Does Traditional Chinese Medicine work

Gingko bilobaMany of the health claims of herbal medicine bear fruit for the pharmaceutical industry, leading to new drugs that are more potent and more targeted than the original remedy. In Traditional Chinese medicine there are many health claims for the likes of Ginkgo biloba and many other remedies that might bear closer scrutiny. Now, pharmaceutical chemist David Barlow and colleagues Peter Hylands and Thomas Ehrman at King’s College London have undertaken the biggest study yet of the active ingredients in TCM and used an analytical system known as a multiple decision tree technique, called Random Forest, to unearth the root of the activity of the natural products in TCM.

Their study seems to vindicate many of the claims of TCM as well revealing several compounds that might be indicated for diseases and symptoms not treated with in the traditional system.

The team built a database containing well over 8000 compounds from 240 of the most commonly used TCM herbs and used a second database of almost 2600 known active plant chemicals and other natural products as a training set for the Random Forest computer algorithm. The team found that about 62% of the herbs they tested in silico against various drug targets (mostly enzymes associated with pathogens or problems in the body) contained candidate drug compounds that might be isolated for treating a single disease without the associated issues of a TCM approach. They also found that more than half of these compounds worked against at least two diseases and so might have multiple applications.

You can read more about this research today on SpectroscopyNOW news round up from David Bradley. I asked Barlow about the wider application of this research and he said it might be applied equally well to other databases. “The same methodology might also be applied in screening other similar databases, constructed, for example, with reference to herbs used in Ayurvedic medicine,” he said.

27 thoughts on “Does Traditional Chinese Medicine work”

  1. i’m sorry but i know little on the topic of medicene, not due to ignorance but to lack of time to attain sufficent knowledge to have any degree of understanding…BUT surely if TCMs did cure the different illnesses they claim to, then why aren’t they widley renowned throughout the MEDCs of the world, where modern medicene is leading, and only in a developing country, China, which although does have a large developed “hub” it is still largely a rural aimed country. This brings me onto the point that most of China’s population is still living in a more similar way of life to than that of what we lived say 300 years ago, so consequently due to lack of development in areas, they no no better/alternative, and that most of the TCM is down to mythology.
    A point mentioned earlier in this discussion is, i believe a very important one, that there is no data on success rates for the types of methods that TCM uses and there are no rich TCM practitioners, surely if these cures worked they would be wide spread, just like other things that helped the human race advance such as cancer treatment or internet

  2. i come from China, my wife and father-in- law are all TCM doctor, according to my own experience , tcm really works .take my daughter for example , 3 years since her birth,except she come to the world and take vaccine injection in hospital , all her illness is cured by my father-in- law using TCM. in terms of medical cost ,my baby spend around 1 10th that of her own age children employing western medicine .what i take most pride in is the truth that my daughter does not take any antibiotics, she stay away from side effect of antibiotics .

  3. Definitely I’m a firm believer that traditional Chinese medicine works, most pills and drugs usually are sedatives that don’t cure but only sedate the affected area and their abuse can damage the entire body.

  4. Nope, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it works. I suspect there are an awful lot of people who never did get well…do you know any rich TCM practitioners? Just a thought.

  5. Traditional Chinese Medicine was in use from ancient days itself. It’s the ancient holistic medical system and was in practice for thousands of years. It’s also interesting to know that TCM doctors were paid if & only their patients remained well enough. Therefore we can definitely trust upon Chinese Medicines for certain treatments.

  6. I’m a firm believer in evidence-based medicine. There is no evidence for the notion of detox. If anything adding herbal remedies, TCM, Ayurveda or otherwise) to your diet will increase toxins in your live, bloodstream etc because these will simply add to the weight of biochemical processing that your liver and kidneys need to do. Moreover, there is evidence that certain so-called “natural remedies” contain toxic heavy metals and other poisons.

  7. my husband is planing to start to use chinese medicine, he just went to a chinese center where he saw a ‘doctor’ and told him that his back pain, and he is tired, becouse he hasa liver or kidney problem, aparently the muscles are fine, and the doctor said that he could start a detox progam for 4 months and try herbal, and natural medicine, my husband take very seriusly but i want to research firts what do the peple say, i mean, does it have a cosecuenses or does it works.??

  8. Nicely put Chris. I think that probably encapsulates how I feel about the conventional-complementary dichotomy. There most certainly is a placebo effect, we have no idea how it works, we have no idea why many pharmaceutical drugs work, we certainly have no idea why some alternative treatments work. Equally, we have no idea why some proponents in both camps are adamant that their approach is the perfect solution to the problem of illness and cannot handle well evidence to the contrary.


