October 25th 2017, 15:32
The Economist magazine has recently been voted the world's most trusted news source, but even such a highly rated title can get it badly wrong when it reports on alternative medicine. In an editorial, it has accused the Chinese government of state-sponsored 'quackery'—for supporting the country's own ancient healing system, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
It's quackery because it's unproven, the magazine thunders, and yet the Chinese government is set to promote the use of TCM remedies globally, while upping its investment in an already extensive domestic network of TCM clinics and hospitals.
China's leader Xi Jinping champions TCM and sanctioned a government white paper last year that noted the therapy's "positive impact on the progress of human civilization."
But that's nonsense, says The Economist's editorial: TCM is based on a universal energy field called qi, it uses the fungus from dead caterpillars to boost the libido, and the horns of the rhino to treat arthritis. The editorial dismisses most TCM therapies—which include acupuncture and herbal medicine—as "at best placebo and at worst a harmful distraction from the task of curing people, or downright dangerous."1
A day or so after reading the magazine, I came across new research from the University of British Columbia that has discovered that a TCM compound helps prevent bone loss and could be employed as a successful treatment for osteoporosis.
The compound, derived from red sage, works in the same way as some osteoporosis drugs, by blocking an enzyme called cathepsin K (CatK) that breaks down collagen in bones. But unlike the drugs under development, the TCM remedy doesn't have any side-effects. "All clinical trials [of CatK blocking drugs] to date have failed due to side-effects ranging from stroke, skin fibrosis and cardiovascular issues," said lead researcher Dieter Bromme.2
For years, Western researchers have demonstrated many benefits of TCM therapies. Acupuncture, which acts on the mysterious concept of qi energy flowing through our bodies, is routinely used as a painkiller, and its effectiveness has been vindicated by a multitude of studies, far beyond any placebo effect.
The world's largest randomized controlled trial of the use of acupuncture in hospital emergency units has discovered that it's
as effective for pain relief as standard drug regimens.
The method was tested on 528 patients who went to an emergency unit in one of four hospitals in Melbourne, Australia, over two years for the treatment of acute low back pain, migraine or ankle sprain.3
It's a real alternative to standard painkilling drugs, such as opioids, to which a patient can all too easily become addicted, says lead researcher Marc Cohen, from the RMIT School of Health and Biomedical Sciences.
TCM can even kill cancer cells. The TCM preparation compound kushen injection (CKI) is already used routinely in China, often as an adjunct to chemotherapy, to treat a range of tumors, and now oncologists in the West are starting to show an interest. Researchers from the University of Adelaide recently found that CKI could kill breast cancer cells in laboratory tests and shed light on the genetic pathways that it acts on.4
If TCM is effective—and way beyond placebo—as studies have shown, why isn't it being more widely adopted in the West? Skepticism, as displayed by The Economist, persists, often because it's all just so exotic and different, and rooted in traditions and a lexicon that are thousands of years old.
Even if we can prove it works, we really don't understand why, and falling back on mysterious energy forces doesn't convince the Western scientific mind.
Trying to bridge the divide, two Chinese academics have explained that TCM is founded on spirituality, religion and philosophy, which makes it magical and mysterious to Western medicine, which has evolved from observing biological processes.
TCM's underlying premise is that the mind and body are inseparable: to be in good health, a person must have good spirit and pay attention to cultivating their spirit. "Good health and longevity are what we pursue. More and more people are concerned about ways to prevent disease and strengthen their bodies, which is the emphasis of TCM," say Lin Shi and Chenguang Zhang.5
TCM is about prevention and balance. It's a lesson that the West could take to heart: instead of pouring countless billions of dollars, pounds and euros into treating the sick, without ever really understanding why people get ill in the first place, an understanding of the whole person could be a useful new avenue for Western medicine to follow.
The Economist, September 1, 2017
J Bone Miner Res, 2017; doi: 10.1002/jbmr.3227
Med J Aust, 2017;206:494-9
Pastoral Psychol, 2012;61:959-74