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A Chinese Look at Western Pharmaceuticals

By Z'ev Rosenberg
From Oriental Medicine Journal

Chinese herbs are described in terms of their energetic properties. An herb that enters the lung meridian that is warm and pungent will have the effect of relieving the lungs of Wind-Cold, by expelling phlegm, opening up the sinuses and relieving asthma. This sort of herb would be perfect for what we in the West call "catching a cold."

In this article, we will go in the other direction. We'll begin with common Western medications and describe their actions in terms of Chinese herbal properties to provide some perspective on how a practitioner of Chinese medicine can approach and understand their clinical use by other health professionals.

Valium (Diazepam)

Valium is an anti-anxiety, and anti-tension drug. It has sedative, and hypnotic effects, but over time, one can develop tremors, dizziness, headache, muscle cramps, nervousness, and renewed Anxiety. In other words, it can create the same symptom pattern it is designed to treat. So it has the contradictory effect of sedating, and yet causing restlessness. Valium sedates, and suppresses the liver yang and/or liver fire from a Chinese medicine point of view, but by suppressing rising liver yang or fire, Valium dries out the liver, creating a state of yin deficiency with heat which causes restlessness, tremor, irritability, and vertigo. The dry or cotton mouth and thirst with bitter taste is a clear sign of the hot, dry effect of Valium. Valium's strong sedation/relaxation response appears contrary to its nature of aggravating liver yang and heat. This is similar to alcohol, which is also heating (and damp), but has an initial relaxation response followed by agitation as heat builds up in the liver.


Like other hormones produced by the body, insulin is another transformation of jing/essence. Insulin is yin, sweet, and cold in nature, entering lung, spleen, and kidney channels, but activated by the kidney yang function. It is very connected to the yun/hua metabolic function, and therefore has a yang component as well. Diabetics without treatment tend to develop yin vacuity, in the upper, middle or lower burners (or combination thereof), so that a xiao ke/wasting and thirsting pattern tends to dry out the lung, spleen, or kidney yin. It is no surprise, then, that Chinese herbal treatment of wasting and thirsting pattern is generally composed of yin, blood, and sometimes qi supplementing herbs. When we receive diabetics as patients, however, the yin vacuity is 'masked' by use of insulin. If the Chinese medical physician (carefully) is able to delay an insulin dose, you will see yin vacuity signs come back quickly, such as rapid thready pulse, and red, shriveled tongue. Any type of hormone replacement therapy must develop side effects over time, because simple replacement of bodily substances does not take the complexity of the endocrine system into account. The body has a buffer reaction to any foreign substance over a period of time and even as yin builds up from insulin intake, the condition of the internal organs remains the same. Therefore, over a period of time, we see the development of blurry vision or loss of eyesight (liver yin, and blood vacuity), numbness, and tingling of the extremities (liver blood vacuity and congestion), impotence (kidney qi vacuity, weakening of jing/essence), and increased susceptibility to infections. Chinese medical treatment can help abate the development of these symptoms.


Progesterone as produced by the body increases in secretion between ovulation and menstruation (the premenstrual phase). According to Chinese medicine, yang qi is more exuberant at this time and the heat produced by increased kidney yang activity is apparent. Progesterone influences and regulates breast tissue, uterine muscle, and menstrual bleeding. Its side effects when taken as a hormone supplement are diverse and complex; an interesting one is bleeding of the gums. According to Chinese medicine, this would indicate stomach heat and possible 'vicarious menstruation,' the rising up of menstrual blood to the upper part of the body.

Either endogenous production or artificial supplementation with progesterone has been linked to premenstrual syndrome, with breast distention, irritability, depression, flu-like symptoms, and abdominal distention. From a Chinese medicine point of view, we can say that there is liver qi congestion and accumulation of damp/heat. In such cases, vaginal yeast infections, and/or candida may develop as well.

Progesterone can be classified as a warm, qi-raising medicinal that also has sweet, damp and congestive qualities. It tends to enter and accumulate in the liver and stomach channels, and disperses kidney yang and qi. Over a period of time, it will cause increasing kidney yang and qi vacuity and, as this develops, congestion of dampness, blood, and qi will increase from the inability of the qi mechanism to distribute this drug through the body efficiently.

It is highly preferable to use natural progesterone when necessary. Rather than trying to replace the endogenous hormone, natural progesterone give several natural hormone precursors from soybean, yam, and herbal extracts. The body then synthesizes hormonal material from these sources, and its intelligence and integrity remain unimpaired.


Side effects to this drug include skin rash, nausea, vomiting, and digestive upset and, most significantly, depression of renal function. Amoxycillin, used for a wide variety of bacterial infections especially of the respiratory and urinary tract, is very cold, bitter, and toxic; it enters lung, spleen, stomach, bladder, and kidney channels. Although accumulation of damp can follow the use of antibiotics, mainly by impairment of kidney and spleen yang functions (including destruction of the intestinal flora), long-term use of such bitter and cold substances can damage the yin as well, leading to yin vacuity heat over time. The original antibiotic, penicillin, was taken from mold/fungi cultures. Molds and fungi modify the human body's internal environment, leading to great disturbance of intestinal flora, digestion, immune function, and hormonal balance. Long-term allergies, candida, yeasts, and functional imbalances can develop from even short-term use of antibiotics. If they must be taken, they should be followed with acidophilus and formulas to strengthen spleen, clear damp, and regulate qi.


