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Medicine based on assumptions

According to a new study published in PLoS Genetics, Chinese herbal “medicines” contain some frightening ingredients. Based on DNA analysis, the study found that many of these “medicines” contains bits of endangered animals, toxic plants, and livestock.

Of course, this is exactly what we would expect from a medical intervention that is based on myths about human health and medicine, and not on any evidence. There is little reason to suspect that science has driven herbal remedies to include powdered goat.

Compounding this problem, few if any of the remedies listed any of these harmful/ethically dubious ingredients. Via Nature:

There’s absolutely no honesty in the labeling of these products. What they declare is completely at odds with what’s in there.

Although the Chinese herbal medicine industry is worth tens of billions of dollars, mislabeling is rampant, regulation is scarce, and consumers are forced into a guessing game for what they are ingesting.

The researchers tested 15 samples of Chinese herbal medicines that were seized by customs officers in Australia. They then subjected the samples to next-generation DNA sequencers and came up with 49,000 genetic sequences.

Again via Nature:

They identified 68 families of plants, including a poisonous herb called Ephedra and the woody vine Aristolochia. Sometimes known as birthwort, Aristolochia contains aristolochic acid, which can cause kidney and liver damage and bladder cancer. Medicinal use of the herb probably explains high rates of bladder cancer in Taiwan (emphasis mine), according to a paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences2

Other medicines contained DNA from plants in the same family as ginseng — the root of which is illegal to trade internationally — as well as soya and nut-bearing plants, which can cause severe allergic reactions.

The researchers also found DNA from eight genera of vertebrate animals. Genetic material from the critically endangered Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) was present in one powder; and boxes marked as bear-bile powder or decorated with the outline of a bear contained traces of DNA from the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), which is classed as vulnerable.

Nearly half of the medicine samples tested for animal DNA contained genetic material from multiple animals, and more than three-quarters included DNA from animals not listed on the packaging, such as water buffalo, domestic cows and goats.

If this doesn’t put you off buying herbal remedies, it should. Whenever you purchase one, you are taking a real risk. Without regulation or proper labeling, you are potentially ingesting toxic plants or even endangered animals (indeed, the Javan Rhino was recently declared officially extinct as a result of the Chinese herb trade). Not only are you taking your health into your own hands with Chinese herbal medicine, you are contributing to the superstitious demand for the maiming of endangered animals. Keep in mind that most herbal remedies lack evidence for efficacy or safety. To support a trade with such consequences certainly becomes ethically problematic (as it also contributes to a disturbing trend of fad-based medicine with real health outcomes).

A great logical fallacy

Because Chinese herbal remedies have so little evidence in favor of their use, we must talk about their safety and potential harms. They do not fare much better here, as seen above. So why use them? I believe that we are witnessing the perpetration of the largest logical fallacy in medical history. Namely, Chinese herbal medicine is one giant appeal to antiquity, or, “Chinese people have used this stuff for thousands of years, therefore it works.” We can’t look to arguments like this, as the age of a treatment has nothing to do with its effectiveness. We have to look to the evidence. When we do, we find a trade that endangers already endangered species, concoctions that contain toxic ingredients, a lack of transparency and regulation, and an overall lack of scientific evidence in support of its continued use. Until it is regulated and the useless treatments are thrown out, we will continue to contribute to unnecessary suffering in the form of animal extinction, the delay of proper treatment of disease, and unintended consequences from mislabeled and potentially toxic products.

I have witnessed this first hand. Last year I took a trip to China and interviewed a real Chinese herbal practitioner face-to-face about his practice and about herbal medicine. I wrote at length about my experience (and took pictures of ground up scorpions and centipedes that you are supposed to drink) here.

Don’t gamble with your health. I don’t suppose that you would buy a bottle of Tylenol if you knew that it could contain parts of endangered animals or toxic plants, none of which was explained on the bottle (or which plants or animals or how much). Though there is some historical allure to remedies like this, it is a cheap and foolish veneer. We have medical science to make sure what we treat ourselves with is safe and at least somewhat understood. To throw all of this out the window in favor of dangerously obscure shamanistic healing practices is to willfully subject yourself to the medical reasoning of centuries past. The more we continue to blissfully allow untested, unregulated, and potentially unsafe “medicines” like this to persist, the more we stand in the way of real medical progress.

[Via Nature]