1. Donnelly, Gloria F. PhD, RN, FAAN, Editor-in-Chief

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Chinese Herbals Reach Scientific Efficacy

In the early 1990s, a colleague was diagnosed with an advanced case of AIDS. Since antiretroviral cocktails weren't available at the time, he proceeded with the standard AZT treatment-a drug course with harsh side effects, particularly fatigue, hair loss, nausea, and vomiting. After 6 months on this treatment regimen I noticed that he was gaining weight and his skin tone was rosy. He had started a moderate exercise program and also returned to work. When I remarked how well he seemed to accommodate the treatment, he responded: "The side effects were so devastating that I began seeing a highly recommended. The use of AZT with various Chinese herbs has gotten me to this point."


The use of herbal remedies has grown exponentially in the United States over the past 10 years, powered largely by belief, anecdote, and subjective experience rather than by weighty scientific evidence. A review of more than 2000 clinical trials published in journals within mainland China reported that most clinical trials had no control group and couldn't be considered valid. And, the quality of similar studies conducted in the United States and the United Kingdom hasn't been much better. 1


Research has validated my colleague's experience with Chinese herbs. In fact, clinical trials are under way on the yellow root astragalus membraneus, known as Huangchi. This root, used by traditional Chinese herbalists to boost energy or chi, is now in phase II clinical trials to test its use in ameliorating the side effects of cancer chemotherapy. Another compound Xue Bao PG2 was approved for use as an adjuvant chemotherapy treatment in China and is now in phase III clinical trials. The Western scientific methods of drug approval are now widely applied in Chinese pharmaceutical companies, which spend millions of dollars developing the scientific infrastructure to prove the efficacy of substances used in traditional Chinese medicine.


Traditional Chinese herbalists are skeptical about the breakdown and analysis of herbal compounds. They're, after all, holists who believe that leaving the herbs intact and integrating them into treatment rituals is what really produces the positive effect. Chinese herbalists and many holistic practitioners regard treatment as a partnership with the person seeking care and relief. Holistic practitioners believe that health problems must be explored to target specific interventions. For example, an herb may be prescribed along with behavioral modifications such as dietary restrictions or exercise.


Holism and reductionism are two perspectives that often appear in opposition. In the case of Chinese herbal medicine, holists and reductionists can achieve great benefit by applying both perspectives.




1. Normle D. The new face of traditional Chinese medicine. Science. January 10, 2003;299:188-190. [Context Link]