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Ancient Herbs, Modern Medicine

Ancient Herbs, Modern Medicine by Henry Han, OMD, Glenn E. Miller, MD, and Nancy Deville. New York, NY: Bantam Books; 2003. 468 pp. ISBN 0-553-38118-0. $13.95.

This book proposes the integration of traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine. The three authors come from diverse backgrounds but share a common interest in complementary and alternative medicine. They attempt to give an “easy-to-understand” description of the principles underlying Chinese medicine, including a chapter on acupuncture. The book is divided into 5 parts beginning with an explanation of the precepts behind Chinese medicine and ending with a menu of herbal foods that can be prepared at home. The reader may find Part Five particularly useful in researching herbal recipes of interest. At worst, one of the recipes may result in the creation of a particularly delectable exotic dish.

Part One should appeal to those who wish to gain a general understanding of Chinese medicine and acupuncture. It is a rudimentary account of this ancient Chinese art, but readers who seek deeper knowledge will have to turn to other books for a more detailed explanation. Notwithstanding, the brief section on acupressure is useful because it provides the reader with simple instructions in terms of how acupressure can be applied to treat common maladies such as headache, nausea, stomach ache, eyestrain, and anxiety.

Parts Two to Four are devoted to treating various diseases and health conditions with herbal concoctions. Each chapter starts with a case history of an individual who had responded positively to herbal treatment when disease management by Western methods had failed. It is interesting that the authors have decided to begin each chapter with this approach, leading to a prejudicial view that Chinese medicine is superior to western medicine. I find this befuddling, especially in light of the authors’ stated intention for an integrative healing system. The line in Chapter 6 is particularly troubling where it states: “Chinese medicine is more effective than Western medicine when it comes to treating chronic conditions and illnesses such gastro esophageal reflux disease.” Apart from less-than-rigorous case histories, this rather dogmatic statement remains to be proven conclusively and it seems unfair to fault the lack of efficacy of Western medicine when there is no substantive evidence to suggest that Chinese medicine is more effective.

The merits of ancient herbs are touted throughout the book without providing a better understanding of the cause of their efficacy. For example, the book makes the familiar argument that whole herbs provide better efficacy than purified extracts. While there is some basis to this argument, the equally valid counter-argument that unless whole herbs are adequately standardized, there is no way of knowing whether a consumer is ingesting the appropriate efficacious dose or whether the herb is free of toxic contaminants. There are many instances of herbs causing toxicity in consumers or cases where the observed medicinal benefits of some so-called “herbal” preparations have been shown to be based, at least in part, on adulteration with conventional pharmaceutical drugs. For example, PC-SPES, a so-called herbal preparation that had gained significant notoriety as a possibly effective remedy for prostate cancer, is cited in this volume as an efficacious herbal preparation. This product was formerly under investigation by the California State Board of Public Health and subsequently by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and was removed from the U.S. market because it appears to have been adulterated by a “western” hormone used in the treatment of prostate cancer.

There is no doubt that herbs are a rich amalgamation of useful pharmacological agents and attempts to isolate single components for drug development can lead to undesirable results, i.e., pharmacologically powerful yet toxic substances. But this should not be an excuse for forsaking the scientific method and recent scientific advances to characterize herbs as fully as possible. There is too much value in Chinese medicine to avoid such studies and modern medicine will benefit greatly from a better understanding of ancient herbs. Unfortunately, this book does little to encourage such assessment.

—Joseph Chang, PhD President of Pharmanex Inc., a division of NuSkin International