Health: Lizards for asthma, antlers for the kidneys: Chinese herbal medicine is growing in popularity, though the lack of regulation is causing concern. Monique Roffey went for a consultation but found the remedy hard to swallow

Monique Roffey
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:06

I rested my wrist on the pillow and stared politely at the pumpkin coloured walls as Dr Gang Zhu massaged my different 'pulses'. On my right wrist was the pulse for my lungs, spleen and kidneys, he explained; the left held information about the heart, liver and again the kidneys. Being an asthmatic with respiratory problems, I expected him immediately to pick up on my lung pulse. I was wrong.

'You have a weak kidney pulse,' he said after a few minutes. I was puzzled. 'Let me see your tongue.' I stuck it out. 'Mmmm, yes, it's a little damp.' No kidding. I explained that I had problems with my lungs. 'This is why you have bad kidney energy,' he said. 'It can't cope with respiration.' I was even more confused.

He jotted down a prescription of eight different herbs on my notepad and I was sent to the dispensary to collect them. They looked more like a mix of cocaine, doggie chocs, wood shavings, hazel nuts, grass and tree fungus.

I paid pounds 30 for the consultation and pounds 14.28 for my week's medicine. I had to boil the herbs for half an hour, remove and keep the juice, reboil them, keep the new juice, mix the two extracts and drink it twice a day. It sounded more like eye of bat and toe of newt. Two Acid Jazz types in the shop said it tasted just as bad, too.

Chinese herbalists are all the rage, with about 600 Chinese herbal clinics established in Britain. The interest has been fed by increased travel to China and the opening of three colleges in and near London that teach Chinese medicine. Three Chinese herbal shops have opened in west London alone in recent months.

Robert Miller, an American businessman, was the first to import Chinese herbs into Britain in large quantities in 1985. The business expanded rapidly and he now has a shop, East West Herbs, in Neal's Yard, central London. Some herbs, such as ginseng, can be bought over the counter; others are prescribed by doctors in the practice attached to the shop.

The word 'herb' is a loose term in Chinese medicine: it includes mineral and animal parts. So Mr Miller imports prehistoric ox bones for insomnia, lizards for asthma, dried cicada skin for wind, reindeer antlers to improve kidney energy, Yang deficiency, 'sexual dysfunction' and growth problems in small children, and buffalo horn (a substitute for rhino horn) for reducing fevers. There are no controls over these imports. Dr Gang had also assured me that dried snake is effective for eczema, ants are good for arthritis and tiger bone - not imported here because tigers are an endangered species - is great for strengthening joints.

I felt unhappy with my consultation and diagnosis. But Lei Zhou An, another practitioner in London, explained that in Chinese medicine the pulses and the tongue are clues to the condition of different bodily organs. 'They enable you to feel what's passing through the body, like feeling the quality and quantity of water flowing through a river. There is no scientific proof, it's empirical knowledge handed down through the ages.' Prescribing from some 600 to 700 basic herbs, she says, is an art that can only be learnt from experience. 'A good herbalist understands how the herbs work together.' But she warns that they can create problems if incorrectly prescribed. 'Western palates are also less tolerant to the herbs and dosages need to be kept low.'

Jane and Peter Farrow felt optimistic when they visited their local Chinese clinic in Bath for infertility treatment. 'We thought herbs were harmless,' says Mrs Farrow. But after six weeks of drinking the prescribed brew, her husband's chest, back and scalp were covered in bumps. Eventually, his face swelled up like a football, sealing both his eyes shut. Only a high dose of steroids managed to reduce the swelling: had it spread to his throat, it could have been fatal.

'We went to the herbalist, but they were at a complete loss to identify which herb had caused the reaction,' says Mrs Farrow. 'They offered more herbs to counteract the first ones, but we said no thanks.' Six months later, Mr Farrow still gets bumps on his body when he is run down.

While the Chinese community in Britain may be able to distinguish reputable practitioners from the more dubious ones, Westerners are vulnerable to exploitation. Professor David Phillipson, a pharmacognacist at University College London, says that while some Chinese herbal practitioners have 'excellent qualifications', this is not always the case. The quality of herbs can also vary enormously. 'While the Chinese pharmacopoeia has clear standards, the herbs used in the UK don't always meet these standards. People here don't know any better. The public think: 'Wow, this is from China, it's thousand of years old', and tend to be very uncritical.'

While the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain advises people only to 'buy licensed products from reputable companies', imported Chinese herbs generally do not need a licence. 'Chinese herbs come into the country as herbs and not medicines,' says a spokesperson for the Department of Health. 'The majority don't make any medicinal claims. If they did, they would fall within the Medicines Act - and then have to be licensed.'

It is also easy for suppliers to fake products to importers in the West. Ginseng is commonly faked, and spotting other fakes is a constant problem. Recently, Robert Miller bought a herb called Tian Ma, costing pounds 65 a kilo, to find it was made only of potatoes; another import claiming to be a herb from the eagle wood tree was ordinary wood painted black. While East West Herbs employs Professor Shouming Zhong, a plant chemist and pharmacist, to scrutinise every herb it imports under a microscope, many smaller practices and clinics do not use any expert help.

Even staunch defenders of herbal medicine have reservations about what Chinese herbalists are selling. Ray Hill, secretary of the British Herbal Medicine Association, says: 'British and European herbal medicine is not au fait with the many herbs from China, and we don't know enough about their toxicity. We are not against Chinese medicine as long as it is practised properly and is controlled.' However, he draws the line at animal parts. 'Using rhino horns or tiger bone is an exploitation of the animal kingdom and it's appalling.'

Michael McIntyre, president of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, wants state registration to monitor all herbal practitioners, whether European or Chinese. At present, herbal practitioners are only registered with self-governing colleges and institutes. 'It isn't right to think 'natural equals safe'. We would see a marked change in standards if herbal medicine was state registered.'

A Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine does exist, but only 120 to 130 of the 600 or so clinics in Britain are registered. The truth is that no one is really sure about any of the herbs being used. Diagnosis depends on 2,000-year-old folklore handed down over the ages, and prescriptions are concocted from personal experience rather than scientific tests. Practitioners often speak little or no English, and prescriptions written in Chinese characters leave most people with no idea of what they are imbibing.

And the Acid Jazz types were right. The tonics do smell like a witch's brew; as yet I still have not managed to force myself to swallow any of the hot, brown mixture.

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