Safety & Purity in Chinese Herbal Medicine

A Short Look at Cultural Bias


[This contemplation is not short, with no images to entertain, other than those that may linger in the third eye, and it may get deeper than you care to go.]

Just as I was leaving for a quick, surgical strike to southern Utah for photography and filming, a reader, Antonia, sent me a comment after having read Hashimoto’s — Bigger Than Diabetes?. In it she raises an important point. While no one has previously expressed this concern on this site, her comment makes me realize that it’s something probably being gnawed on by a number of readers. Let’s take a look.

Here’s Antonia’s comment, in full:

“I normally would have been open to Chinese medicine, except that I’m so thoroughly disgusted by the toxins and impurities in anything emerging from China that I would run away from any herbs from that country as fast as my Hashimoto’s-affected legs would carry me!

How do DOM’s assure their patients of the purity of the herbs and other substances they use in treatment of a patient? Have these substances ever been tested by the FDA for purity and no contamination by the presence of heavy metals or other toxic substances?

Anything from China is immediately suspect (for me)! And it’s a shame, because it sounds as though your system of healing is perhaps much better than ours, in principle, at least.”

Antonia’s words reflect a legitimate fear. They also provide a rich and fertile field for deeper contemplation, and I’m truly indebted to be invited into such a garden. So much so that her comment clearly warrants its own post. So, here, for the intended benefit of all readers, I’d like to address some of the issues that have Antonia’s attention — and some that don’t. We’ll start at face value, and expand from there.

Everyone has heard the horror stories of corruption, greed, and despicable violations of human trust coming from individuals and companies in contemporary China. Most of these stories are true. And there are probably more than we know. Or can imagine. To the keen and caring mind, disgust is an appropriate response, wouldn’t you say?

Given what appears to be a massive failing of humanity, how does a responsible Doctor of Oriental Medicine (DOM) avoid being the victim of this level of deceit at an unforgivable cost to one’s self and one’s clients, and, at the same time, utilize the most sophisticated tool within the world’s most evolved medicine? Should we bury our heads in despair and avoid the possible quagmire of Chinese herbal medicine altogether? Should we abandon the golden opportunity of this profession and seek employment at the local bank or as a clerk in the natural foods store? I’m not making fun. These are all reasonable choices and can be noble vocations. More importantly, those choices carry far less risk of incurring the karma of others. But is that going to be our response to crimes against others, committed by those far less fortunate than ourselves?

I can only answer for myself. And, in the moment, the answer is, none of these. Of course not. Nor will I depend on the FDA, the USDA, or the random customs agent for protection against deceit. I will depend on my own best guidance and Its unfathomable power to negotiate me around the very real possibility of using inferior or harmful products. Just as this guidance has lead me throughout life to the most capable teachers and mentors for my next step, it has flawlessly connected me to the most upright, dependable, and innovative suppliers for my medical needs. And far more.

But let me be clear. This has nothing to do with Larry Horton’s street savvy or anything resembling personal will. Indeed, it has little to do with the efforts of ‘me’ at all. No, what’s being referenced here is a reliance on truth and awareness of where attention resides — to the best of my ability, at all times.

This, and Its continual verification of Itself, is how one successfully negotiates the minefield of the lower worlds. And, yes, it is a minefield!

So, to answer your question directly, Antonia, yes, our precious FDA and customs officials are continually testing, poking, prodding, holding up for indefinite lengths of time for unexplained reasons, the herbal medicines of foreign origin used in my practice, adding to their ultimate cost. We pay them for this, dearly, at a number of levels.

In responding to the needs of each client, I have been given a broad selection of tools. The most important, the herbal pharmacy, is stocked with powdered concentrates of individual herbs for making formulas, as well as concentrates of pre-made herbal formulas to address the issues I most commonly see. All of these are made in Taiwan, in pharmaceutical grade facilities, and overseen by a brilliant, dedicated, and hard-working family of Taiwanese health care professionals. Collectively, this family contributes more to the advancement of the state of Oriental medicine in the West than any other entity I know. Does each family member having a minimum of two professional degrees insure a lack of deceit? Of course not, but every exchange I’ve had with these individuals over the past two decades validates the quality of their character, their unwavering attention to detail, and their trustworthiness. But there’s more to the responsibility when they are buying from another source. I’m confident in the Chens’ leadership and oversight in that responsibility, and we sometimes discuss the details of that very demanding task. If you’d like technical details, this would be a good place to start.

I, personally, have been a beneficiary of their products for these decades, and they continue to serve my clients and me at a remarkable level, reflecting the owners’ focus on constant improvement of their products. Many of the above expressions of praise and trust are similarly applicable to all of my major suppliers. And I am immediately ‘on it’ if there are any faint glitches from any of them. Any weak links in the chain — from beyond their end to mine — are remedied, or eliminated, as quickly as possible.

  • Is all of the above true for all practitioners of Oriental medicine — in the U.S. or abroad? Hardly. But most practitioners are invested to some degree in doing their best for their clients.
  • Is all this described effort and intention failsafe? Not at all.
  • Is anything failsafe? Hah!

Hopefully, Antonia, this information adequately answers your question at the level from which it was requested. Shall we look a little deeper?

Your comment reflects a belief in governmental entities that can reliably insure the public’s safety from the unethical practices of individuals and corporate behemoths, especially those residing in developing nations. Your referral to a powerful government agency in this great nation of ours, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as an authoritative champion of public safety, is an interesting choice. Let’s take a closer look at this commonly shared assumption.

I trust you know where I’m going with this, but please bear with me.

