Chinese Medicine: Is it Toxic?

Chinese medicine is often considered as one of the safest and most effective treatments for specific medical conditions such as arthritis and insomnia. The use of herbs in Chinese medicine is backed by thousands of years of its application. The Western world has therefore recognized the importance of Chinese medicine as a preventative scheme against particular medical disorders.

The History of Chinese Medicine

Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum L.) is an herbal Chinese medicine that has been historically used in Asia for the treatment of liver disorders. Rhubarb has also been used as a preventative herb against problems in digestion. The leaves of the rhubarb plant are known to be poisonous and thus the stalks and roots are the main components included in herbal concoctions. Despite its long history of use, there is a growing concern regarding the safety of specific components used in Chinese medicine.

In a recent report published in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS), the effects of the herbal Chinese medicine rhubarb was examined in experimental rats with liver injuries. The scientists involved in the study wanted to address two major questions— What is the optimal dose of rhubarb that would result in a preventative effect in liver disease in rats? And, will higher doses of rhubarb produce damage to the liver of the experimental rats?


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The research study involved administering rhubarb extracts to two groups of rats for approximately three months. One group was previously treated with carbon tetrachloride, a chemical that was known to induce liver damage upon chronic exposure. The other group consisted of healthy, normal rats, thus devoid of liver and any other organ damage. In addition, four different rhubarb extract dosages (2.0, 5.4, 14.7, and 40 g/kg) were given to the rats in order to monitor its possible preventative effect based on the amount of the extract introduced.

After three months of treatment, the liver tissues were examined for any signs of tissue and cellular injury. The results of the study showed that the two lowest rhubarb dosages, 2.0 and 5.4 g/kg, showed a lower degree of cellular injury even after inducing damage using carbon tetrachloride, suggesting that the rhubarb extract imparted a preventative effect on liver damage. On the other hand, the higher doses of rhubarb, 14.7 and 40 g/kg, resulted in liver damage in both rat groups. The liver tissues of the rats that were given higher doses of rhubarb showed cell fibrosis, or thickening of the cell wall that might be a response to damaging effects of the high doses of the rhubarb extract.
The results of this experimental study showed that the herbal Chinese medicine rhubarb could potentially serve as a preventative aid against liver damage, yet there is a need to control the dose that is administered. The research study showed that the preventative effect of rhubarb is observed when the experimental rats were given low doses of the herb, whereas harmful damage to the liver can occur with higher amounts.

The use of various types of Chinese medicine could certainly be preventative to different types of medical conditions. However, it is also important to know if a specific herbal component might also induce damage to other organs of the body.

How Chinese Medicine Can Help

Most of the components in Chinese medicine are supported by empirical reports describing its preventative effect against specific diseases. In addition, many of these Chinese medicine concoctions have been used for thousands of years, thus further strengthening its preventative action against various medical conditions, including diabetes and cardiovascular disorders. However, before you start taking any of these products, it would be helpful to look at the components of the product and conduct your own simple research on its positive preventative effects, as well as any potential damage to other organs of the body.