Homeopathy bugs me more than most alternative medicines because it’s at one extreme. It’s a “treatment” with no active ingredients. Proponents may claim there are still active ingredients, but any are removed during the process of creating the homeopathic remedies. At the opposite extreme we have TCM (traditional Chinese medicine).
What are the ingredients in that?
Who knows. One serious problem with TCM is that many of the ingredients that go into these “medicines” remain a mystery, and you have no idea what you are consuming. The other problem is that the nonsense, superstitious, and pseudoscientific thinking behind the “special properties” of the specific ingredients mean we have people killing rhinos for their horns, tigers for their penis (actually many species for their penis), bears for their bile (which is extracted through a permanent hole in a living bear’s abdomen), and all sorts of other charming ingredients with no medicinal value (snake oil, sea horses, turtle’s plastrons etc). While TCM carries the same risks as alternative medicines like homeopathy in that they are an alternative to real medicine (great if you want an alternative to health), they also may contain unknown ingredients that could damage your body, and they can do damage to ecosystems and biodiversity.
So, how exactly do you find find out what’s in TCM? Science!
In Australia, TCM is often seized by customs at airports. A team of researchers got their hands on 28 TCM remedies from customs and set about discovering what the mystery ingredients were. Some of the powders and pills did have labelled ingredients, but were they accurate? In order to identify what animals and plants had been used as ingredients, the scientists sequenced ribosomal RNA and plastid genes from the 15 TCMs that had enough high-quality DNA. What they found was alarming, but perhaps not all that surprising for some. The mystery ingredients included toxic plants and endangered animals.
The team found plant ingredients that are highly toxic outside of a narrow range of dosage, yet the concentrations are not labelled on the TCM packaging, so there is no way to know how much you are taking. Some of the identified plant ingredients are banned in many countries due to their toxicity. From just those 15 TCMs, the researchers also found toad, sheep, cow, deer, antelope, water buffalo, and bear ingredients, many not listed on the labels. The analysis revealed Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), which is classed as a “vulnerable” species under CITES, and the saiga (Saiga tatarica), classed as “critically endangered”.
This is mostly bad news and old news.
But the good news is that these researchers argue the techniques used to analyse the TCMs are accurate, cost-effective, and should be used for other alternative medicines that use ingredients from organisms. I seriously doubt the ability to identify mystery ingredients in TCMs will directly stop poachers murdering rhinos, or people continuously draining the gallbladder of a living bear. But these analyses are a great step in the legal battle against TCM and its controversial ingredients.
Refusing to list the illegal ingredients on the label isn’t enough now. When TCMs are seized and analysed, and if the authorities can trace the items back to their creators, then legal action can be taken. This is something I hope we see a lot more of.