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Chinese Herbal Medicine

Other common name(s): traditional Chinese medicine, TCM, Chinese herbs, Oriental medicine

Scientific/medical name(s): none

Description

Chinese herbal medicine is a major aspect of traditional Chinese medicine, which focuses on restoring a balance of energy, body, and spirit to maintain health rather than treating a particular disease or medical condition.

Overview

Because of the large number of Chinese herbs used and the different uses recommended by practitioners, it is difficult to comment on Chinese herbal medicine as a whole. There may be certain herbs or extracts that can play a role in cancer prevention and in treatment of cancer and other diseases when combined with mainstream treatment. However, more careful research is needed to determine the effectiveness of these individual substances.

How is it promoted for use?

Chinese herbal medicine is not based on mainstream Western concepts of medical diagnosis and treatment. It treats patients’ main complaints or the patterns of their symptoms rather than the underlying causes. Practitioners attempt to prevent and treat imbalances, such as those caused by cancer and other diseases, with complex combinations of herbs, minerals, and plant extracts.

Chinese herbal medicine uses a variety of herbs such as astragalus, ginkgo, ginseng, green tea, and eleuthero (also known as "Siberian ginseng") in different combinations to restore balance to the body. Herbal blends are said to prevent and treat hormone disturbances, infections, breathing disorders, and a vast number of other ailments and diseases. Some practitioners claim herbs have the power to prevent and treat a variety of types of cancer.

Most Chinese herbalists do not claim to cure cancer. They use herbal medicine with mainstream treatments prescribed by oncologists, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy. They claim that herbal remedies can help ease the side effects of standard cancer treatments, control pain, improve quality of life, strengthen the immune system, and in some cases, stop tumor growth and spread.

One aspect of Chinese herbal medicine aims to restore or strengthen immunity and resistance to disease. Treatments undertaken with this goal are called Fu Zheng or Fu Zhen and are given as complementary therapy intended to reduce the side effects from mainstream cancer treatments.

What does it involve?

In China, more than 3,200 herbs and 300 mineral and animal extracts are used in more than 400 different formulas. Herbal formulas may contain 4 to 12 different ingredients, to be taken in the form of teas, powders, pills, tinctures, or syrups.

Chinese herbal remedies are usually made up of a number of herbs and mineral and animal extracts. Typically, 1 or 2 herbs are included that are said to have the greatest effect on the problem being treated. Other ingredients in the formula are supposed to treat minor aspects of the problem, direct the formula to specific parts of the body, and help the other herbs work better.

With the increase in popularity of herbal medicine, many Chinese herbs are now sold individually and in formulas. In the United States, Chinese herbs and herbal formulas may be purchased in health food stores, some pharmacies, and from herbal medicine practitioners.

Before choosing a mixture of herbs for a patient, the traditional Chinese practitioner will typically ask about symptoms and examine the patient, often focusing on the skin, hair, tongue, eyes, pulse, and voice, in order to detect imbalances in the body.

What is the history behind it?

Native cultures all over the world have traditionally used herbs to maintain health and treat illnesses. Chinese herbal medicine developed as part of Chinese culture from tribal roots. By 200 BC, traditional Chinese medicine was firmly established, and by the first century AD, a listing of medicinal herbs and herbal formulations and their uses had been developed.

The classic Chinese book on medicinal herbs was written during the Ming Dynasty (1152-1578) by Li Shi-Zhen. It listed nearly 2,000 herbs and extracts. By 1990, the latest edition of The Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China listed more than 500 single herbs or extracts and nearly 300 complex formulations.

As Western conventional medicine spread to the East, some traditional Chinese medical practices began to be regarded as folklore. But since 1949, the Chinese government has supported the use of both traditional and Western medicine. Chinese herbal medicine first came to widespread attention in the United States in the 1970s. Today, at least 40 states license practitioners of Oriental medicine, and there are about 50 colleges of Oriental medicine in the United States.

What is the evidence?

