From Folk Medicine to Science: TCM in the 21st Century

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TCM practitioners use a variety of treatments to achieve balance and health. Image by kzinn

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has developed over several thousand years – in every century, practitioners have updated and upgraded TCM. Prior to the 20th century, TCM could best be classified as “evidence-based medicine.” That is, despite the absence of rigorous clinical trials, TCM treatments seemed to work as they were intended.

Then, with the opening of China to the West in the 20th century, TCM began to examine itself from a new perspective: that of research-based medicine, which forms the foundation of Western medical science. Now, practitioners and researchers from both TCM and Western Medicine backgrounds are coming together to learn more about how these medical disciplines interact. A true meeting of divergent cultures.

TCM Research in the Twenty-first Century

In the 21st century, the attitude of Traditional Chinese Medical practitioners, both in China and in the Western world, has been to welcome scientific research into TCM. In the past few years, the Chinese government has invested $1.5 billion into research on TCM.  Similarly, Western scientists all over the world have found it worthwhile to conduct studies of TCM, usually involving the combined use of TCM and Western medicine. This has culminated in a vast body of research on the efficacy of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Educational Advances

In addition to the establishment of numerous research projects, many educational institutions around the world are incorporating the study of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) into their medical programs. Similarly, in China, the major universities teach Western medicine alongside TCM. In Singapore, NTU (Nanyang Technological University) offers a double degree program in Biomedical Sciences and Chinese Medicine. Graduates of the program are fully qualified as Western physicians as well as Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners.

Growing Acceptance of TCM

In the twenty-first century, numerous scientific studies of TCM have demonstrated a scientific basis for this type of treatment. Thus, TCM is well on its way to becoming an accepted and widely-available approach to health care in many Western nations, as well as in China.

As early as 1980, the World Health Organization published a list of 43 types of pathologies which can be effectively treated with acupuncture.

ANSI (American National Standards Institute)

In 2015, the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) announced the Chinese government’s acceptance of their proposed reforms, including mandatory and voluntary standardization of Chinese medicinals.

In 2005, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (IOM) recommended that health profession schools incorporate information about TCM (as well as other alternative medical systems) into their standard programs.

The most common use of acupuncture is for the relief of chronic pain. Image by NicoleSuziManiez

Most Common Use of TCM in Western Medicine: Pain Relief

The most commonly used form of TCM in the United States is acupuncture for the relief of chronic pain. In 2006 and 2009, the Mayo Clinic conducted clinical trials in the use of TCM. They concluded that “Acupuncture can be helpful as a stand-alone treatment to provide pain relief, as well as to help maintain general health and well-being, increase energy and improve mood in healthy individuals.

In 2015, the American Chronic Pain Association published a Resource Guide listing acupuncture as a treatment which has gained so much acceptance that it is now covered by many insurance policies.

Research on Traditional Chinese Herbs

For thousands of years, TCM has been based on the combined use of herbs. These herbs are decocted, or boiled, in order to eliminate any toxic side effects. A decoction is a remedy consisting of a combination of multiple herbal drugs mixed together to produce a therapeutic effect. Each decoction is tailor-made to the specific needs of the individual patient.

In 2008, a comprehensive project to research the efficacy of the herbs used in Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine was initiated in China. The Herbalome Project is centered at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, a prominent research institution located near Beijing. The goal of the project is to isolate the chemical compounds contained in the thousands of herbs used in TCM, and to examine the possibility of using those chemical compounds to create more effective medicines.

In 2014, the journal Current Biology published the conclusions of research conducted by the Herbalome Project on a chemical compound called dehydrocorybulbine (DHCB), which is found in the underground tubers of the Corydalis plant. The study confirmed that DHCB suppresses several types of pain: that caused by damage to tissues, as well as pain resulting from injuries.

A variety of herbs are useful for TMC practitioners. Image by joanpowers.

Cancer Research

The Herbalome project has a prominent counterpart at Yale University. Dr. Yung-Chi Cheng – a professor of pharmacology at the Yale University School of Medicine – is an expert on biochemical and molecular pharmacology. He specializes in cancer and viral chemotherapy.  For the past twelve years, Dr. Cheng has led research (partially) funded by the NFCR (the National Foundation for Cancer Research) to examine the therapeutic properties of PHY906, a botanical drug based on an ancient Chinese herbal medicine formula. Laboratory research has shown that PHY906 reduces the toxic side effects of many chemotherapeutic drugs, while improving the anti-cancer properties of the drugs. In addition, it decreases the toxicity of radiation therapy to the abdomen, while increasing the response of tumors to the treatment.

According to the NFCR, PHY906 may be one of the first oral herbal medicines approved by the FDA for cancer treatment. Further research is being conducted into the use of PHY906 (and other Chinese herbal medicines) in the treatment of various types of cancer. The NFCR views the success of Dr. Chang’s research as “a paradigm shift in the way the cancer research community thinks about traditional Chinese medicine, opening minds – and the field of cancer research – to new approaches to treating cancer using these ancient medicines.

Diet and Life Style

The most fundamental concept of TCM is that a proper diet and a life style that reflects moderation in exercise, work, sex habits, and sleep are the basic ingredients of maintaining good health. In the past fifty years, Western medicine has similarly concluded that diet and life style are significant factors in health. This has made the combined use of TCM and Western medicine more acceptable to consumers and practitioners of both traditions.

Advantages of TCM

Among the advantages of TCM is that -unlike Western medicines- the remedies produce no side effects, when properly administered.  Furthermore, research has demonstrated that many TCM remedies enhance the effectiveness of Western medicines, allowing doctors to administer smaller dosages. Finally, they reduce the many painful and damaging side-effects of Western medicines. Thus, the combined use of TCM and Western medicine in the treatment of ailments of all degrees of seriousness is becoming recognized as a more effective approach to the prevention and treatment of illness.

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