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. Dylan F. says:

    Thank you for your comment. It’s good to know that licensed practitioners are aware of some of the problems with TCM. Unfortunately, if the remedies are not properly labeled, as was found to be the case in this study, there isn’t much consumers can do other than pressure for higher stringency regulations.

  3. __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.

  4. 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.

  5. margihealing says:

    Hi Dylan
    I am an Aussie TCM practitioner – Acupuncture and prepared Chinese herbal medicines.
    This study has been read with interest here as well.
    Those of us in ethical practice and with modern Bachelor of Health Science degrees in TCM/Acupuncture NEVER prescribe these substances. And our peak professional associations have zero-tolerance policies for the use of animal products in our medicines. Heck, a lot us prefer 'veggie caps' to old-school gelatin-caps for our encapsulated medicines.

    In Australia we have a regulatory body called the TGA – like the FDA.
    Most of us in practice here choose to prescribe and dispense ONLY TGA listed products.
    There are stringent taxonomy/species identification, safety testing, manufacturing standards, labelling and advertising controls over TGA listed therapeutic substances.

    There's an important oversight in this piece of invaluable and important research which you quote here.
    The products examined had all been seized and confiscated by Australian customs and immigration officials. They simply are not in mainstream clinical use. Rather, there are people within our population for whom there remain cultural and historical precedents for the use of these 'remedies'. But well-educated, ethical practitioners -and we are in the majority- simply don't recommend, prescribe or use these 'ancient' remedies.

    As ever, health consumers are advised to NEVER self-diagnose, NEVER self-medicate, and NEVER use substances which have not been prescribed or manufactured by appropriately qualified and licensed health professionals.

  6. margihealing says:

    Hey there, we're well past magical thinking when the Cochrane Data base is involved, don't you think?
    And here in Australia, credible, ethical practitioners have nothing to do with the substances identified in the Murdoch Research.
    Please see my comment above as well.
    The links below are just a small example of modern TCM practice and clinical research. http://www.acupuncture.org.au/Endangered_Species_http://summaries.cochrane.org/CD004540/chinese-mehttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18425916 http://summaries.cochrane.org/CD008305/chinese-he

  7. __MikeG__ says:

    You are attempting to obfuscate the issue. You make a false claim that TCM has done "science" through centuries of "observation and experiment". Science is about evidence, measurements and repeatability of results. You are mistaking psuedo-science for real science if that is the basis of your argument. Back up your words by providing rigorous, double blind studies conducted by valid research authorities of the efficacy of tiger penis on any disease process. I dare you. I double dog dare you.

    I have never seen any TCM practitioner come close to making an intelligent argument which is baked up by empirical evidence and research. I submit that anyone who makes claims of miracle cures but who cannot back up those claims with evidence are either deluded or lying.

    If requiring actual evidence which supports the truth of a claim is "narrow" then yes my view of science is narrow.

  8. suri_k says:

    Let's be thankful for science's narrowness since that narrowness guarantees that no superstitious bs system can be granted the benefit and honour of calling itself Medicine or Science.

  9. afterschool special says:

    yes, scientists and doctors all check their biases at the door- they actually remove them as a per-requisite to getting into science school, with magic, cause it's science

  10. __MikeG__ says:

    Err, studies by TCM practitioners are not very convincing. Real science is peer reviewed and can be replicated by parties who do not have a financial interest in positive results. Are you not suspicious that the Australian acupuncture and Chinese medicine association just happens to support the efficacy of acupuncture and Chinese medicine? It is logical mistake to believe that because a study is in a "database" means that study is valid and has been scrutinized, peer reviewed and its results have been verified..

    Yes, some herbal remedies are effective and I vaguely remember a real study which suggested there may be some acupuncture which has some limited results in specific instances. Those examples are a far cry from claiming TCM as a whole is valid and stands up to rigorous scrutiny from disinterested parties.

  11. __MikeG__ says:

    True that. PeaceOut.

