Monday, July 23, 2007
T-C-M for Y-O-U?
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
Posted By CNN: 12:11 PM ET
  23 Comments
Sanjay,

I think non-traditional medicines do work. And it is OK to use them as long as it is for nothing really serious. I think the U.S. needs to get more into them. We as a nation are WAY over medicated!! But of course use common sense if you have something that is life threatening go and get the real traditional meds.

And as far as the hospitals and doctors that use the endangered animal parts in China and all over the world as medicines then how about some J-A-I-L for T-H-E-M!!

Cynthia, Covington, Ga.
Posted By Cindy : 1:15 PM ET
HELLO DR. GUPTA!
"So, would you try TCM to treat yourself or a loved one?"
HELL NO!!! Once revealed, those ancient Chinese secrets literally make me want to puke.
Are we closed minded here in the U.S.? HA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Way to stir up the witches brew Dr. Sanjay! you know better! While sedated bear bile is extremely cruel and inexcuseable in my opinion, I would like to point out that the eating habits of U.S. citizens is equally as cruel. Goose pate? Veal? Any time you have people eating animals, you have suffering going on.
You are a vegetarian, right Dr. Gupta? Thanks for the report!
More veggies please~
Posted By Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,TX : 1:24 PM ET
Dr. Gupta, do those prepackaged homeopathic meds from Whole Foods count?
Posted By Renee Bradenton, FL : 1:27 PM ET
Sanjay, your headache is probably a holdover from that "concoction" you drank the other night. I got a headache just thinking about it.

I'm a totally western medicine person. Advil is a staple of my headache formula. Advil and a little hot caffeine, like the coffee you're not too fond of. It's just a little something I learned in the orient. Just kidding!! Too many movies I guess.

At any rate, try it! I swear by it!!
Posted By Sharon, Elma, New York : 1:33 PM ET
I think we have most definitely been close minded to alternative therapies. One of my problems with Allopathic (aka Western medicine) is that the primary focus seems to be on treating the symptoms rather than the cause of the disease. I tend to agree with eastern medicine in that disease is not just cuased by bacteria/viruses/fungi...etc. There is also a reason why these "germs" were allowed to gain a foot hold in our bodies. Something else is going on that set up an environment that is conducive to disease. Some western studies have shown this. Things like the effects of stress on the immune system or even what was not too long ago in the realm of eastern mystics as far as we were concerned...things like accupressure and massage or even martial arts and yoga as methods to bolster our well being have become more predominant. I would like to see the availiblity of Easter Medicine on a wider scale. I am a diabetic and have various joint issues from injuries sustained in the military. Western medicine has treated the symptoms of my medical issues, but have not attacked the causes of them.

Health is not just treating the pain but also treating the body as a whole to help the body fight disease on it's own. Our bodies are capable of amazing things, but sometimes the need a good kick in the behind to get going. That kick in the behind is where I think medice's place should be.

Eric Roberts
Naperville, IL
Posted By Anonymous : 1:46 PM ET
It has been my experience that medicine in the United States is very closed minded. U.S. doctors are locked into their diagnosis and treatment based on their training.

I'm not saying these doctors should abandon their training, but they should remain more open minded to unconventional treatment which does work for some.

The way the medical establishment handles medical marijuana is a prime example. For some people being treated for cancer or AIDS, medical marijuana provides some relief for the side effects of conventional treatment of those diseases. If marijuana works for these people, why must they face so many hurdles trying to obtain the marijuana for their use? My guess is that the pharmaceutical companies haven't yet figured out a way to overcharge for marijuana use if it was legalized for medical treatment.

Remaining closed minded to unconventional treatments which may benefit some patients will continue in the United States because HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and the medical establishment haven't been able to come up with a way to enrich themselves on those unconventional treatments.
Posted By Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA : 2:54 PM ET
Hi Dr. Gupta, thank you so much for going to all the ends of the earth to give us this Planet in Peril series. As for TCM, I'm a quarter-Chinese so I'm aware of this practice; however, I've not used it myself. I'm aware of the seahorse to cure something (I forget what). I'm not in favor of using TCM if it endangers animals. Why not use plants? I've heard of a substance from the yew tree as a possible cure for cancer, but I heard that because of deforestation this species is endangered as well. So I'm not in favor of using plants either if they're endangered. I believe all living things (human, animal, plant, etc.) are connected to each other. We can all help each other but we can do so while keeping the ecosystem in balance and preserving the existence of all species. If we start hurting other species, we need to look at other alternatives to cure our ailments.

