It’s the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The aquatic stadium is filled with tense energy, a buzz of anticipation; all eyes are on the most decorated Olympian of all time as he takes the center lane. As he does his signature, arm-flapping warm-up, millions of people wonder: what in the world are those bright purple bruises dotting his skin?

It turns out that those bruises are not the result of brutal training, but are in fact the after-effects of a technique stemming from ancient Chinese medicine. Known as “cupping,” this technique has been utilized by Michael Phelps and many other prominent athletes to prevent injury, reduce soreness, and speed muscle healing.

Cupping is only one practice in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which now has worldwide, modern applications in drug development and pain relief. A core belief of TCM is “qi,” or “life energy,” which connects to all the organs of the body through channels called “meridians.” These meridians serve as the transport mechanisms for blood and qi and link the vertical halves of the body. Also essential to TCM is the idea of internal balance — yin and yang, two opposing forces in the body. A depletion of yin results in symptoms such as heat sensations, night sweats, insomnia, and rapid pulse; a depletion of yang results in symptoms such as cold limbs, diarrhea, and weak pulse. The five-phases theory assumes that all aspects of nature, including human anatomy, can be broken down into wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. A TCM practitioner takes these theories into account when prescribing herbal medicine and diagnosing patients.

Though hotly debated, TCM has had a significant impact on global health and medicine. Most notable has been its role in curing millions of malaria patients: Chinese scientist Tu Youyou received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her discovery and successful extraction of the drug artemisinin from a Chinese medicinal herb called qinghao. As documented in Chinese medical records dating back to 317-420 A.D., qinghao’s traditional use in China was to treat fever and to relieve malaria symptoms. Artemisinin-containing treatments are now standard care for malaria patients worldwide. In fact, the number of therapies using artemisinin has increased from 11 million in 2005 to 337 million in 2014. After her Nobel Prize acceptance, Tu Youyou presented a lecture titled “Artemisinin — A Gift from Traditional Chinese Medicine to the World.”

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Tu Youyou conducting research on artemisinin.

Several herbs commonly used in TCM have essential chemicals that are analogous to current pharmacologic drugs. For instance, the Datura flower, used in China to relieve coughs, spasms, and pain, contains the compound scopolamine that can be used in modern medicine for gastric ulcers and kidney disease.

Despite these medicinal purposes, TCM is met with skepticism by many scientists, who attribute the workings of TCM mainly to placebo effect. A 2006 report written by Chinese professor Zhang Gongyao urged the Chinese government to abolish traditional medical practices, arguing that “TCM has no clear understanding of the human body, of the functions of medicines and their links to disease.” This triggered a national dispute within the scientific community and led to government statements asserting that the government would continue to support TCM practice in China. Subsequently, in 2007, an editorial published in the journal Nature asserted that Chinese medicine is “pseudoscience, with no rational mechanism of action for most of its therapies.”

The dispute surrounding Chinese medicine is perhaps understandable, given that the beliefs governing TCM are hard to test scientifically and appear mysterious and supernatural in nature. However, it is indisputable that TCM has some scientific merit and has had a considerable impact on global health and modern-day practices — both eastern and western. Instead of focusing only on the limitations of Chinese medicine, scientists should embrace what it has to offer.

About The Author

Alice Xue