  12. suri_k says:

    Well , actually from reading the info you linked to we can say that there is nothing conclusive there, "some effect" and "some evidence"  doesnt count as overwhelming evidence that TCM works   … also what seems to be the constant here is the low quality or unreliability of the trials .. Two of the papers conclude that more , higher quality studies and trials are needed  and the third states that "results are limited by the poor methodological quality of the included trials"

    "The available evidence suggests that several herbal medicines showed some cholesterol-lowering effect. However, due to considerable limitations in the quality of the included trials, further higher-quality and rigorously performed studies are required before any confident conclusions can be reached about the effects of Chinese herbal medicines for hypercholesterolemia" &nbsp ;http://summaries.cochrane.org/CD008305/chinese-herbal-medicines-for-hypercholesterolemia

    "We conclude that, from the limited information available, there is some evidence of benefit from decoctions of Huangqi compounds. Our results suggest that further, larger-scale, trials of the use of Huangqi decoctions in the prevention of chemotherapy-related side-effects are needed"   .http://summaries.cochrane.org/CD004540/chinese-medical-herbs-for-chemotherapy-side-effects-in-colorectal-cancer-patients
    "The review found promising evidence supporting the use of Chinese herbal medicine for primary dysmenorrhoea; however, results are limited by the poor methodological quality of the included trials" trial shttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18425916

  13. suri_k says:

    Well, thats what peer review is for …to makesure any biases or mistakes are made evident and to make the pertinent corrections ….here, some of the key concepts about peer review :

    Scientific manuscripts and funding proposals are reviewed by several peer scientists who are familiar with the field of research and who make recommendations on whether or not the work should be published and/or funded.

    Peer review works on many levels and is a fundamental component of the process of science.

    After publication, scientific papers and other forms of research dissemination are further scrutinized by the scientific community when scientists read or try to reproduce the research.

    Scientists conduct peer review as part of their responsibility to the scientific community, and are themselves evaluated by the peer review process.

    While cases of scientific misconduct can be embarrassing because of the publicity they receive, they highlight the self-correcting nature of science. A key aspect of science is that research results must be reproducible and well-documented. Instances of scientific misconduct that have gotten through the peer review system are often quickly exposed when other scientists scrutinize the data and attempt to reproduce the results….. http://www.visionlearning.com/library/module_view

  14. 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. ***

  15. 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.

  16. credibly special says:

    so… no science is done without pee-review? is that why pharmaceuticals have such a spotless record? why no one eats refined sugars or high fructose?
    what you are calling science and peer-review is a system based on who funds what, and why, and what gets published and who reviews it, ie bound to culture. its better than it was and it will get better, but that doesn't make science anything more than a tool and an effort. it is not the personal bias, but the cultural bias that is the problem. and to say "self correcting" is to misdirect, an excuse just like calling something bad science. the fantasy of the perfect science, the perfect tools is why many religious people feel free to reject- they see the fantasists and see just a different version of themselves

  17. __MikeG__ says:

    Thanks for going to the trouble of pointing out the failure of any of these studies to bolster the pro TCM fantasy camp.

    It would seem that margihealing either did not read the studies or did not understand them. All I ask for is real evidence. That's all. Not these few ridiculous studies.

  18. __MikeG__ says:

    No scientist, ever, made any claim as to science being perfect as is erroneously claimed in this post.

    I've never understood the hostility and fear some people feel toward science. Unless, of course, they are attempting to discredit the scientific process in order to hold on to a magical belief system. What is great about science is that no beliefs are required. Science only requires one to show the evidence and change the conclusion if new evidence invalidates previous results.

  19. suri_k says:

    The reason why religious people reject science is because they dont understand it , and they dont understand it because they are not scientifically literate , and they are not scientifically literate because they dont care to learn more and educate themselves , and they dont educate themselves becaue they are so caught up in their superstitious , "moralistic", backwards way of thinking. their rejection of science has nothing to do with science and everything to do with ignorance .

