Yin and Yang: Western Science Makes Room for Chinese Herbal Medicine

Article excerpt

After watching her father put up with allergy shots for 20 years, Ann Bergeron resolved to treat her own allergies another way. On the recommendation of a friend, she sought the help of a Chinese doctor in San Francisco. During her first visit, instead of the usual scratch tests, the doctor spoke to her for about half an hour, asking about her lifestyle and medical history. At the end of the session, the doctor wrote out a prescription.

Bergeron took the piece of notebook paper, filled with cryptic Chinese characters, to a pharmacy deep in the heart of Chinatown. There, the pharmacist carefully measured out the ingredients, which Bergeron says looked like the components of a witch's brew: beetles with hairy legs, lichen, toadstools, and colored powders. Every other night for several months, she boiled this concoction into a "tea from hell" and drank it.

Bit by bit, her allergies went away.

Increasingly, people are putting aside their understandable squeamishness in order to sample the touted benefits of Chinese herbal medicines. Skeptics might attribute Bergeron's recovery to a placebo effect and not to any specific biochemical benefit. But many swear by herbal medicine, taking it as a supplement to--or even substitute for--conventional drugs. Herbs provide a gentler way to treat ailments as well as to boost the body's own defenses, enthusiasts say.

Many medical researchers in the United States and Europe suspect ancient remedies may also harbor new drugs. Government, industry, and academic research groups are zealously mining this potential source of pharmaceuticals, probing Chinese herbs for the chemical constituents that might one day yield new treatments for everything from asthma to AIDS.

But proponents of traditional Chinese medicine say this fervor to isolate single compounds is misplaced. To them, the real benefits come from whole herbs and herbal extracts, since the chemicals in them purportedly work in conjunction with one another.

The United States, however, supports very little research into whole herbs--in part because its drug approval process doesn't accommodate undifferentiated mixtures of natural chemicals whose collective function is uncertain, notes Mark Blumenthal of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. A dearth of research in this area stems from a clash between two medical cultures--one representing a modern society searching for magic bullets, the other belonging to an ancient society steeped in history and tradition. But the public demand for remedies, no matter what they might be, is challenging scientists and policy makers to find common ground.

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine almost always prescribe a mix of herbs, tailoring complex formulas to the individual's condition. To Western ears, the ingredients in Bergeron's allergy preparation sound bizarre, but her doctor most likely knew the function of each.

"Chinese herbal medicines have the most extensive documentation among all the cultures," observes Albert Y. Leung, a Glen Rock, N.J.-based private consultant and expert in pharmacognosy, the study of natural drug materials. He notes that the healing properties of these herbs--collected through experience--"have been documented for at least 2,500 years now."

By contrast, Western medicine places emphasis on pure compounds known to possess a specific biochemical effect--inhibition of a particular enzyme, for example. Potential drugs run a gauntlet of animal testing and human clinical trials to ensure their quality, safety, and effectiveness. The same drug should work over a large population, with adjustments in dosage for different people.

In recent years, several pharmaceutical companies have formed to develop such drugs from Chinese plants: Pharmagenesis in Palo Alto, Calif., and Natural Pharmacia International in Research Triangle Park, N.C., are two.

Leung, who studied at National Taiwan University in Taipei and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is working to bridge the information gap that divides the two medical systems. …