Traditional Chinese herbal remedies

Traditional Chinese herbal remedies are part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and have been used in China for thousands of years. Traditional Chinese herbal remedies are a large part of TCM. They can be given as pills, teas, powders, liquid extracts or syrups. Hundreds of different types of herbs are used in TCM, and TCM practitioners often use combinations of herbs rather than a single herb.

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine often use herbal remedies along with other therapies, such as acupuncture, massage and tai chi.

Traditional Chinese herbal remedies as a complementary therapy

There is no evidence at this time that traditional Chinese herbal remedies can treat cancer itself. Many research studies have focused on TCM herbal remedies, but the research has only been reported in Chinese language journals. Many evidence-based organizations are concerned that the studies are not of high quality and that only positive results are published. So our current knowledge of traditional Chinese herbal remedies is limited.

Some research suggests that other TCM methods, such as acupuncture, tai chi and massage, may help people cope with the physical and emotional side effects of conventional cancer treatments.

Side effects and risks of traditional Chinese herbal remedies

Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about taking any traditional Chinese herbal remedies. Let your TCM practitioner know about your cancer diagnosis and any conventional cancer treatments you are having.

Side effects of traditional Chinese herbal remedies will depend on the herbs and the combination of herbs in the preparation.

There have been cases of traditional Chinese herbal remedies containing prescription drugs that weren’t listed on the label, which could cause serious side effects. Other herbs used in TCM have been found to be contaminated with toxic metals such as lead, mercury or arsenic.

We do not know if or how traditional Chinese herbal remedies affect the way conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy work. We also don’t know if it is safe to use traditional Chinese herbal remedies together with conventional cancer treatments. Some traditional Chinese herbal remedies may interact with other herbs or over-the-counter drugs, which could be dangerous to your health.

Finding a practitioner

Currently in Canada, TCM is regulated only in British Columbia and Ontario. This means that TCM practitioners must meet training and examination standards in order to practice traditional Chinese medicine using herbal remedies.

Expert review and references

  • Decker G . Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies in integrative oncology. Yarbro, CH, Wujcki D, & Holmes Gobel B. (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: 24: 626-654.
  • Health Canada. About Natural Health Products. 2012: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/prodnatur/about-apropos/cons-eng.php.
  • Health Canada. About Natural Health Product Regulation in Canada. Health Canada; 2012: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/prodnatur/about-apropos/index-eng.php.
  • Meng Z, Garrett CR, Shen Y, et al . Prospective randomised evaluation of traditional Chinese medicine combined with chemotherapy: a randomised phase II study of wild toad extract plus gemcitabine in patients with advanced pancreatic adenocarcinomas. British Journal of Cancer (BJC). Nature Publishing Group; 2012.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction. US Department of Health and Human Services; 2013: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/chinesemed.htm.
  • Smith ME & Bauer-Wu S . Traditional Chinese medicine for cancer-related symptoms. Seminars in Oncology Nursing. Elsevier; 2012.
  • Ulbricht C, Cohen L, Lee R . Complementary, alternative, and integrative therapies in cancer care. Devita, V. T., Jr., Lawrence, T. S., & Rosenberg, S. A. Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 9th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Willams, Wilkins; 2011: 181.
  • World Health Organization (WHO). General Guidelines for Methodologies on Research and Evaluation of Traditional Medicine. WHO; 2000: http://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/en/d/Jwhozip42e/.