    Plus , what you say makes no sense at all , if science was just another fantastic , delusional way of thinking we would still be living the way people lived in the middle ages …. that meaning ….life would be gross , brutish and short … wanna try it? ..move to Afghanistan or Burundi…

  20. specialness says:

    for which you have a study right? published in a journal only a few academics have access to because the subscription is so high only a few institutions can afford it, right?
    Science has a long standing problem with morals and ethics. Thankfully we have a legal system that occasionally curbs the hubris and abuse of scientists with fines, without which there would be no substantive talk of ethics.
    Why not example Okinawa in your make-believe vision of what it was like in the middle ages? Science is just about to put us back in this cruel fantasy world you envision, its machines have sucked the fish out of the oceans while dumping poisons into it, drowned and killed forests, etc. and yes, given me a machines to call peole out on their myopic win-win fantasies about the grandure of science. oh, but that's fallible people, not science, oh wait, that's all science is, fallible people trying their best with limited capabilities, and yet calling things true and medicine when they poison and kill.

  21. everyday miracles says:

    there is no such claim in my post, but good job ovrereading. show the evidence of scinece, take humans to be just another mammal, with as many rights as any other creature, and show what it has given the Earth

  22. suri_k says:

    You mean people , people have a long standing problem with ethics and morals . People will put us in a cruel fantasy world …its people and their greed whom are sucking the fish out of the oceans …. Science "is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe." if you knew the definition of science you wouldnt be trashing science , you would be trashing people … science doesnt kill forests , people do and just for the record unless you live in a cave , you are enjoying the benefits of science too … since you need a computer in order to post a coment here … and you surely have a wooden house and maybe wooden floors if you live in the US … a car ? ..Devices?? what about a refrigerator or washing machine, an oven maybe ..toothpaste ? …naughty naughty..you are as guilty as the next guy man .

  23. @Suri_k8 says:

    Oh , forgot to say …Science also gives us ecologists , conservation biology , environmental science and green energy to say just a few examples .

  24. miracle special says:

    I'm not trashing science, I'm pointing out what you fail to understand about that definition, namely that science is an abstract, not some panacea, just a method and a tool, one that has nothing to do with ethics or morals, that it is people, profit and an elitist system that "does" science – only recently has genetics debunked race, and only recently has the boys club eroded- the full size of the clitoris was "discovered" in 1998! sheesh- and this is why many "alternative" approaches aren't studied- like tcm and other holistic apporaches that compete in the market place with western medicine – because elitist approach of science doesn't care to examine the whole of a person, just those bits it can cut and kill. it is the height of absurdity that you need some crazy to point this out – and of course typical of this rosy panacea view where cars, fridges and toothpaste are benefits of science, while pcbs, overfishing , and seas of plastic and endemic cancer are due not to the methodology and looking at one little bit at a time of the scientific approach, but greed and other subjective shenanigans.

  25. __MikeG__ says:

    Here is a quote from your post: "the fantasy of the perfect science". Maybe you do not realize this, but this implies some people believe science is perfect. And my reply correctly points out that this quote is complete bullshit.

  26. 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?

  27. 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.

  28. suri_k says:

    Ok, so if you are talking about our current environmental crisis the only thing i have to say is that you are over simplifying a very complex issue that involves not only science but also overpopulation , overcompsumption , education , politics and politicians , culture and traditions , affluence , poverty …etc

  29. suri_k says:

    typo i meant =overconsumption=

  30. miracles in a leaf says:

    you say I said a scientist said something – now you say this is only "some", how can you make things up and call bullshit? you read my words with imagination and bias, and say i have a logical inconsistency when you cannot make logical connections yourself. You dismiss research because it was done by tcm people even when the results given are not overly in favor of their presumed expectation! You claim to be for science but are like me, only words and no example of this research you have to have bluster with.

  31. special miracle leaf says:

    so now you are admitting that it is all tangled together, that you can't separate science from what actually happens- what people do? That bias is endemic in modern science? That I agree with

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. Kira says:

    It's odd how quick we are to dismiss chinese medicine, when we pay the most for our health care and yet are the least healthy compared to other developed countries.

  35. 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".

  36. […] Use food. In Chinese medicine, foods like onion, vinegar, leek and chives all move the blood. Moving the blood works two-fold […]

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. […] if that’s not enough, check this. Or this. Basically, TCM and the Chinese market are at the root of many of our great animals going […]