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Today’s jaunt through Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is going to look at the “cures” provided in pill, soup, tea, edible, etc. form. This installment focuses firmly on what goes into a TCM remedy and why, tomorrow I’ll start to look at some of the issues surrounding these items.

There are three basic components of a natural cure in TCM; animal parts, human parts, and herbal parts.

Animal Parts

This is a sheep's gallbladder (sorry I know it's a bit grim to look at) and TCM says that it's supposed to be good for you, I'm yet to work out how this is the case...

You may have heard the term; “snake oil salesman” as used in the “Wild West” in America. It’s used to describe a shady practitioner selling a cure for everything that in fact does nothing of the kind. Well it comes from Traditional Chinese Medicine, and it was widely adopted in the US for a while back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and despite this there’s not much evidence that snake oil is effective for treating anything.

TCM is happy to draw on pretty much any animal and any body part for cures, in particular animal penises are supposed to have many mystical powers to cure the sick.

Human Body Parts

The original practice of TCM classically also involves 35 bits of people and their waste; this includes dandruff, ear wax, finger nails, hair, bones, sweat, urine, organs, feces and bits of filth from teeth.  Western practitioners will tell you that most of these are no longer in use, but I suspect that’s because they haven’t spent much time in rural China…

Herbal Medicine

There are thousands of herbs and plants that have been absorbed into Traditional Chinese Medicine; one of the main problems with this approach is that pretty much none of them have been evaluated in any scientific manner for health benefits, or safety.

So far – so yummy – right?

Categorization of Components of TCM

Four Natures (si qi) – That’s hot and cold or warm and cool depending on how you want to look at it. You use the opposite component to treat a problem, so hot or warm herbs treat cold or cool disease and vice-versa.

Five Flavors (wu wei) – this is also known as the “five tastes: which are sweet, sour, salty, bitter and acrid. It’s also possible that a substance has no flavor and is “bland”. The five flavors are supposed to relate to the zang organs, and each flavor has certain therapeutic actions. So for example; saltiness is considered to drain things downwards, while softening hard masses and then sweetness is supposed to supplement, harmonize and moisten.

By meridian – it is possible to classify some components by their meridian and the zang organ affected by the problem.

By specific function – there are plenty of categories to choose from here. Some of them are exterior-releasing, heat-clearing, interior-warming, worm-expelling, blood-quickening, phlegm-transforming, spirit-quieting and so the beat goes on…

Clinical Trials?

Imagine if McDonald's started to do Traditional Chinese Medicine. "Would you like fries with your ear wax sir?"

TCM is pretty much untested for clinical efficiency, there have been pseudo-scientific trials in the West of some herbal components but these are of a very low standard and don’t meet the requirements placed on pharmaceutical drugs. For this reason the EU has placed a ban on the imports of Chinese medicines which have not been tested to a scientific standard – China is not very happy about this because it sold billions of Euro’s worth of Traditional Chinese Medicine to Europe.

That’s it for today, tomorrow I’m going to start exploring some of the problems with Natural/Herbal medicine in TCM and why you might be better of sticking with Mr. Chen’s uniquely harmonized sugar ™ instead.