Find the safest Chinese patent medicines

A guide to de-code chinese herbs


| January/February 2001


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.





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