Maria Holland

What’s In Chinese Medicine?

In Uncategorized on December 25, 2010 at 11:19 pm

During my year in China, I had several encounters with TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).  Funny thing  – no matter if it was prescribed for asthma, diarrhea, or an infection, it always smells the same.  I swear, I could smell TCM from a mile away!

It works sometimes, though.  It cleared up my infection and I didn’t die of diarrhea, so I really can’t be too harsh on it. 

But I did have one rather bad reaction to some traditional Chinese medicine.  As I wrote in my journal the day after the Chinese New Year last year:

I’m not feeling too great today.  I started shaking last night when I got home and it hasn’t gone away, almost 24 hours later.  It’s the kind of thing that feels like my entire body is vibrating.  It usually happens when I take my fast-acting inhaler too much, but I haven’t really been taking it that much recently, and not at all in the last 36 hours.  I’m not really sure what’s going on; the family gave me some Chinese medicine last night and I’m wondering if it had something in it – crack, possibly.  

Later, as a sort of control, I took a small amount of the medicine again and had the same, although slightly less intense, reaction. 

Now, months later, I think I finally understand.  A friend lent me a book when I got back to school, “Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter”.  Mere pages into it, I come across this:

For many centuries, ma huang was used by Chinese herbal doctors to treat asthma and general malaise.  Eventually, scientists working in the West identified and extracted the key component of the plant, ephedrine.  This was then imported back into China in its purified form and sold to pharmacies prescribing western medicine.

Ephedrine?  That sounds familiar, in the same way that MSG and ketamine sound familiar – not 100% sure what they are, but I was raised knowing they were bad.

According to Wikipedia:

Ephedrine is a sympathomimetic amine commonly used as a stimulant, appetite suppressant, concentration aid, decongestant, and to treat hypotension associated with anaesthesia.

Oh yeah, ephedrine was in all those weight-loss drugs that were banned.  It’s also similar (chemically and otherwise) to methamphetamines. 

Well, I figure that about explains the reaction, doesn’t it? 

The funny thing is, I don’t have any recollection of my asthma improving after I took it!

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