Increasing Safety of Chinese Medicine Without Killing Its Soul

FDA and Chinese herbs

Established readers : this is one of many reposted articles you will see in the coming months.  It is part of the redesign process.  I hope you agree that all of these articles are worth another look!

Today, I ran across an article (no longer available online, unfortunately) discussing the continuing efforts of Chinese researchers to modernize TCM. The main point in the article, along with several articles like it, is that Chinese medicine must modernize in order to be viable in the 21st century.  Certainly not the first time in Chinese medicine’s history that this argument has been made.

Modernization is supposed to progress on two fronts, according to this class of arguments.

First, modernization means safety through tighter regulation of herbal products and tougher licensing standards for practitioners.  Second, modernization means adopting rigorous materialist worldview based testing of treatments with the eventual goal of reshaping the medicine as a whole to come into line with that materialist worldview.

Regarding the first, modernizing for safety, I can respect this.  In any profession there are dangers, and in any situation there are people willing to forge ahead regardless of dangers.   If tighter government regulation truly means that practitioners and patients will be less likely to get herbs tainted with pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals – I’m all for it.

Of course, some companies – like Spring Wind herbs out of California – have already taken it upon themselves to address this problem.  With proper education & promotion, companies like Spring Wind can become the favored choice among practitioners.  I would like to believe that necessary education need only focus on the potential dangers of unscrupulously grown & processed herbs.  This could easily be accomplished by schools of Chinese medicine as well as professional societies like AAAOM.  Assuming everyone is aware of the dangers of tainted herbs, and assuming there are ample sources of alternatives, this may be one of those cases where market forces can be a more potent regulator than the government.

With regards to licensing standards – another potential guarantor of safety – they should definitely exist. Everyone seeking to practice as a Chinese medicine physician should be expected to have a certain amount of theoretical and clinical education as well as basic training in rescue medicine and doctor-patient relationships. That being said, the exact composition of that educational mix should be left to a governing body composed of experienced Chinese medicine practitioners.

But what about the second aspect of this kind of modernization?

Should Chinese medicine as a profession be increasingly required to engage in rigorous testing with the currently accepted methods of common laboratory science?

Chinese medicine is not based on a materialist worldview, which dominates the landscape of modern laboratory science.  Further, it resists simple either/or cause/effect analysis. Chinese medicine seeks to honor the complexity of the human being as well as the therapies being used to address problems the human being is experiencing.  In other words, the whole lifeworld of the patient, the practitioner AND the substances or tools being used in therapy are brought to bear in each treatment.  In a general way, abstracting any of these pieces away for separate and isolated analysis is likely to result in failure to recognize the real impact of the medicine.

In contrast, a more Western materialist way of looking at medicine requires the ability to make either/or & cause/effect judgments.  It discards the natural variations in patient, practitioner and substance/tool.  In fact, experiments that do not adequately control for those variables are considered to be inferior, or simply invalid.  One cannot put up one’s nose at the many positive benefits of this type of measured, exacting research.  It demonstrates for us very simple, replicable, reliable things.  If one gathers enough of these simple pieces, a very complex system might be understood.  However, the method tends to fall short when trying to verify the complex reactions of complex human beings being administered to in complex ways.

Simply, the Western materialist system doesn’t resonate with the basic principles of Chinese medicine.  This DOES NOT mean that nothing is regular, replicable or verifiable in Chinese medicine.  To the contrary!  Ma Huang will make almost everyone sweat when in the right formula at the right time. A red tongue almost always indicates heat in the body, which can be treated in one or more fairly regular, teachable ways.  These principles are just as fixed, just as replicable as any in Western medicine.

That’s why it needs skilled, deeply educated practitioners that aren’t busy trying to isolate compounds from Yang tonifying herbs to act as a competitor for Viagra.

It needs practitioners who spend their time reading the classics, refining their diagnostic and treatment techniques, dwelling on the qualities of nature and working on their own self-cultivation.

Changing the way herbs are processed, making sure that doctors are trained, holding ourselves to high standards of cleanliness and propriety – all of these things are boons of modernization and I welcome them with open arms. But we simply must not allow the incessant drumbeat of scientific materialism to tell us how our medicine must dance.

We can exist side by side, treating what we treat best. A world in which Classical Chinese Medicine and Western medicine both seek to serve patients and not ideological or political masters would be a beautiful world indeed.

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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