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Traditional Chinese Medicine: Science or Superstition?

Unlike its Western counterpart, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is based on a Taoist view that sees illness as an imbalance of "chi," the universal energy made of opposing forces, yin and yang, constantly flowing through our bodies.

Using diagnostic techniques like taking your pulse and examining your tongue, the traditional Chinese doctor can recognize the nature of the imbalance; whether there is too much yin (dark, wet, or cold) or too much yang (light, dry, hot), and develop an appropriate treatment.

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Because Western medicine takes more of a materialist approach — relating illness only to pathogens and biological actions that can be measured or seen — the spiritual foundation of TCM makes skeptics doubt the validity of many traditional Chinese treatments, especially when these treatments include the questionable use of substances like mercury or animal bones.

Yet, the documented effectiveness of acupuncture and other TCM practices speaks for itself. So is traditional Chinese medicine science or superstition? We'll let you decide.

Chinatown's Apothecary

Before the 1970s TCM was a secret in the United States, practiced mainly by and on immigrant Chinese living in places like San Francisco's Chinatown. Here, time appears to have stood still with sights and sounds much as they were over 150 years ago, when Chinese immigrants made a home on San Francisco's steep hillsides.

Today, you can still walk into a Chinese apothecary and receive care in the way it's been done for over 4,000 years. A doctor will take your pulse and examine your tongue, supposedly all that's required for a diagnosis. He then writes out a prescription you take across the room where a clerk will pull your medicine — animal, vegetable and mineral — from the multitude of little draws built into the wall.

From this bundle of loose material you make a tea to drink, as often as prescribed. But among the leaves and roots are more questionable curatives; dried seahorses, reputed to halt hair loss and cure impotence, and lizard skins thought to improve circulation.

Similar shops can be found in every large city with a sizable Asian population, selling a whole host of dried animal parts, some like tiger bone, rhino horn and bear organs, taken from extremely endangered animals. Conservation groups say many of these treatments have all the scientific validity of wearing a rabbit's foot for good luck.

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As a concerned consumer using TCM, you can insist your practitioner find alternatives to remedies calling for animal parts. Even so, many herbalists in the United States caution against even taking herbs imported from overseas.

This is no case of New Age protectionism. According to the state of California, the problem of contaminated or mislabeled Chinese herbal products is so bad, the state has set up an entire unit within the Department of Health, to investigate possible injuries and deaths from herbal products.

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The stories can be horrifying. A woman experienced total paralysis of her limbs after an accidental overdose of a mislabeled product. Another product meant to treat insomnia gave users hepatitis. In another case, a child was poisoned by a supplement containing a toxic level of mercury, itself a part of the traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia.

Some imported products even contain prescription drugs, as was the case in which a woman was suspected of having a rare form of leukemia. In actuality, she'd taken a product that contained a synthetic drug that wiped out her white blood cells.

According to Richard Ko, an herbal products investigator with the state of California, as many as one-third of imported herbal products pose some kind of health threat. Generally speaking, he says, consumers aren't able to identify potentially dangerous products. So he recommends getting help.

"They should consult with somebody who knows herbal products. For example, an acupuncturist, or a licensed naturopathic practitioner, or some licensed herbalist. Second, they should buy their products from a reputable source. A big company would generally do some testing. A smaller company may not do testing on the herbal products it imports."

Acupuncture Earns Respect

Acupuncture, a fundamental therapy within TCM, first sparked interest in the United States after James Reston, a reporter traveling with President Richard Nixon in China, wrote an article describing his positive experience using acupuncture needles for pain management following an appendectomy.

Enthusiasm and interest grew as more reports were circulated of the analgesic effects of acupuncture. Acupuncturists are now licensed in 29 states and there are several institutions across the country training professionals in the pharmacopeia and modalities of Chinese medicine.

In a groundbreaking 1997 study financed by the National Institutes of Health, acupuncture was credited as an effective treatment for many ailments, including chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, nausea from pregnancy, and dental pain. The NIH also added that acupuncture is "an acceptable alternative" to conventional treatments for stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma.

Research into acupuncture and other elements of TCM are continuing, particularly in the area of addictions. In the early 1970s, Dr. H.L Wen, a Hong Kong neurologist, discovered that opium addicts undergoing standard analgesic acupuncture were cured of their addiction.

Since then, acupuncturists have developed a standard protocol to treat addiction by inserting needles into five points on the ear. Addicts say acupuncture helps them to feel calmer and more focused. And, they say, it even eliminates "drug dreams" that often haunt a recovering addict.

Smokers say that after only one or two treatments, the taste of the smoke itself actually changes. A 1997 Canadian study reported similar successes, and researchers at Yale University are currently studying the effectiveness of acupuncture to treat more than 500 cocaine addicts, turning what was considered superstitious folk medicine, into a bona fide medical therapy.

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Acupuncture, a fundamental therapy within TCM, first sparked interest in the United States after James Reston, a reporter traveling with President Richard Nixon in China, wrote an article describing his positive experience using acupuncture needles for pain management following an appendectomy.

Enthusiasm and interest grew as more reports were circulated of the analgesic effects of acupuncture. Acupuncturists are now licensed in 29 states and there are several institutions across the country training professionals in the pharmacopeia and modalities of Chinese medicine.

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In a groundbreaking 1997 study financed by the National Institutes of Health, acupuncture was credited as an effective treatment for many ailments, including chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, nausea from pregnancy, and dental pain. The NIH also added that acupuncture is "an acceptable alternative" to conventional treatments for stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma.

Research into acupuncture and other elements of TCM are continuing, particularly in the area of addictions. In the early 1970s, Dr. H.L Wen, a Hong Kong neurologist, discovered that opium addicts undergoing standard analgesic acupuncture were cured of their addiction.

Since then, acupuncturists have developed a standard protocol to treat addiction by inserting needles into five points on the ear. Addicts say acupuncture helps them to feel calmer and more focused. And, they say, it even eliminates "drug dreams" that often haunt a recovering addict.

Smokers say that after only one or two treatments, the taste of the smoke itself actually changes. A 1997 Canadian study reported similar successes, and researchers at Yale University are currently studying the effectiveness of acupuncture to treat more than 500 cocaine addicts, turning what was considered superstitious folk medicine, into a bona fide medical therapy.

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