland US person.

July 10, 2013 @ 7:22 am | Comment

Much of the CONTENT of TCM is good and will be shown to beat the test of time. But the concept of TCM itself is bogus and idiotic. Just because something has been around for 3000 years doesn’t mean it isn’t a bunch of bull crap. All of the theory behind it is nothing more than fairy tales (5 elements? Meridians?). What will happen eventually is the actual treatments themselves will be tested, proven, and be encompassed into what the rest of the world calls “medicine”.

July 11, 2013 @ 2:55 pm | Comment

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