Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)-will the western scientists ever get it?

ginger-rootThe problem is the dominant ideology from the West, a.k.a the U.S. medical establishment: enlightenment-tinged white supremacist capitalism. I started thinking about this as I read Alan Yu’s blog on NPR, which is an interesting article, mostly for what it exposes about the U.S. medical establishment. U.S. scientists have to get drugs approved through this incredibly bureaucractic process, which I’m sure has as one of it’s (not-so-unstated) goals to ensure that a drug is profitable and will not cause malpractice lawsuits. This is partly or more than, the reason for the American Medical Association’s war on herbalism which Barbara Griggs documents so well in Green Pharmacy The History and Evolution of Western Herbal Medicine.

This NPR article exposes to me that that thinking has to change. Another example is the controversy about ma huang and its extract, ephedra. Do you remember that controversy a few years ago? Because Western medicine makes a fetish out of chemistry, viola, ephedra was born. The problem is that ephedra is an extract from the whole herb called ma huang, which has been used for thousands of years by the Chinese, and the herb (which of course cannot be patented like an extract can, because humans don’t make herbs, at least not until GMO herbs which ludicrously Monsanto might one day try) has components, also called chemicals/minerals in Western parlance, which balance its effects out. In effect, ma huang has been used to regulate both high and low blood pressure, but alas, ephedra since it is an extract, cannot. Therefore, some folks got sick from taking ephedra. Western medicine (and green capitalists who have set up shop as so-called herbalists), whose original and some present-day practitioners were the original quacks in the war against thousands of years of herbalism, do not understand the difference between extracting a chemical and the whole herb. So, the resulting FDA ruling, is that herbs are dangerous, when it was actually the extraction process, and the lack of respect for the power of the whole herb to heal, that is the problema.

The white supremacist part, as exposed by the NPR article, on my reading, is the arrogance of U.S. scientists and the drug approval process to discard thousands of years of use of TCM with a simple “not rigorous enough” rejection letter. Which reminds me of another example, when doctors trained in other countries, particularly in and of the global south, migrate to escape often made-in-the U.S.A exported horrors to make a living and have to go through years of what is relatively speaking, sub-standard training and education in the U.S. to be certified to practice medicine here.

The U.S. drug approval system seems ridiculous when thinking about Tradtional Chinese Medicine, which has been around for thousands and thousands of years. Not that thousands and thousands of years of use alone are enough to justify its efficacy, apparently, nor do I make a fetish out of TCM. Read the article and tell me that we don’t have a ridiculous medical system based on enlightenment-biased scientific “knowledge”. And the U.S. standards “for what is safe” are so high and mighty (and which TCM apparently falls short of according to those Western scientists quoted there). That seems curious to me, given the thousands of deaths caused by that very advanced U.S. medical system, and the daily horror stories of it. This harm induced by doctors or other medical professionals is known as “iatrogenic” (which I first learned about in reading Ivan Illich), and according to Wikipedia (referencing a Journal of American Medicine article) in the U.S., 225,000 people a year die this way (

I am not saying that “natural” is always better than the chemical, both have their use according to the challenge or issue faced. What is “natural” any way? I’m reading this very interesting book edited by William Cronon (Uncommon Ground Rethinking the Human Place in Nature), where he, in the introduction, and Candace Slater in her chapter called “Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as a Recovery Narrative” critique how we are always trying to treat nature as trying to get back to the Garden of Eden, when nature has never been that way. So, it would be useful, for us to do away with that safety-value obsession and be more realistic environmentalists, grounded in our lived lives in order to quit destroying nature and ourselves, because of course, we are part of nature, que no? And work for environmental justice in our nature which we embody and surrounds/is us, and not just in some far away national parks (which also are stolen Indian land, de todos modos).

Returning to the NPR article, my larger point is that Western medicine, while it is certainly useful in dealing with crises, is not the only useful system people have come up with. I have read in various sources that 80% of the world relies on herbs to take care of their health, and that yes, preventive care is useful. I am not setting up a dichotomy that Western medicine is bad, and that herbal medicine is good, by any means, but that why, if the former is so useful in every instance does it have to work to denigrate and destroy all other forms of life-sustaining knowledge about how to care for oneself?

And do you know about recetas caseras/home recipies? I love learning together with folks about them! I’m doing a workshop with my dear friend Lisa with mothers at her son’s school in da Boogie Down Bronx this week!

I know things are changing – valuing prevention, nutrition, medical marijuana, herbs are being grudgingly accepted by Western medicine, but it seems that the arrogant attitudes by some Western scientists, as they are codified largely still in our knowledge, acceptance and practices by our institutions (and seep into our heads, especially when we are facing health challenges), have a long way to go to change. En el mundo caben muchos mundos.

As I think of friends who are dealing with cancer, as we all fight to go beyond fear to heal/care for ourselves and our world.



2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by V Spike Peterson on January 21, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    hi dear Rafael – all well said! hope your year is starting well 🙂 love s



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