Some herbs and herbal formulations have been evaluated in animal, laboratory, and human studies in both the East and the West with wide-ranging results. Research results vary widely depending on the specific herb, but several have shown activity against cancer cells in laboratory dishes and in some animals. But most anti-cancer compounds that work in animals or that seem to work in cells don’t work when tested in humans, so more research is needed.

There is some evidence from randomized clinical trials that some Chinese herbs may contribute to longer survival rates, reduction of side effects, and lower risk of recurrence for some types of cancer, especially when combined with conventional treatment. Many of these studies do not list the herbs that were tested.

There are a number of Chinese studies that suggest that these traditional treatments work. However, there are concerns about these Chinese studies, especially those that look at the techniques of traditional Chinese medicine. For example, a 1998 review of acupuncture research noted that all of the studies published in Chinese journals reported that acupuncture was effective, whereas 3 out of 4 studies published in England reported that acupuncture was better than the control. This finding suggests that the Chinese researchers and Chinese journals were highly unlikely to publish studies that did not show a positive outcome for traditional treatments. That would mean that readers would never know about studies that found the control group did as well or better than the group that got traditional Chinese treatment.

In addition, some Chinese journal articles do not describe their study methods completely enough to be sure they use methods comparable to those used in Western clinical research. A 2009 study found that most of the studies that were reported in Chinese journals as randomized studies actually were not randomized. Regardless of whether studies are conducted in China or elsewhere, results published in Western medical journals with an established reputation for publishing only the most carefully-conducted research are especially valuable in evaluating studies of Chinese herbal medicine.

More carefully controlled research is needed to determine the role of Chinese herbal medicine in cancer treatment and prevention.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

These substances may have not been thoroughly tested to find out how they interact with medicines, foods, or dietary supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.

Because of the variety of herbs used in Chinese herbal medicine, there is a potential for negative interactions with prescribed drugs. Some herbal preparations contain other ingredients which are not always identified. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a statement warning diabetics to avoid several specific brands of Chinese herbal products because they illegally contain the prescription diabetes drugs glyburide and phenformin. FDA warnings have been issued for PC-SPES, and production of that product was stopped because it contained powerful prescription drugs such indomethacin, diethylstilbestrol, and warfarin. These drugs can cause serious harm if people with certain health problems take them, or if they are not monitored well.

Similar concerns have been raised about Chinese herbal products for other diseases, which have been found to contain toxic contaminants and prescription drugs such as diazepam (Valium). Tests of Chinese herbal remedies by the California Department of Health found that nearly one third contained prescription drugs or were contaminated with toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic, and lead. Concerns about Chinese herbal products have been raised in other countries as well. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare reported that some Chinese herbal products contained contaminants that caused severe and sometimes fatal liver and thyroid problems.

Of the more than 5,000 medicinal plant species in China, a small number are potentially toxic to the human body. Toxic herbs may mistakenly be harvested and shipped for herbal medicines and can cause harmful reactions in those who take the medicines. In addition, the herbal formulas used are often complex and difficult for manufacturers and practitioners to formulate correctly. For example, in the case of an herbal product intended to promote weight loss, manufacturers confused 2 Chinese herbs with similar names and mistakenly used the wrong one, which resulted in severe kidney damage that was fatal to some.

Any herb can cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to them. Those who are allergic to certain plants or plant-based foods may be more likely to react to herbs.

Although the long history of traditional Chinese herbal medicine is sometimes interpreted as evidence of safety, it is important to note that many of these herbs are no longer produced and used as they were in the past. An herb may have been used safely under the supervision of a traditional practitioner. However, if the same herbs are used in higher doses or in doses of different concentrations, perhaps over a longer period and without medical guidance, the risks involved in taking those herbs change. In addition, toxic substances or prescription drugs can be introduced during the manufacturing process, by accident or on purpose.

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine licensed by a state board can provide advice on the safest sources for herbs. Because some herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine may cause dangerous interactions with conventional medications, patients should talk with their doctors and pharmacists before using any of the herbs.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

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Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.

Last Medical Review: 04/26/2011
Last Revised: 04/26/2011