Thanks and take care,
Lilibeth
Edmonds, Washington
Posted By Lilibeth, Edmonds, WA : 3:03 PM ET
No, I wouldn't use TCM unless the remedy has been proven with repeatable results in several double blind studies. I suspect that many of TCM's claims are due to the placebo effect.
Posted By Michelle, MN : 3:50 PM ET
While living in Atlanta, GA back in the late 80's, I was studying Tai Chi Chuan and got interested in TCM and read the excellent book, "The Web That Has No Weaver".
When I got a ferocious sore throat, I decided to give Chinese medicine a try. At a small shop, the practitioner gave me a sweet and tasty syrup. After half the bottle was gone, and no relief from the pain, I went back and reported in. He looked a bit more closely at me and said, "Ah! You 'hot' person! You need 'cool' medicine!" and handed me a different formulation of the same syrup. After about two doses of the 'cool' syrup, the pain went away. Of course, it may have been that the virus that caused the pain had run its course, or the herbal treatment worked to speed my body's recovery. I don't know for sure. But it didn't hurt me to try.
Posted By Shannon Adams, RN Charlottesville, VA : 3:55 PM ET
Hi Dr. Gupta,

I think a good number of Americans use traditional medicines for their ailments also specifically the Asian community and Native American community. I do not go to the doctor as much as the average American who tend to go whenever they have pain and being from SE Asia I also have used traditional medicines or methods when I have a physical ailment-minor ones. I am sure you have heard of medicine men or curandera's that the Native Americans use which is similar to the T-C-M and maybe you should do a story on them. Or (and with all due respect intended) maybe even on your own culture because I am assuming people from India also have "traditonal medicine" that is still used now. And as one of your viewers has pointed out-pharmaceutical companies are making bank because at the first sign of discomfort-alot of us automatically call our dr to get a RX-of course I mean the ones with insurance that is.Which thank goodness I have. However with the state of ER's (having to wait 4 hrs myself years ago) and healthcare in the US-I would think there are alot of us who still use traditional medicines. And trust it more than "doctors". I still need to go and read your book.:0)
Posted By Khonnie, Phoenix, AZ : 4:13 PM ET
I find that doctors either want to write you a prescription or sign you up for surgery (whether it is really beneficial or not overall) and then get on to the next patient. Some medicines I have been prescribed I have found do not work as well as my grandmother's old herbal remedies, which not only work but have little to no side effects. The medical community of course scoffs at this, so yes I think here in the US we are close-minded to other forms of healing. Just because it is old and not the current thing taught in medical schools does not make it invalid.
Posted By Annie Kate, Birmingham AL : 6:44 PM ET
I have been living in Japan for many years, and the doctor I go to uses a combination of TCM and Western medicine. He tells me the Western medicine works on the symptoms over the short term (2-3 days), giving the TCM time to get to the source. From experience, the TCM seems to be much gentler on my system than the chemicals we call Western medicine, and it has helped with pollen allergies and getting through menopause.
Posted By LMN, Yokosuka, Japan : 7:01 PM ET
Dear Dr.Sanjay Gupta,

The herbal part of TCM is used and marketed widely in the US and all over the world: namely Ginseng, Ginko Biloba, Don Quai for women, Horney goat weed for men etc.
I know that these herbs have an impact on the cardio-vascular system and it poses a danger if combined with pharmaceuticals:
Ginseng is a blood thinner
Ginko Biloba improves bloodflow
Not recommended to people with cardio-vascular conditions who are taking modern meds for it.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is practiced in China Town in New York and Philadelphia and -I assume- in other Chinese neighborhoods in Urban America. I have never been to up close, but I think that they have snake skins and animal parts also.

