Learning from China: Researchers Are Finding That Traditional Chinese Medicine May Have a Lot to Offer

By Underwood, Anne | Newsweek, December 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

Learning from China: Researchers Are Finding That Traditional Chinese Medicine May Have a Lot to Offer


Underwood, Anne, Newsweek


Byline: Anne Underwood

"A western doctor would say you are perfectly healthy, but you are not!" proclaims Nan Lu, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine in New York's Chinatown. Dr. Lu has just examined my tongue and taken my pulse--or rather my pulses, one for each of 12 organs. The diagnosis: an "energy leak" from the heart, causing insomnia. "The heart governs the mind," Lu explains. "You have too many thoughts. You can't get them out of your brain when you want to sleep." This feels like a palm reading, but the doctor's description is accurate. OK, I reply. What's the remedy? According to Lu, it will require acupuncture, qigong (Chinese yoga), meditation, dietary modifications and herbal remedies--in short, major lifestyle changes. I leave with three herbal formulas containing green orange peel, sour-date seed and licorice root along with dozens of exotic ingredients, and I promise to come back for a qigong class. Acupuncture? I'll think about it.

If traditional Chinese medicine feels unscientific to the Western mind, that should come as no surprise. Its foundations were laid down more than 2,000 years ago in The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine. Yet modern science is starting to verify that some of these age-old remedies really work. A major conference in Beijing in September brought together 1,500 researchers from 28 countries. Together the --scientists presented more than 1,000 research papers, most of them relying on strict Western rules of evidence to evaluate the safety, efficacy and biological mechanisms of traditional Chinese treatments. The beauty of the research is that it seems strongest in areas where Western medicine is weakest--namely, chronic illness. "Even in China, no one says 'Get me to an herbalist' after a car crash," says Dr. David Eisenberg, director of Harvard Medical School's Osher Institute for complementary and integrative medicine. But the Chinese do routinely seek out traditional cures for recurring migraines, arthritis, menopausal symptoms, chronic digestive disorders, even inoperable cancers. The evidence is promising enough that Western researchers have begun looking to China for potential new therapies.

That the two systems can find common ground for dialogue at all is remarkable. Traditional Chinese medicine is grounded not in biochemistry or pathology but in concepts of balance and harmony--between yin and yang, the "five elements" (wood, fire, earth, metal and water), the "six pathogenic factors" (cold, wind, dryness, heat, dampness and fire) and the "seven emotions" (joy, anger, anxiety, obsession, sadness, horror and fear). Excesses or deficiencies can cause illness, according to Chinese medical theory. So can too much or too little food, drink, work or exercise. In addition, good health requires the life force or vital energy that the Chinese call qi ("chee") to flow smoothly through the body along 14 major channels, or "meridians." Put this all together, and it means that a traditional Chinese doctor wouldn't diagnose peptic ulcers, but "deficient yin of the stomach," "damp heat affecting the spleen" or "disharmony of the liver invading the spleen." Acupuncture or herbs might be needed to unblock "stagnant qi."

Of all the Chinese treatments, acupuncture has been the focus of the most research in the West. It has been tested, with mixed results, for conditions ranging from asthma to ringing of the ears. So far, the strongest evidence is that it relieves pain and nausea. Numerous lines of research show that it --boosts levels of the body's own opiates, called endorphins. This would help explain its effect on pain. It also appears to increase the brain chemical serotonin, which confers a sense of well-being. At the September conference, Dr. Han Jisheng of Beijing University presented a study suggesting that acupuncture could even lessen drug cravings. In a study of 611 Chinese heroin addicts in rehab, acupuncture with low- level electrical stimulation reduced the relapse rate to less than 80 percent after nine months--compared with nearly 100 percent for most Chinese addicts. …

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