What’s Really in Traditional Chinese Medicine. ~ Dylan Flather

Via elephant journal
on Apr 19, 2012
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Photo: Occupy for Animals

Insidious components of Traditional Chinese Remedies.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been practiced as a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years but has only recently become available as supplementary or as an alternative to Western medicine. TCM includes dietary therapy, acupuncture, massage and herbal medicine and accounts for up to 40% of healthcare administered in China. As a result of the rise of this industry (specifically herbal remedies, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars annually), concerns have been raised regarding the efficacy, safety and legality of these teas, powders and tablets.

Recently, a research group at Murdoch University in Australia have analyzed the components of some TCM remedies through DNA sequencing and chromatographic techniques and the findings, published in the journal PLoS Genetics, are alarming. Not only do these “medicines” contain components of critically-endangered species, illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of which China is a signatory, but also heavy metals and toxic chemicals. There are also issues with the packaging of TCM remedies. Pills labeled as Saiga Antelope Horn Powder (an endangered species) actually contained, in some cases, both goat and sheep DNA (i.e., the manufacturer tossed some goat horn in the mix as filler). Further, mislabeled plant-derived products pose a serious threat to health. The researchers discovered Ephedra, a poisonous herb banned in the U.S. as well as various known carcinogens and toxins in a supplement labeled as “laryngitis medicine.” Over-harvesting of herbal remedies for TCM is also leading to extirpation of some plant species in regions of China.

Not only is this bad for our health, it’s torture for the animals.

The use of bear bile as a remedy for liver ailments requires that black bears be kept in cages in which they can barely move, so that bile can be constantly extracted from a hole in their abdomen. Similarly, poachers in Africa capture rhinos, saw off their horn (which can fetch $50,000 per pound on the chinese black market) and leave the hornless rhino to bleed to death as a result, which has reduced the world’s rhino population by more than 90% over the past 40 years. The fact that rhinoceros horn, prescribed for fevers and convulsions, is made out of the same protein that makes up fingernails—keratin—demonstrates the fact that many TCM remedies are considered ineffective (or, at best, placebos) by evidence-based medicine. Although there is often (founded) concern over the morality of the pharmaceutical companies that produce Western remedies, because big money is being made on TCM products it is increasingly necessary to be aware of the health risks, illegality and cruelty involved with these medicines as well. So, if you like biodiversity but don’t like cancer or torture, be smart about what remedies you choose.

Seven common components of TCM remedies:

1. Asiatic Black Bear bile

2. Rhinoceros horn

3. Tiger penis

4. Cow gallstones

5. Snake oil

6. Turtle plastron (shell)

7. Dehydrated seahorse

Note: Although many TCM medicines and remedies are considered nostrums, there are demonstrable benefits of other forms of TCM, such as exercise (qigong) and acupuncture.

Like elephant Health & Wellness and elephant Readers for Animal Rights.


Dylan Flather currently lives in Southern California but desperately wants to return to Boulder. His favorite activity is taking his dog for a walk.


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39 Responses to “What’s Really in Traditional Chinese Medicine. ~ Dylan Flather”

  1. L.Ac says:

    Good news! All of those substances are banned in the US. A well trained (licensed!) practitioner of acupuncture and herbal medicine (those are two separate licenses) would know to avoid any herbal remedy containing these substances.

  2. __MikeG__ says:

    Thanks for this. It's great when science debunks myth and magical thinking. Too bad both the majority Chinese and Western believers in the TCM myth will ignore the science and continue believing in TCM despite the damage being done to themselves, the animals and the environment.

  3. ALM says:

    Mike- A scientific theory is empirical, and is always open to falsification if new evidence is presented. That is, no theory is ever considered strictly certain as science accepts the concept of fallibilism. And what is science if not "the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment"? And that is precisely what TCM has done for centuries. Perhaps your view of what "science" encompasses is a tad narrow.

  4. AEL says:

    There are many tens of thousands of herbs used within TCM. The majority of which are plant-based & include the flowers, fruit, stems, leaves, bark & roots. Unfortunately, the ones that are singled out & sensationalized are the animal products. Nothing like the word "penis" to get people's attention & to incite an reaction, especially from males.

    You should only get TCM herbs from a licensed/ registered TCM practitioner whom you've had a consultation with (& not from Joe Smith down the road, even if he is of asian descent). Licensed/registered TCM practitioners have the specialised knowledge to properly diagnose, monitor & treat your condition. You should never self-diagnosis or self-treat yourself with any natural products, as they can contain powerful components which may interact with any medication or supplements you may be taking.

