Editor's note: This post by Dr. Sanjay Gupta also appears on his blog, "Paging Dr. Gupta."
BEIJING, China -- I am on the road working on an upcoming documentary called "Planet in Peril"
. A few weeks ago I was in Central Africa looking at the causes for the disappearance of Lake Chad. Now I am in Beijing, China.
My first stop was something that I had been looking forward to for some time: a Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic. Immediately upon entering, I saw two young gentlemen in short white coats carrying around what appeared to be dried snakes on small white pieces of paper. They quickly showed the "prescription" to the doctor and after getting her approval, they wrapped it up and handed it to the patient. "Was that dried snake?" I asked the doctor. She nodded, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Her attitude was not surprising given that 95 percent of people in China use what it called TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine. There are huge textbooks with descriptions of medications that vary from rhinoceros horn to turtle shells and yes, snakes. In the book are not only doses, usually around 15 - 30 grams, but also specific uses such as "thins the blood, acts as a tonic" or my favorite, "restores the yang."
Now, if you are imagining a rustic, rural place in a small Chinese village, think again. The TCM clinic we visited was right in the middle of Beijing, one of the largest cities in the world. Right outside the office doors were fancy electronics and boutique stores selling high-end goods, and there was a long waiting line of well-dressed people with ailments ranging from arthritis to nausea to the common cold. One woman who came in for persistent vomiting was given a seven-day prescription of herbs and dried animal parts, including four different kinds of roots, orange peel, a huge spool of bamboo, shaved bull horn and a touch of turtle shell. The final prescription took up nearly the entire counter with each daily dose the size of a small salad. She was told to pour the entire quantity into a pot of hot water and drink the liquid as a tea. Judging by her happy reaction, she was quite confident this would fix what ailed her.
I even decided to put it the test myself. I described a raging headache that I was having, probably due to my long travel and numerous days with hardly any sleep. The doctor asked me a series of questions about the headache and my general medical condition and checked my pulse. She had a look at my tongue as well. While I was fully expecting some deer antler shaving or a dollop of dried plants and herbs, she simply smiled and said "go get some sleep."
It was a good diagnosis, but there was still something nagging at me. Many of the animals that provide the ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine are threatened, and some of the techniques used to get some of the animal substances are alarmingly brutal. For example, bear bile is often used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. To obtain this rare substance involves sedating a bear and then sticking a long needle straight into the bear's gallbladder and slowly filling up a glass jar with the green substance. It is not only dangerous and barbaric, but also life threatening for the bear. When I asked the doctor about this, she told me that TCM has recently evolved and no endangered species are used in making the medicine and brutal techniques have been stopped as well. She said the punishments are very severe if someone is caught doing it. When I pushed her on this particular issue, she conceded that there are probably places still offering some of these substances, but they were not available in her clinic.
One of the reasons I wanted to pursue this story is in part my own curiosity as a doctor, but also because medicine seems to transcend borders unlike anything else. In fact, many of the same "prescriptions" previously relegated only to China and the Far East, are now available at stores focusing on health and wellness in the United States. Ironically, one young woman told me the newest generation of Chinese citizens has started to shy away from TCM, opting instead for Western medicine such as aspirin for headaches and prepackaged cold medicine. There in fact may come a day when Traditional Chinese Medicine may be more popular outside China than inside the country where it has been popular for thousands of years.
So, would you try TCM to treat yourself or a loved one? Do you think in the United States that we have been too close minded to what Far Eastern medicine has to offer? Do you have any particular stories of your own experience with TCM?
-- By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chief Medical Correspondent