  9. Several recent posts have been interesting and have me wondering about something slightly off topic.

    If illness, in many cases, is the result of psychosomatic causes–and more specifically mental processes causing physical symptoms of disease–perhaps many holistic treatments address this problem more aptly than a strong symptom-suppressing pharmaceutical. Why does cancer resurface in so many people after having been eradicated? I would posit a misguided treatment, one that did not fix the “root” cause, at least in some of the instances where this occurs.

    Of course, when talking as I have above, one must bring the placebo effect into the conversation. Fair enough. The placebo effect is present in all medicine East, West, or otherwise. All of these methods benefit from placebo, there is no contesting this, and if the point is healing, then placebo should be welcome if it works. It has been noted that placebo is more powerful in Eastern healing traditions with patients in the West, while placebo is more present in Western healing traditions with patients in the East. I find this very interesting.

    I believe healing matches, or needs to address/match, current historical context. Our culture is sick in different ways than it was 300 years ago, and in some cases even 30 years ago. Advertising, information, technology, expectations, and the general speed of life, are all very different, which may give rise to different appearing illnesses. I feel Western medicine and science are beginning to–however slowly–catch on to emotion/mind causing illness in body and even vice versa.

    My point here is basically one of direction. Science and Western medicine are wonderful in many ways; however, I think they are in need of redirection. Maybe after the Western worldview catches up with modern physics (e.g., energy/matter being interchangeable, etc.)–which will be a while, just look at how long it took the people of the world to stomach the earth not being the center of the universe–our treatments will begin to heal root causes instead of masking the symptoms they produce.

    I apologize for the long-winded post, but I had to get this out. Thank you.


  10. Susan, I’m not in total disagreement with your comment, but one of the properties that unites many folk remedies and complementary medicines is that they all seem to have multiple effects that are highly non-specific, apparently have broad-spectrum physiological effects, and have curative effects with undefinable impact, such as “soothing”.

    To some extent, the proponents of each one essentially claims some kind of limited panacea. Conversely, “western” treatments usually focus on a single issue. At least until the patent is about to expire and then a rapid reformulation for another indication can reinvigorate the market for a particular product.


  11. Semen Cuscutae Is Used for in TCM
    Today, Semen Cuscutae is used in Chinese medicine to invigorate the kidneys and consolidate kidney essence (jing), nourish the liver, improve eyesight, arrest diarrhea and soothe an unborn fetus.
    1. It is used in syndromes caused by a kidney deficiency that exhibit symptoms such as lower back pain, erectile dysfunction, involuntary discharge of semen, urinary frequency and leucorrhea.
    2. It is used for symptom treatment of blurred and dark vision and decreased visual acuity, which are caused by insufficient nourishment of the eyes due to liver and kidney deficiencies.
    3. It treats diarrhea problems caused by spleen and kidney deficiencies.
    4. It is used for cases of abnormal fetal movement caused by liver and kidney deficiencies.
    5. It can also be used in increased thirst symptoms caused by a kidney deficiency.

    Despite the fact that cuscuta is unpopular with farmers, it has a long history of folk use. In Western herbalism, cuscuta was traditionally used to treat liver, spleen, and gallbladder disorders such as jaundice ; and to support liver function. It is still used, although rarely, in that way by modern herbalists. It is also a mild laxative. Other traditional Western claims for cuscuta are that it is a mild diuretic, and that it can be used to treat sciatica and scurvy. Externally, it can be gathered fresh and applied to the skin to treat scrofuladerma. Extracts of the herb have a very bitter taste.
    In traditional Chinese medicine, the seeds of cuscuta, called tu si zi, have been used for thousands of years. In the Chinese understanding of health, yin aspects inside the person and outside in the environment must be kept in balance with yang aspects. Ill health occurs when the energies and elements of the body are out of balance or in disharmony with nature. Health is restored by taking herbs and treatments that restore internal and external balance.
    According to traditional Chinese healers, cuscuta seeds have a neutral nature and a pungent, sweet taste. They are associated with the liver and kidneys and are used in formulas that help both yin and yang deficiencies, depending on the patient’s condition and the other herbs in the formula. Cuscuta was considered both an aphrodisiac and a longevity herb because it slowed down the loss of fluids from the body.