I have taken Don Quai on advice of my accupuncture doctor. But for headaches, I turn to aspirin or tylenol.
Posted By Ratna, New York, NY : 8:36 PM ET
Non-traditional medicine would not be my first choice, but you'd better believe I'd try it if I had an "incurable" disease!
Posted By Barbara, Culver City, CA : 11:45 PM ET
Doctors in US wanted to saw my daughter's cranium to ease the pressure on her brain.
She went to a Chinese herbalist for treatment and recovered without surgery. She has not had a recurrence of the problem.
Posted By Katherine W Hudson : 10:00 AM ET
Hi Dr. Gupta,
It seems as though T-C-M, Western medicine, or a combo of both may be helpful as long as the patient is aware of benefits and drawbacks.
I remember tiny, sealed vials of honey& herbs or ginseng gaining popularity in the 1980's, when I worked in advertising& design/PR in NYC.They were touted as a little boosts of extra energy when coffee wouldn't do(any power napping wasn't a phrase then.)Who knows, maybe we would have been better off taking Vitametavegamin.
Posted By Carol B., Frederick, MD : 12:11 PM ET
The labels "Alternative Medicine", "Homeopathic Medicine", "TCM", etc., all mean one thing to me: "not subjected to a controlled, double-blind study".

To paraphrase the t-shirt, science works!
Posted By markshelby, NYC USA : 1:35 PM ET
Hey Dr.Gupta,

I rarely take pills. I do take natural products but more extracts of plants or flowers.
But I wouldn't turn to traditionnal medecine to treat more important illnesses,no.
I had a scare with skin cancer a few years back. I had surgery but to help the healing of the scars I used a mixture of plants.
BUt that's as far as it goes. About TCM?! Reading your explanations,nope,not for me or any of my family. I'm not saying it doesn't work,it's just not for me.
Joanne R.
Laval Quebec
Posted By Joanne R.Laval Quebec : 2:09 PM ET
There is a woman at work who's son is opening an office specializing in Eastern meds. I will have to ask her about it. I've had a fear of Dr.s since I was a child and would love to be healed by drinking herbed teas. I do think that most people over medicate themselves and should instead see their doctors on a regular basis. Even though I wait until the last possible minute to see my Dr., I do believe that he knows what is best for me. You guys didn't go to school for all of those years for nothing! Now, Dr. G, get some sleep!
Posted By Kathy Chicago,Il : 7:30 PM ET
Traditional chinese medicine is still widely used even in Malaysia. Though for me, the ones I've seen are mostly made up of herbs and plants not animal parts and stuff.
Most of the concoctions and even the pills taste foul but people do swear by them. I've seen cases whereby western medicine didn't work and patients chose to try the alternative (T-C-M), and recovered soon after.
In terms of consuming animal parts for vigor or heal whatever ailments they think or feel they have; I'm skeptical about that.
To me, the public are being taken for a ride by these profit-driven people whom have convincingly and successfully market these products, thanks to our ever growing need for vitality and youth.
And to eat so called 'exotic' animals because they can afford it, that's equally sickening or worse. I do know some of these people. Talking to them is like talking to brick walls. People are full of excuses and resistant to change.
But in order to move towards a better future, they have to change and that's a whole lot of people we're talking about here. People are kind of exposed to the topic but because it's not treated as priority and is not glaringly obvious in society at the moment, there's no pressure to change their lifestyle.
The people have got to come to realize the connection, that their way of life is destructive not only to the animal kingdom and Planet Earth, but to our own survival as well.
Thanks for the great coverage.

p.s. Is AC360 shown in China?
Posted By lpfoong, Penang, Malaysia : 5:02 AM ET
Some of the comments show evidence that "natural" cures trump synthentic ones. That sounds pretty exciting to me. But can the all- powerful American pharmecutical (sp?) companies (who are hand-in-hand with doctors and hospitals) ever be challenged by natural alternatives? I hope so.
Posted By xtina chicago IL : 3:52 PM ET
Dear.Dr.Gupta
They used these natural substances
as restoring health of the body
treatments and curse for minor
sicknesses.Have no corroborative
facts scientifically.
(Animals Life-Style Drug and stamina food)
I like chinese herb medicine.
I used the roots of herbs(plants)
and the barks of tree leave the
honey in the mixture for at least
a month.
Posted By Hyo kyungJung / south Korea : 1:38 PM ET
August 1st, I saw a news story on the health (water, ice, heat) conditions in Iraq on CNN. Dr. Gupta, can you please further investigate this story on children and adults living in Iraq in 130 degree heat (whew!) without clean water or electricity. This MUST be a form of hell and my heart goes out to anyONE who endures this day after day. I enjoy your at-length journalistic work. You are thorough, and credible.
Posted By Calvin Walker-Fairfield, California : 2:20 PM ET
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