In many health-food stores, you’ll find rows of brightly colored boxes with Chinese characters and pictures of herbs that stand out clearly from the masses of herbal supplements on display. These inexpensive Chinese herbal medicines have names that translate strangely into English: “Nose Inflammation Pill,” “Nerve Weak Pill,” “Relaxed Wanderer,” and even “Pit Viper Dispel Itching Pill.”
Many acupuncturists and Chinese herbalists send their patients into health-food stores to find such formulas—especially more common remedies such as “Women’s Precious Pills,” a popular Chinese preparation for strengthening a woman’s blood and qi (vital energy) that contains several herbs including dong quai (Angelica sinensis) and rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa).
Women’s Precious and other prepared Chinese medicines are known as patent medicines—a group of medicines that have been getting a bad rap in the media in the past couple of years. Although most people consider all herbal remedies to be natural and drug-free, a number of recent reports have uncovered a dark side to these particular long-used formulas.
Two years ago, when California investigators inspected some Chinese patents imported into the United States, some of the medicines were found to contain higher-than-allowed levels of heavy metals, as well as some pharmaceutical drugs. More recently, several reports have surfaced in the news about the dangers of adulterated Chinese herbal patent medicines. Hundreds of ready-made herbal remedies are sold throughout China, serving a similar function to over-the-counter drugs sold in the United States.
What are Chinese patents?
Chinese patent medicines come in easy-to-use forms such as liquids or pills, and they’re typically sold in glass bottles and packed in colorful boxes. The name “patent medicine” comes from the old practice of including secret ingredients in the formula. Because there was no way to secure an actual patent on the formula, the secret ingredients prevented competitors from copying a commercially successful remedy. Due to more stringent Chinese government regulations in recent times, this practice is no longer common. However, a more insidious “secret ingredient” has found its way into some patent medicines— pharmaceutical drugs. Along with the presence of heavy metals, this adulteration has become a serious problem for those who have come to depend on patent medicines as part of their alternative health care.
In some cases, as in the inclusion of pharmaceuticals, the adulteration is intentional. Products have entered the United States containing analgesic and decongestant drugs such as acetaminophen and pseudoephedrine, as well as powerful seda- tives, diabetes drugs, and other over-the-counter and prescription pharmaceuticals. When such a product enters the United States without the drug being disclosed on the label, it is unethical, illegal, and dangerous. Westerners who turn to Chinese patent medicines usually do so because they want to avoid drugs in favor of natural herbs. When their “herbal” products are adulterated with undisclosed drugs, they are ingesting chemicals they want to avoid. Even worse, they may have an allergy or hypersensitivity to the hidden drug, and interactions could occur with other herbs or drugs they’re taking.
Heavy metal contamination
Contamination with toxic heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, mercury, or cadmium is another safety issue when considering any natural product. This sort of adulteration is unintentional, but still creates serious health risks. It results from poor quality control. Factories in China with poor quality-control procedures may use unfiltered, polluted water to boil down the herbs, leaving excessive heavy metals in the final product. They may also skip important procedures that detect mold, bacteria, or pesticide contamination. These procedures are essential to prevent adult- erated products from entering the marketplace, whether that market is in the United States or China.
In 1998, the Food and Drug branch of the California Department of Health Services investigated adulteration of Chinese patent medicines with pharmaceuticals and heavy metals. In their report, Compendium of Asian Patent Medicines, they released the results of lab tests of 260 patent remedies. While some manufacturers’ products had no contamination, others showed a consistent pattern of heavy metal contamination or adulteration with pharmaceuticals.
Finding safe Chinese patents
Fortunately, it’s possible to find those Chinese patent medicines that are safe. Increasingly, manufacturers in China are employing strict quality standards known as good manufacturing practices (GMPs). These standards, which are also used by pharmaceutical companies, ensure that no adulterants are included during the manufacturing process.
When shopping for Chinese patents, select products from factories such as:
• Lanzhou Foci
• Guangzhou Qixing
• Plum Flower
These factories are very careful to monitor and test for contamination with heavy metals, pesticides, bacteria, or molds. No pharmaceuticals are surreptitiously added to their products, and all ingredients are clearly disclosed in the labeling.
The best U.S. source for these high-quality, unadulterated patent medicines is Mayway Corporation, a large Chinese family-owned distributor in Oakland, California. They import patent remedies only from reputable GMP manufacturers, and they send out incoming shipments to analytical laboratories for further testing here in the United States.
According to Yvonne Lau of Mayway Corporation, “Chinese herbal medicines are for the most part safe, efficacious, and relatively low cost. The market for unsafe, low-quality patents is supported by practitioners and consumers who are unaware of quality-control problems perpetuated by counterfeit and fly-by-night ‘mountain bandit’ factories.”
Lau says many safe, quality-controlled products are available from China by a number of internationally certified GMP manufacturers. “As people become more aware and begin to recognize and demand products from reputable brands and factories, we expect unsafe products to eventually be phased out,” she says.
To contact Mayway, see “A source for high-quality patents” on page 44.
Finding a practitioner
Assuming that you have a reliable supply of safe patent medicines, there is another safety issue: choosing the correct remedy. Although it’s possible to partially learn the art of prescribing Chinese medicines by reading books on the subject, the safest route is to receive a diagnosis from a qualified practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In the United States, licensed acu-puncturists are trained in the art of traditional diagnosis. Once you have a personalized and accurate diagnosis of your present condition, and a better understanding of your underlying constitutional state, choosing an effective patent medicine is much easier.
In California, all acupuncturists are required to be proficient in herbal medicine in order to receive their license to practice. In other states, practitioners can demonstrate their proficiency by passing the exam in Chinese herbal medicine administered by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. They have a searchable database of all nationally licensed acupuncturists at their website: www.nccaom.org.
Another way to find a licensed acupuncturist in your area is to check the website for the American Association of Oriental Medicine: www.aaom.org. In addition to providing a wealth of information, they maintain a referral list of their acupuncturist members, organized by state.
For more information about acupuncture and herbal medicine, try the website www.acupuncture.com. It contains lots of helpful information on Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, and other aspects of TCM.
Christopher Hobbs is a fourth-generation herbalist and botanist, an Herbs for Health editorial adviser, and a licensed acupuncturist. He is the coauthor of Vitamins for Dummies (IDG, 1999) and the author of Stress and Natural Healing (Botanica, 1997) and many other books.
Bill Schoenbart is the author of Pocket Guide to Chinese Patent Medicines (The Crossing Press, 1999) and Chinese Healing Secrets (Publications International, 1998). He practices Traditional Chinese Medicine in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a researcher and consultant in the field of medicinal herbs.