Does it concern you that the FDA is populated and headed by an uncomfortable number of ‘retired’ pharmaceutical executives and yes-men to the likes of Monsanto? Does it bother you that these unelected political appointees (meaning, unanswerable to the public) and their bureaucratic underlings routinely push through approval for sale powerful, yet unproven, untested, often unnecessary, always toxic and sometimes lethal, patented, and highly profitable pharmaceutical drugs? And that this pattern of behavior consistently repeats itself year after year? I’d use much stronger language were I not being restrained by a higher respect — for you.

Are you not aware that it’s the FDA who habitually rubberstamps its approval for public consumption every genetically modified frankenfood the biotech industry dreams up in their lust for wealth, dominion, and power (regardless of public concern or comment)? Playing God with inadequately tested, highly questionable ‘new’ lifeforms with potentially devastating effects to human and planetary health? Not to U.S. consumers alone, but to consumers worldwide? Including those who don’t even consume them?

Did you know the U.S. Department of Agriculture bears a frightening resemblance to the FDA and acts identically via the same modus operandi? The quality of your question suggests, Antonia, that you probably do know these things.

But do you also know the FDA is routinely removing integrally important herbs from our pharmacopeia (by making them unavailable to us), based on the ignorant and/or unscrupulous use of these substances by Western practitioners? There is an agenda, Antonia, and if it’s not clear by now, I’m not sure we can have a conversation.

How, then, can you possibly cite the FDA as a protector of the public welfare in the face of contaminated products from China? How can you overlook the nutrient-empty, chemical soup filling grocery shelves and being sold daily to the American public, as food, with the blessing of the USDA and the support of federal subsidies? We’re not talking about just a few rogue individuals; this is the ‘state of the union’, Antonia. How can you hold all this up as an icon of purity and honesty in contrast to what comes out of China, a population coming out of a general state of poverty and wanting their piece of the pie at whatever the cost to human suffering?

I don’t think you can, Antonia. Because there is far more similarity than contrast. While we’re so close to a subject that’s part of your personal reality, have you really contemplated the possible causes of a worldwide explosion of Hashimoto’s and other auto-immune disorders — not to mention breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, etc., etc.? Would you blame China for that? Or could it be U.S. based transnational corporations who increasingly determine what the world breathes, drinks, and has for dinner?

Maybe these questions deserve attention. Or, in light of the next level, maybe not. Our next vantage point awaits our attention — deeper still.

The big picture is more than a little frightening, isn’t it? But are the above ‘facts’ — both your concerns, mine, and everyone else’s — really the big picture? For that matter, should those facts even be that startling? Of course, they’re disturbing to any ‘sane’ mind. Or, excuse me, is that an oxymoron? It’s the human mind, after all, that has manifested all of this. We collectively and individually create our reality. Your reality. My reality. The beauty, the greed, truth, hate, life and death. Our creation.

How can that be?

The conventional outlook of the human mind is essentially this: life is supposed to be a bowl of cherries. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that the overriding expectation of all human beings? Certainly in the developed world it is. That’s certainly how we behave.

And when the cherries aren’t apparent or turn sour, the mind goes, “Hey, what the…? Why is this happening?!” And by the end of life, this premise is really beginning to get our attention. Where were those promised cherries? I seem to have missed them! What’s the deal here? I thought…

Yeah, I thought. This is the human mind, thinking what it thinks, chasing its desires, its whims, its opinions, its unfulfilled dreams, too busy to stop and take a look in the mirror. Until the end, and then it’s, “Wait a minute here. Did I miss something? What is the point here?” And then comes the real moment. The moment of death. Only to discover we didn’t do too well, and we need to do it all over again. And again. And again. Ad nauseam, until we start to get the picture.

Ever see Bill Murray in Groundhog Day? It’s a funny and fanciful, but pretty accurate depiction of karma. It always amuses me that conversations with Bill Murray fans invariably reveal that they really don’t like this movie at all.

This ain’t no bowl of cherries, Virginia! This is boot camp. A training ground. Nor is it a “massive failure of humanity”. This is to be expected! No matter how challenging such a concept is to the human mind to accept, no cherries were ever intended by the divine. They don’t start showing up until a much higher perspective and faculty are gifted — the result of increasing degrees of sincerity.

So, what is a realistic expectation of this journey in the human body?

Precisely what we’re getting, Antonia. Precisely! It’s our creation.

This place, human existence, despite its occasional stunning beauty to the eye, or some huge gratification to a momentarily fulfilled heart, even the fleeting bliss of the apparent height of cosmic consciousness — in spite of all this, it’s a dump compared to what lies above. A realistic expectation until one is truly aspiring to such heights is precisely the disgusting traps you’re trying so diligently to avoid, Antonia. But not just you. All of us. No exceptions. If we’re here, we’re not home yet. And simply leaving the physical vehicle one more time is no passage home.

From the perspective of the Saints, this is a realistic perception of the lower worlds, our physical, momentary ‘reality’. And the exquisite, perfect, divine purpose of being here is that this very unbearable horror will, some day, some blessed lifetime, lead the thoroughly exhausted mind to surrender to the ineffable Love of such a Saint, Who will lead the awakening soul flawlessly to its true destination — a place beyond mind’s imagination.

So celebrate, Antonia, when you encounter despicable human behavior (including one’s own), when you experience revulsion for this speck of dust, when you’re aware of toxins in every breath, when soul feels the heart-crushing anguish of its incarceration — even the frustration of Hashimoto’s! You’re being led home. Step by step.

In the meantime, please, don’t let mind’s fear and contraction prevent you from acting to know, as it’s designed to do. The journey speeds up each time we bravely take such a step, knees shaking, clutching the hand of our highest guidance. It speeds up when we do that. And, Lord knows, we don’t want to linger.

May the Blessings Be.