    By the way, the "poisonous" herb Ephedra (that is mentioned within the above article) contains a number of powerful alkaloids (ephedrine & psuedoephedrine) which western pharmaceutical companies have extracted & tried to trademark. These alkaloids are commonly found in many cold & flu medications that are available over-the-counter. As a side note, these alkaloids can also be extracted to be used as the basis of speed or other meth-amphetamines. So, not exactly poisonous…

    Generally speaking, TCM herbs not prescribed as a single herb but as a combination of a number of herbs, which have a synergy together. One of the strengths of TCM is that the treatment is individualised for your condition & the herbal dosages within the formula are changeable for each individual. This use of a combination of herbs & adaptability of dosages doesn't translate well into double-blind studies (which by the way, were designed specifically to test pharmaceutical drugs). However, one could argue that surgery doesn't translate well into double-blind studies either, but no-one is arguing that surgery doesn't work or that surgery is a "pseudo-science".

    **full disclosure- I am a registered TCM practitioner in Australia (chinese herbs & acupuncture). I am also a medical laboratory scientist. ***

  5. AACMA says:

    The products tested in this Murdoch University research project were seized by customs precisely because they were not approved for sale in Australia.

    The Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association Ltd (AACMA) believes to draw conclusions that product that has been approved for sale in Australia contains illegal or dangerous ingredients is wrong and is misleading to the public about potential health risks and safety.

    The Australian regime for regulation of manufactured complementary medicine product (including TCM product) is managed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) Office of Complementary Medicines. TGA-listed product can only contain ingredients that are on the TGA approved ingredients list, which does not include the substances found in the seized medicines reported in this study.

    Manufactured Chinese herbal medicine products imported into or sold in Australia are regulated by the TGA. Consumers should always look for the Therapeutic Goods Administration ‘AUST L’ or ‘AUST R’ number printed on the front of any manufactured medicine on sale in Australia not just complementary medicines.

    AACMA warns about the dangers of self-diagnosis and self-administration of therapeutic products, especially buying medications over the internet or purchased overseas. We further stress the importance of seeking advice from a qualified Chinese medicine practitioner who is qualified to prescribe and dispense Chinese herbal medicines.

  6. Padma Kadag says:

    Aye ya ya ya ya! Completely support any actions to "purify" herbal medicines. But in regard to arguments dealing with science driven proof that chinese, Tibetan, or aruveda actual works is really almost impossible to understand. The doctor doing the diagnosis and administering the remedy, particularly in Tibetan and Aryuveda, should have complete faith and some degree of realization in their respective spiritual paths and the patient as well should have complete faith in that doctor as a healer and the patient should also have something to do with that path as well. This will bring positive results. Afterall, all of these healing modalities, before they were spread far and wide were nurtured for thousands of years within the confines of their respective cultural "believers" with obvious success in healings. Otherwise why would they be practiced for so long?

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    Science has its positive place in the world. We cannot expect science to understand everything. The herbal remedies of Tibetan and Aryuveda medicine were created or absorbed within the respective spiritual disciplines of the culture and therefore are dependent upon those faiths and applicable disciplines to work in consort with the medicine for a complete treatment. "Real Science" will call it placebo or find no empirical benefit or superstition because it cannot understand faith or realization. Yet they all want us to believe in the Big Bang which relies on their scientific brand of faith. A sort of "blind faith" which requires no realizations or epiphanies on each individual's part.

  8. brian says:

    if you think that what is happening to these elephants is horrible, and you eat meat and/or dairy products, you should look into how the animals you consume are treated. you'll find that it's equally horrible. don't stand up against some animal abuses but blatantly support others. there's a word for that.

  9. Danielle says:

    Glad you’re bringing awareness to this! Recently watched a special on rhinos being killed for their horns. I was literally in tears. I am a student of acupuncture & traditional medicine, and our teachers always emphasize conservation & respect for other beings.

  10. Kira says:

    I've done chinese medicinal herbs for years, and most of these ingredients I've never heard of. It's odd how quick we are to dismiss chinese medicine, when we pay the most for the "health care" we receive, and yet we are the least healthy of all developed countries. There are studies that demonstrate this and yet no one wants to criticize our current paradigm of what I would call "disease management".

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  12. TCM says:

    Mr. Dylan who likes to walk his dog and hates where he lives… You do not have the training nor education to write an article such as this. These ingredients are rarely if ever used and are not part of the majority of the medicine – Why dont you do some research before creating a hype about something that is not true. TCM is a powerful medicine and its something that compared to modern western medicine is far more intact and harmonious with nature – Why don't you do yourself a favor and write an article on real facts , such a lab testing of animals used in pharmaceuticals , which is probably 1000x more common than what you have dedicated your time and efforts too in return trashing a medicine that has survived thousands of years for a reason.

  13. S. Cash says:

    Hi, I'd just like to point out that the ingredients that you listed as "commonly" used in Chinese medicine are, in fact, not commonly used at all. I am a practicing, licensed, and certified Chinese medicine herbalist in New York City. I do not prescribe those ingredients to people commonly at all. Mostly what I give people are plant-based extracts and food grade herbs. What source did you extract that information from regarding the "commonly" prescribed herbs? I will say that China has different practices with herbs as compared to here in the U.S. Perhaps your source was referring to those herbs being used in China, not here in the U.S.

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