Given the growing popularity of eastern and alternative medicines as seen through their relatively steady demand in spite of the recent economic downturn, it’s natural to try to understand their appeal. Why do proponents of eastern medicine swear by its natural remedies, while others claim that it is simply a waste of money? According to Ted J. Kaptchuk, O.M.D.’s book, The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine, “the Chinese method is…holistic, based on the idea that no single part can be understood except in its relation to the whole. A symptom, therefore, is not traced back to a cause, but is looked at as part of a totality.” Eastern medicine maintains that the body, mind, and environment should be in harmony with one another. Accordingly, practitioners of eastern medicine consider mental and social factors when diagnosing illnesses.
As a result, practitioners of eastern medicine seek to maintain favorable mental states among their patients; happiness, it is thought, can help prevent illness. Eastern medicine therefore places great emphasis on lifestyle management in line with the belief that people in better mental states will be less likely to experience health problems. If, however, any mental or physical imbalances are detected, the path to recovery typically consists of a combination of herb and plant-based remedies, which advocates of eastern medicine contend are more safe, natural, and effective than artificially manufactured drugs prescribed by allopathic physicians.
One of the most commonly prescribed remedies in eastern medicine is ginseng root. A Chinese root believed to imbue its consumers with energy, vitality, enhanced memory, and a strengthened immune system, ginseng has attracted much attention in the past decade. Early studies have demonstrated the efficacy of ginseng. A 2003 study conducted by Kiefer and Pantuso at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and published in the American Family Physician journal demonstrated that Panax ginseng—the most commonly used version of ginseng—may improve psychological function, immune function, and conditions associated with diabetes. A 2008 study published in Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior at the University of Maryland Medical Center by Kim et al. showed that Panax ginseng improves memory, concentration, and other cognitive abilities. Additionally, numerous Asian studies have also shown ginseng’s ability to slow the progression of cancer. A 1999 study in the Korea Cancer Center Hospital by Dr. TK Yun showed that ginseng could be a nonorgan-specific cancer preventive agent in mouse lung tumors.
While these results seem promising for proponents of eastern medicine, some authorities state that more carefully designed studies must be conducted before these improvements can be solely attributable to ginseng and not to potential placebo or causation vs. correlation effects. According to the late C. Norman Gillis who studied Panax ginseng and whose findings were published in the 1997 issue of Biochemical Pharmacology, research on ginseng remains inconclusive because many studies use extracts and concentrations of the herb that are not standardized. More cancer research is necessary to validate the aforementioned findings. Currently, the NIH states that ginseng is only possibly effective for improving thinking and memory, lowering blood sugar levels in diabetics, improving sexual function in men with erectile dysfunction, and delaying premature ejaculation.
The debate on the efficacy of ginseng characterizes the current disagreement between those who support and oppose eastern and alternative medicines. Perhaps patients of eastern and alternative medicines prefer holistic approaches to health; the scientific validity of eastern practices, like the prescription of ginseng, though, has yet to be fully determined. Whether or not practitioners of eastern medicine employ medically sound practices will continue to be hotly debated and hopefully resolved as a new body of literature on eastern medicine develops.
Regardless of whether proponents of eastern or western medicines triumph, it is clear that the best medical treatments understand that patients are more than a mere conglomeration of symptoms. As Dr. William Osler, one of the founding professors of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, once said, “The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”
This article was updated on 11/4/2011.