By Camillo Fracassini
May 9, 2000
- Chinese medicine seems apanacea for all the West's ills. Last
week, researchers from the University of Portland suggested a remedy
derived from the ginkgo biloba tree could be used to treat people
who have suffered strokes. Last month, psychologists at the University
of Northumbria suggested the plant may also help people with Alzheimer's
disease. A chain of private fertility clinics in London is even
claiming Chinese medicine can help childless couples conceive.
Rarely a week goes by without a clinical institute issuing a study
revealing an ancient Chinese medicine's victory over a 21st-century
illness, be it arthritis or eczema, depression or irritable bowel
syndrome. And with celebrity patrons including Madonna, Tom Cruise
and Nicole Kidman, Christy Turlington and Robert De Niro, traditional
Chinese medicine has a kudos that popping into to see your GP for
Yet Chinese medicine's popularity in the West as a cure-all with
philosophical, holistic overtones isn't always good news for the
environment. Only last month, the United Nations warned Indian tigers
are being driven towards extinction, partly as a result of poachers
hunting the animals for their bones and genitals, which are used
as remedies for rheumatism and as an aphrodisiac. Bear gall bladders
and rhinoceros horn are also revered for their potency. According
to the World Wide Fund for Nature, more than 50,000 Chinese medicinal
items claiming to contain derivatives of endangered species were
seized by Customs officers in 1998.
Among those who praise the benefits of Chinese medicine in the
West, few would advocate the use of animal body parts, preferring
to focus on plant -based compounds. The same can't be said of practitioners
in Asia, where the use of body parts from endangered animals is
Sally Nicholson, head of international policy at the WWFN, says
education is the key to protecting endangered animals. "We've
been working with practitioners of Chinese medicine and doctors
to raise awareness that these animals are being used, and to look
at alternatives. These remedies have been used over generations
- current practitioners sometimes don't know the animals they're
using parts of are endangered." Nicholson says the WWFN have
conducted workshops in Beijing, Hong Kong and San Francisco, where
there is a big Chinese community, in which they explain the plight
of tigers, rhinos and other endangered species. " So far, the
response has been helpful. After all, it's not in their long-term
interest to allow these species to go extinct."
In the UK, Nicholson says cases of endangered animal parts being
used in Chinese medicine is not unheard of. "A few years ago,
there were problems in China Town in London with the sale of products
from endangered species," she says, but stresses that recent
surveys have failed to uncover any products of critically endangered
species on sale. "Shop owners have been co-operative once they
know they're dealing with endangered species," she adds.
Whether shop owners continue to be co-operative as the popularity
of Chinese medicine continues to rise remains to be seen. If powdered
rhino horn or tigers' testicles are as effective in treating impotence
as other herbs are in treating ME or psoriasis, then it may only
be a matter of time before they find their way into Scotland. Chinese
medicine's success may be at the expense of the world's biodiversity.
While derivatives of ginkgo biloba have been used in Asia for centuries
to boost energy and performance levels, it's only now that scientists
here are recognising it as the "holy grail" of cognitive
enhancement, improving responses in both stroke patients and those
with Alzheimer's disease. Gynaecologist Prof Yang Li, who is medical
director of a new chain of private fertility clinics run by TCM
Healthcare in north London, says Chinese medicine comes into its
own when there is no obvious reason for a couple's infertility.
Li often prescribes a combination of 10 to 20 herbs for an infertile
woman, as well as tai chi to eliminate stress. While he bases his
claims of success on his own case histories rather than clinical
research, the clinics boldly promise a success rate of 50 to 80
per cent, compared to IVF's success rate of 20 per cent.
With such claims and apparent triumphs involving the use of Chinese
remedies to attack contemporary ailments, it's no surprise there
has been a rise in demand, either as an alternative to modern medicine
or as a complementary therapy. The value of the market for herbal
medicines in the UK, including Chinese varieties, rose from GBP
32 million in 1993 to more than GBP 50 million last year.
The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, the main regulatory body
for practitioners in the UK, has seen its membership rise from 15
when it was launched in 1987 to 400 today. But the scores of practitioners
and clinics across Scotland are struggling to cope with the demand
for Oriental therapies.
Rather than focusing on specific symptoms, Chinese medicine aims
to restore a natural balance to the body. Herbs and diet, acupuncture,
massage and exercise are all used to regulate the body's yin and
yang, qi - its vital energy - and blood.
Jonathan Clogstoun-Willmott, who set up the Edinburgh Chinese Herbal
Medicine Centre 17 years ago, says: "When I first started out
in Edinburgh there were only about three or four other people offering
treatments of this kind. Now there are scores of us and we are run
off our feet," he says.
Keith Robertson, the director of the Scottish School of Herbal
Medicine, whose course features elements of Chinese herbalism, believes
its popularity is a result of its efficacy. "Chinese medicine
has a reputation for excellence in treating certain complaints,
such as problems associated with menopause, rheumatoid arthritis
and eczema. Many people who had been told that they would have to
live with an illness, because Western medicine couldn't do anything
for them, are finding herbal treatments can help."
While the West's love affair with Chinese medicine continues, moves
are afoot to restrict the death of endangered species in Asia.
Sally Nicholson is optimistic. "Things will get better as
governments become better able to enforce the laws they have in
place and users become more aware that they will have to start looking
for alternatives to the small number of products that come from
the most endangered species. Alternatives will have to be found
sooner or later and the sooner, the better."