    Contemporary Chinese herbalists use cuscuta in formulas to treat a range of conditions, including:

    impotence;premature ejaculation;sperm leakage;frequent urination;ringing in the ears;lower back pain;sore knees;white discharge from the vagina (leucorrhea);dry eyes;blurred vision;tired eyes

    Cuscuta is one of nine herbs included in the manufacture of Equiguard, a Chinese herbal medicine recommended for kidney and prostate disorders. Research performed at New York Medical College indicates that the combination of ingredients in Equiguard may well be effective in the treatment of prostate cancer. The preparation inhibited the growth of cancer cells, increased the rate of self-destruction (apoptosis) of cancer cells, and prevented the surviving cells from forming colonies.
    Cuscuta is also used in the Indian system of Ayurvedic healing to treat jaundice, muscle pain, coughs, and problems with urination.

    Little scientific research has been done in the West on cuscuta. A purgative compound has been isolated from the herb, however, that supports its traditional use as a liver and gallbladder tonic. Other research done at Asian universities indicates that cuscuta seeds contain a complex carbohydrate that stimulates the immune system and has some antioxidant properties as well.

  12. Interesting point, well made Vaughn. In one sense I’d have to agree, but the problem with the “measure results according to a person’s well-being before and after, without science chopping it up” perspective is knowing what’s having the before to after effect. If the healing is being approached holistically with lots of mopping of fevered brows and a caring bedside manner, who’s to say it’s not just that having the beneficial effects rather than the herbal infusion being imbibed, for instance. And, if it is, then a trial might extract that information and allow the holistic healer to mop the brow without the risk of prescribing a heady herbal brew that may be contaminated with heavy metals and other nasties that, in the long-term, may have more of a detrimental effect than a drug selected for its apparently direct action on the patient’s symptoms.


  13. David, I disagree, at least partially, with your “Double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials data,” requirement. It is possible to measure results according to a person’s well-being before and after, without science chopping it up. There is plenty of “evidence” found in the fabulously rapid growth of alternative medicines such as TCM and homeopathy. Western medicine, and its science, is failing many people, making them sicker or doing little or nothing at all. This is the reason for such geometric growth in alternative therapies.

    I agree that more studies need to be done, but Alison’s assertion doesn’t require science to be correct. Science is a great tool, however, it would be foolish to place all of your faith in this single Western system. Healing has taken place without science for a long time, and sometimes life requires us to be uncomfortable with the unknown. If the universe is ever-expanding it seems to follow that our little brains may never catch up, no?

  14. Alison, such an assertion requires evidence. Double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials data. Can you point Sciencebase readers to some recent primary research results in the area of TCM. A link to a meta analysis review of such data would also be useful.


  15. i was googling and found this blog. impressed is all i want to say. i also have great interest in chinese medicine and have been reporting on studies on TCM. just in case you might want to check out my articles:

    thx for the great site! i’ve subscribed to it! :)

  16. Chris, yes, I’ve heard and read discussions of the “buffering” of active components in herbal remedies, but as with much of complimentary medicine there are few double-blind placebo-controlled trials around that can extract (pardon the pun) the cause from the effect.

  17. There is also some deliberation on the effects brought about by isolating certain parts of a plant for use as a medicine. Particularly with regard to side effects that are present in almost all Western pharmaceuticals that are derived from plants and the way that when, instead, the whole plant is utilized natural buffers are present that prevent side effects. Generally herbal remedies work more slowly than do Western medicines but the benefit of herbal compounds are derived from their gentle action and their potential to correct imbalances and not just suppress symptoms.

    Thank you for the interesting post.

  18. In China, TCM is an official alternative to modern (or to Chinese, western) medicine. Recently it has become heated debate whether we stop TCM practice before its effect is scientifically proved. Fang Zhouzi, an active figure in science literacy in China, said that most herbals in TCM are poisonous containing heavy metal elements. However, in a country where TCM was born, many people cannot accept that their own medicine which help them for thousands of years should leave its place to western medicine (something nationalistic here).
    It is a complex issue and I haven’t form my view yet. But I am delight to see that western friends attach enough importance on TCM (for instance by noting the possibility of synergistic effects, a point that Fang Zhouzi may overlook).

  19. I think that it is really great that these traditional Chinese medicines are being proven to help in the fight against diseases. There are a lot of great forms of medicine, but sometimes, it’s the most simple thing that can save someone’s life.

  20. I’m not sure TCM practitioners would describe what they do as simple, nor that the components of any particular herbal blend, or even individual herb, are simple, but I get your point. There is an argument that isolating the so-called “active” ingredient from such remedies in order to make a marketable pharmaceutical product actually reduces any synergistic effects between other chemical components of the remedy, that either improve transport of the active to the target site in the body and/or reduce the potential of side-effects.

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