Given how freely they're sold, you'd never think to fear the dried leaves, roots and fungi available in Chinese herbal shops or the many bottles of tiny black pills on the shelves.
But traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a complex, highly developed system of diagnosis and treatment, and self-prescribing Chinese herbs is not wise. For instance, ginseng, everyone's favourite tonic, comes in five different types, each with distinct effects. Pick the wrong one and you could make yourself sick.
People also buy cold, flu and cough remedies in Chinatown's stores, but to treat these or any other sickness you have to know which root cause is to blame, like "dampness" or "heat." Only a trained TCM practitioner can tell you -- usually through a pulse and tongue examination.
Chinese herbs can worsen previously existing health conditions and interact dangerously with pharmaceutical drugs or other herbs. What's more, this is an industry in which quality control is still an emerging concept. Chinese formulations have been targeted by Health Canada. For instance, Bejai Bowyantan, for kids with flu, was recently banned for containing a toxic camphor-like substance. Hua fo, for increased mental alertness, was yanked after it was found to contain a substance similar to Viagra. Longdan and Lung Tan Xie Gan were pulled due to the presence of a kidney-damaging acid. Check out Health Canada's Web site at www.hc-sc.gc.ca for more info.
If you do purchase a formulation on your own, those with a drug identification number (DIN) are the only ones that meet government safety standards. Beware of vested interests. Herbalists or TCM practitioners in shops may be paid commissions, so the more they prescribe, the more money they make.WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"Because there's money to be made, some places make knockoff remedies that look like the real thing but aren't the same. In places (like Australia) where regulations are in place, they have to have third-party testing done. Even with suppliers I know and trust, I still spot-check my patients' prescriptions to make sure people are getting the quality I've specified. The job of pharmacies is to sell, and sometimes they dispense excessively or unnecessarily. If you stay within one (medical) world, you're safe. Blending can be good if done properly, but if not done well can be dangerous."
DAVID BRAY, CMD, D.Ac., Dipl. C.H. (NCCAOM), doctor of acupuncture and TCM, trained and licensed in in China and the U.S.
"A knife can kill people. That means you can't sell it? You have to know how to use it. Western people really don't know how to use Chinese herbs. Chinese people use combinations; even if an herb is poisonous, after you process it and combine it with other herbs in the right amounts you can use it to heal something. If a person asks me for an herb or patent medicine, I will usually ask what they want to use it for.
"As long as there are no dangers, I will sell it to them. If the herbs will harm them used in the amount they want to buy, I refuse to sell them. Two years ago, the Chamber of Chinese Herbal Medicine started a TCM herbal provider training course. We give out certificates. This is not recognized by the government, but is our self-discipline."
EDWIN WUNG, president, Canadian Chamber of Chinese Herbal Medicine, importer, wholesaler and retailer of Chinese herbs
"We stopped carrying patent formulas from China because Health Canada sent us a letter last year stating that a number of products were found to be contaminated. We now carry formulations (Golden Flower) that are sent out for third-party testing and are guaranteed free of heavy metals, PCBs and other contaminants. That's one reason they're more expensive. We will not sell these over the counter because of their potential to make the condition worse (if misused). We record every name of every person who buys a patent medicine, and the practitioner's name as well."
JENNIFER FORGERON, naturopath, consultant, Big Carrot Holistic Dispensary
"Accurate diagnosis is essential for the safe use of Chinese herbal medicine. A TCM doctor has five years of full-time training . Currently, TCM is not regulated in Ontario. For public safety we need to urge the government to regulate the profession. Two recognized certifying organizations are the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in the U.S. and the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of British Columbia."
MARY XIUMEI WU, MD (China), president, Toronto School of TCM
"The current estimate is that new regulations (being developed by the natural health products directorate) will be in place by fall with a current transition time of two to three years to get them implemented. Products will have to meet good-manufacturing-practice requirements and be labelled with warnings, concerns, recommendations and dosages. We're working with the Chinese government to see which formulas will meet our requirements."
PHIL WADDINGTON, naturopath, director, natural health products directorate, Health Canada