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What's in your TCM?

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Most herbal medicines are pills or powders that have removed all trace of structure we would normally use to identify plants, and many plants have no chemical signature that is able to definitively identify them. And what about all the other possible contaminants and adulterants that could hide in the complex brew of chemicals from herbal medicines?

Our research, which has just been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, goes a long way to answering that.

For the first time, our group of researchers from Curtin University, Murdoch University and the University of Adelaide have combined some of the most cutting-edge and sensitive analytical techniques to screen a set of traditional Chinese medicines available in Australia.

We used a three-pronged approach, combining DNA sequencing, toxicology and heavy metal testing to elucidate the true composition of 26 TCMs purchased at random from the Adelaide Markets; most were either for colds and flu’s or for general wellness.


What did the find? Apparently a bunch of different things including (but not limited to): Arsenic, cadmium, lead, dexamethasone, ephedrine, cyproheptadine, paracetamol and snow leopard DNA.


Each TCM tested is represented in the diagram as a tablet; blue shading on tablets indicate AUST L listed medicines, red shading are not-listed with the TGA regulatory body. TCMs deemed non-compliant for DNA (green), toxicology (pink) and heavy metals (yellow) or a combination thereof, are represented within the Venn diagram. ‘Non compliance’ is defined as containing an illegal or undeclared species, undeclared pharmaceutical, or heavy metal in quantities beyond the allowable daily dosage limit. Two TCM’s were classified as ‘undetected’ using the testing methods described.

Good, but less science-y article here: https://theconversation.com/whats-in-your-herbal-medicines-52144

Science-y (methods and everything) article here: http://www.nature.com/articles/srep17475

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I think you'd find most of those heavy metals in food grown on superphosphate and sprayed with herbicides as well. The pharmaceuticals are starting to show up in ground water samples also, but probably not at the levels found in that study, they seem to be added to give the products a noticeable effect to satisfy people who want a quick fix.

TCM in it's pure form doesn't really treat colds or flu as such, it's all about balancing the system and correcting stagnant/blocked or over active energy meridians. That takes time - weeks, months or sometimes even years, not just a one shot deal like a paracetamol pill (which is what most aussies expect from a "doctor").

So I believe most of the shit sold at markets for those purposes is just snake oil sold by charletons after a quick buck. A real TCM practitioner would rarely give a one size fits all remedy for anything. They'd do a very in depth diagnosis and prescribe a custom mix of herbal (and sometimes animal) products to slowly rebalance the system.

The whole system certainly needs regulation, but studies like that are really sending a false message. There are practitioners that only use organic ethically sourced products like Yoland Lim in Melbourne. Those market peddlers are not really practising TCM, they're cashing in on naive uneducated consumers and selling them snake oil under the guise of TCM.

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I agree Sally, it would be wrong to characterize this as being indicative of all TCM (or even herbal medicine in general).

Your comment on regulation is particularly true. I think this study says more about the failure of the TGA than anything else. Apparently over half the products weren't 'listed' with the TGA, so should not have been sold for consumption. Nor was being listed any guarantee of quality - the Panthera uncia DNA, high levels of pharms and heavy metals were all found in products that were listed with the TGA.

Regardless of how they are categorised, the regulatory framework relies heavily, or exclusively on the assumption that manufacturers are making accurate declarations regarding the composition of their products.

Considering some of what we can and can't sell, and the role that the TGA has in scheduling, this pisses me off.

I do think it shows that buying bottles of pills at markets might be a bad idea.

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