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Mainstreaming Chinese Herbal Medicine

by Evelyn Theiss

The Cleveland Clinic launches the first Chinese Herbal Therapy Clinic in a hospital setting in the U.S.

Chinese Herbal Medicine

An assortment of Chinese medicinal herbs.

Not long ago, availing yourself of Chinese herbal medicine meant finding a practitioner who likely practiced the arts of acupuncture, moxibustion and herbal therapy out of a storefront. Most were found in a city’s Chinatown neighborhood—and language barriers complicated matters.

At the end of a visit, the patient would take home a brown paper bag filled with what looked like dried leaves and twigs, and directions on how to prepare them. Usually, this meant boiling them in water, which inevitably created a noxious aroma in the kitchen—and the brew wasn’t all that pleasant to sip either.

Today, therapies once considered fringe in the U.S. are becoming nearly mainstream. Acupuncture, for one, is now offered by a number of medical centers around the country as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Once a Holdout

Chinese Herbal Medicine

Exterior shot of the Cleveland Clinic.

Chinese herbal medicine, however, has been a holdout. Western doctors have been wary not only of its effectiveness, but also had major concerns about the quality, consistency, sourcing and the quantity of the herbs used. The alternative treatment landscape is changing, though, as the Cleveland Clinic has recently opened a Chinese Herbal Therapy Clinic. It is said to be one of the first in the U.S. within a hospital-based setting.

Jamie Starkey has been the lead acupuncturist at the Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine for several years. Being half-Korean and having studied in Beijing, she was drawn to Chinese herbal medicine. But she knew that convincing Dr. Tanya Edwards, the previous medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, was not going to be easy. It took nearly 18 months of collecting medical evidence of the treatment’s effectiveness, in the form of randomized control studies, before she even showed the data to Edwards.

Another thing helped—the Ohio legislature had passed a law that would allow Chinese herbal medicine to be practiced, under certain restrictions, in the state (13 states in the U.S. now allow it). Before that, it would have been illegal in Ohio for any doctor to prescribe this herbal treatment. Still, Starkey had met Clinic patients who went out of state to buy the herbs and took them, which sometimes caused complications in their traditional medical treatments.

Where to Source

The other concern was finding a source from which to buy herbs of a consistent blend and quality, and clear of any contaminants. Starkey and Clinic staffers chose the Crane Herb Company in Mashpee, MA. Crane compounds its herbs in either standardized amounts, or in custom blends prescribed by the practitioner. The herbs are taken in capsule form.

Chinese herbal medicine—with a history that goes back to the Ming Dynasty—is used for chronic rather than acute illnesses, i.e., conditions ranging from infertility to menopausal symptoms, from allergies to asthma, lupus, fibromyalgia and more, as well as post-chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Unlike Western medicine, where a prescription often is designed to knock out symptoms, Chinese herbal medicine deals with the whole patient and his or her “constitution” and its imbalances.

Jaclyn Yoder, 33, suffered from extreme allergies for years, getting allergy shots and taking daily doses of Zyrtec to combat severe hives. She suffered unpleasant side effects from the treatments, and they didn’t seem to help.

Under Clinic supervision, Yoder weaned herself off the shots and pills, and began taking an herbal blend daily in the form of a capsule. Within a month, she saw a dramatic improvement. The hives and the itching were gone. “I really feel this has addressed the cause of my allergies, and not just the symptoms,” she says.

Chinese Medical Exam

Before prescribing an herbal treatment, a practitioner examines the patient’s skin, hair, tongue, eyes and pulse to determine the body’s imbalances. There are 2,000 Chinese herbs and extracts, and many more ways they can be blended. Some of the most common ones for Americans include ginseng, reishi mushrooms and astragalus. Traditionally, the herbs are taken in the form of teas, powders, pills, tinctures or syrups.

But one issue—even in China—has been herbs that were contaminated with toxins, including heavy metals. Moreover, in some cases, the herbs themselves were toxic if they were prescribed incorrectly, or if there wasn’t follow-up for the patient. That is why, Starkey says, it was crucial for the Clinic to source its supply from a company highly regarded by doctors for the purity of their blends.

Every patient must first have a physician referral. The herbal treatment becomes part of the patient’s medical record—so any problematic interaction with other medicines is avoided.

Ancient Practice, New Product

Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese herbs have been used in the East for millennia, but sourcing them in the West can be a challenge.  Some formulations may contain pesticides, bleach and other residues. Jou Herbs (“Jou” means “mantra”) is a range of 12 Chinese herbal remedies for conditions ranging from digestive health to menopause and the herbs are certified organic by USDA. timetospa.com

—Martin Smith

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