3 Reasons Why You Should Avoid Chinese Traditional Medicines

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In a recent article published in the journal PloS Genetics, researchers from Murdock University have revealed three findings that should make everyone think at least twice before taking any Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and seriously consider avoiding consuming Chinese Traditional Medicines altogether.

Using a relatively new version of a type of DNA sequencing called “High Throughput Sequencing” (HTS), researchers were able to identify the animal and plant contents of 15 samples of Traditional Chinese Medicine products that were confiscated by the Wildlife trade section of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities in Australia. The Traditional Chinese Medicines were all seized by Australian Customs and Border Protection Service at airports and seaports across Australia. The samples seized and tested were in the form of powders, tablets, capsules, flakes and herbal teas.

One of the goals of the researchers’ DNA sequencing study was to determine the efficacy of using HTS in rapid and affordable screening of sample contents in cases involving illegal imports, food fraud, medicine fraud and forensics.

What the researchers found was that some of the Traditional Chinese Medicine samples tested contained potentially toxic plant ingredients, allergens and traces of endangered animals.

According to a statement by Dr. Michael Bunce, research leader of the study and Murdoch University Australian Research Council Future Fellow, "TCMs have a long cultural history, but today consumers need to be aware of the legal and health safety issues before adopting them as a treatment option.”

A summary of the three findings is as follows:

Plant findings

Four samples of the confiscated Traditional Chinese Medicines contained DNA sequences that indicate the presence of herbs possessing Ephedra and Asarum.

Ephedra is classed as a poisonous herb and therefore Ephedra-containing products have been banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Medicines that contain Ephedra should only be prescribed by experienced physicians as the therapeutic dose range is very narrow due to its high level of toxicity.

Some Asarum herb species contain Aristolochic acid—a known nephrotoxin, hepatotoxin, and carcinogen that has been listed as the key component of some weight loss products.

Among the potentially poisonous plants, the researchers also discovered that some samples contained the protected plant species Panax ginseng—one of many Asian plants at risk of extinction due to over-collecting for medicinal and homeopathic use.

Allergen findings

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One of the dangers of consuming some Traditional Chinese Medicines is the potential of developing an adverse allergic reaction to some substances within herbal remedies—such as nuts—which can cause anaphylaxis in those with severe allergy to some food products.

In the study, the researchers detected DNA from the Anacardiaceae (the cashew or sumac family) in two of the Traditional Chinese Medicines—both of which possess proteins that are known allergens. Furthermore, soybean was detected in four of the medicines and has been linked to at least 16 potential protein allergens with the potential to cause adverse reactions ranging from mild rashes to systemic anaphylaxis.

The researchers, however, do note that their results were unable to determine whether the detected DNA is derived directly from the nut or bean, or originated from plant tissue.

Animal Findings

A total of eight animal genera were identified from 539 DNA sequences obtained from four Traditional Chinese Medicine samples, two of which included the Saiga Antelope and the Asiatic black bear—both protected species of wildlife. Their findings indicate that in spite of protection laws, these and other species are still being illegally hunted for the Traditional Chinese Medicine market.

Furthermore, other animal species detected included the water buffalo, the Asiatic toad, the domestic cow and goat. It is believed that the goat detected was used as a type of cheap filler rather than for its medicinal properties.

The use of animal species other than those protected by law presents multiple problems for the consumer who may have religious or cultural strictures that prohibit the consumption of some meats. In addition, there is also the risk of becoming exposed to zoonotic pathogens such as prions in mad cow and other lethal diseases.

"A product labeled as 100% Saiga antelope contained considerable quantities of goat and sheep DNA," says Dr. Bunce. "Another product, Mongnan Tianbao pills, contained deer and cow DNA, the latter of which may violate some religious or cultural strictures."

Aside from the contents of the Traditional Chinese Medicines tested, another concern is the lack of or deliberate misrepresentation on the labeling.

Because TCMs and other alternative medicine remedies are not regulated anywhere near to the extent medications in the U.S. are, in reality there is no way to really know exactly what is in the bottle that you ordered over the internet or bought at a health food store. And, until regulation is in place and technology such as the type used in the study is used to ensure quality control, taking many Traditional Chinese Medicines is a game of Russian Roulette.

The authors of the paper state that, “With regard to Traditional Chinese Medicines and complementary medicines as a whole, controls need to be implemented to ensure consumer safety and to minimize impacts on protected biota. It is also important that consumers are made fully aware of legal and health safety concerns that surround TCMs before adopting them as a treatment option.”

Image Source: Courtesy of MorgueFile

Reference: “Deep Sequencing of Plant and Animal DNA Contained within Traditional Chinese Medicines Reveals Legality Issues and Health Safety Concerns” PLoS Genetics 8(4) 2012; Coghlan ML, Haile J, Houston J, Murray DC, White NE, et al.

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Comments

While I do not dispute the findings of the study, my conclusion is that this makes it more important than ever to deal with an experienced and skilled TCM practitioner who is knowledgeable about the sources and quality of the herbal supplements he or she suggests. In 6 years of treatment, I have had nothing but positive experiences with TCM remedies, as opposed to frequent and severe side effects from the regulated prescription medications provided by Western medicine.
Indeed. The research only shows that it is necessary to consult a professional Chinese Medicine Practitioner, rather than to self-medicate. Many drugs are potentially toxic, but that doesn't mean that people shouldn't go to doctors. Professional Chinese Medicine practitioners are aware of any potential toxicity of their medicines, and use products obtained from reputable suppliers to try to avoid contamination and adulteration. There are dodgy commercial products on the market, and they try to avoid these. Research that identifies these products helps them practice safely and effectively. But the fact that there are bad Chinese Medicinal products available isn't a good reason to avoid Chinese Medicine altogether any more than bad drugs like thalidomide make it a good reason to avoid medicine altogether. There are many individual statements that I could correct in your article, Timothy, but let's just leave it at one. You have confused yourself over potentially poisonous plants and protected plant species - they are not the same. Panax ginseng is not potentially poisonous except in extremely high doses. Furthermore, panax ginseng is listed in appendix II of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species only for the Russian population. It is American Ginseng, panax quinquefolius, that is listed as an endangered species. Chinese medicine practitioners know the difference.