September 6, 2007 / 7:10 AM / 12 years ago

Chinese medicine gets a dose of modernity

HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - Traditional Chinese medicine, the ancient art of healing using natural ingredients that are often boiled or powdered, is getting a modern dose.

Laboratory workers mix Chinese medicine in Singapore, August 30, 2005. Traditional Chinese medicine is increasingly seen as an alternative to, or a complement for, pharmaceuticals. REUTERS/Luis Enrique Ascui

Thousands of plants, fungi and animals — some endangered and controversial — are used to make traditional Chinese remedies.

But some practitioners in Hong Kong are trying a new approach, transforming the plants into soluble granules and tablets, and attracting younger patients with the convenience.

“What we are doing now is we are making every single herb into soluble granules, just like instant coffee,” said Abraham Chan, President of the Modernized Chinese Medicine International Association in Hong Kong.

“Now after you have got the prescription, just go to the dispensary, the pharmacist there will mix up the granules and you will go home having one little sachet. It saves a lot of time.”

Traditional Chinese medicine is increasingly seen as an alternative to, or a complement for, pharmaceuticals.

It is believed to have less side effects than western medicine, another reason for its growing popularity among Westernized professionals and health-conscious youth.

“Kids don’t like Chinese medicine because it tastes bitter, so the pills are more convenient,” said 22-year-old Katie Yeung.

“Western medicine has some negative effects. The older generation tell us how good Chinese medicine is, so it is easier for us to accept and to use it,” added 25-year-old Karen Ho.

FUNGI AND GECKOS

Chan said the pills and sachets used 675 plant and fungi ingredients and about 25 from non-plant sources such as snakes, geckos, toads, bees and earthworms.

The use of plants in the form of granules is still predominantly at an experimental phase and practitioners are also only focusing on non-animal ingredients for the time being.

While standard formulas used to treat minor ailments such as a cold or the flu are available over-the-counter, patients with more serious illnesses need to go to a hospital for diagnosis and treatment, which usually also includes chemical drugs.

“Maybe after 100 years, Chinese medicine will be parallel with Western medicine,” said Dr. John Wu, a director at Dr&HERBS, a Chinese medical practice in Britain.

Before becoming mainstream, Chinese medicine must also overcome concerns about the use of animal ingredients, including those from endangered species.

Most traditional medicine has not been scientifically tested and herbal remedies can be fatal if incorrectly used, which is also another concern.

But Beijing is now keen to establish global standards to help evolve the centuries-old practice.

“You have one herb that worked in the past, but it might or does not necessarily work now because the species might change,” Chan said. “This is a big topic in Chinese medicine today. That’s why we are trying to systemize and modernize it.”

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