Vaccines are generally a problem in terms of their ability to overwhelm the body's natural defenses, even as they are designed to enhance immunity to specific pathogenic qi. DPT is a combination of three vaccines; it includes diphtheria toxoid, a poison emitted by the diphtheria bacterium, tetanus toxin, and pertussin. Pertussin especially is known to have potential toxic effects, such as neurological damage, high fever, or seizure. We can say that pertussin especially is hot, highly toxic, drying; it enters the liver channel, causing stirring of the liver yang.

According to Xu Da-cun, the body can effectively deal with only one pathogenic qi at a time. When given a combination vaccine, three different disorders are introduced deep into the body. The wei/defensive and qi levels are bypassed, and the pathogenic qi in the vaccine enters directly into the ying/constructive and xue /blood levels, there to incubate as hidden toxins indefinitely. Because of the direct introduction of pathogenic material into the blood and lymph, the body reaches a 'stalemate' with the vaccine, leading to a possible compromised immune system if it cannot deal adequately with this scenario. Vaccines are being introduced in increased quantities, closer time intervals, and at younger ages than before. Perhaps we should investigate vaccination methods to be more careful to protect the immune function, especially of young children. It is possible that abuses of vaccination may contribute to eventual development of autoimmune disorders, such as allergies, multiple sclerosis, and chronic fatigue syndrome.


This is a pair of `anticancer' drugs, used widely in lymphatic cancers. They are unique in that they were originally synthesized from a natural source, flos periwinkle (fl. vinca rosea). Given in purified form, often in combination with other anti-cancer drugs, they are highly toxic and can cause great damage to blood, qi, yin, and the viscera. Chemotherapy drugs in general are considered by Chinese medicine to generate 'hot toxins.' They destroy tissue, especially rapidly growing cells such as mucosa, hair follicles, and abnormal (cancer) cells. The most notable side-effects of vincristine and vinblastine are neurotoxic and myelosuppressive; influencing motor and neuron function, along with bone marrow depression. It therefore effects the xue/blood level and damages liver blood and kidney yin, yang, and jing/essence. It would be of great benefit to use herbs to supplement liver and kidney, and clear heat toxin if this drug is to be used with reduced side effects. One beneficial formula would be Modified Generate the Pulse Powder with Rx. Glehnae and Rx. Moutan (jia jian sheng mai san).

AZT (Zidovudine, Retrovir)

Originally designed as a chemotherapy drug for cancer, AZT has become famous as a treatment for AIDS, for its alleged ability to interfere with HIV replication. In recent months, AZT has become notorious for its vicious side-effects, most notably bone-marrow suppression and depression of solid blood materials (platelets, RBC, leukocytes). Therefore, it directly suppresses humoral immunity, considered as ying/constructive qi in Chinese medicine, as well as produces anemia (xue/blood level). Like other forms of chemotherapy, it is very hot and toxic; it will damage kidney yin, and yang as well as liver blood. If your patients are using this medication (usually with ddl and other strong drugs), herbs to build blood, yin, and kidney yang must be taken.


There's an interesting story about how lithium carbonate was discovered. People who went to bathe in certain hot springs reported spontaneous remission of depression, along with feelings of euphoria. Researchers then began analyzing the content of these hot springs and found that the natural salt lithium helped alleviate depression. Lithium is one of the trace minerals that is needed by the body in very small amounts. One of the dietary health problems that most people suffer from in America is demineralization. In my opinion one of the best defenses against illness is maintaining proper mineral content of the body (see "Minerals and Body Alchemy" in Oriental Medicine, Vol 3 #2). Trace mineral elements play a role in the conduction and maintenance of the qi flow of the body. The minerals possess subtle electromagnetic properties. Lithium as a medication is used to counteract manic depression. It appears to stabilize the ups and downs of mood swings. The taste of lithium is salty; its nature is cold; it enters the kidney meridian;, and has a descending action. In Chinese herbal medicine we use salts to bring other medication to the kidneys. If you want to tonify the kidney you combine a little salt water with the Rehmannia Six Pills. Lithium in modern biomedical practice is prescribed as a single salt in large doses in order to maintain a very strong suppressive influence on the psyche. This will lead to accumulation of lithium in the body if used over a lengthy period, with a buildup of fluids, increased clear urination, as well as a feeling of heaviness, dullness, and bloating. In my opinion, lithium may be more effective clinically when combined with other trace minerals in small amounts, along with herbs to strengthen the kidney and spleen yang functions.

Prozac (Fluoxetine)

This is one of the most widely praised and condemned medications, credited both with saving lives from suicidal depressions and causing homicidal behavior (almost in the same breath). Prozac is used primarily for conditions of panic disorder, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder. It's pharmaceutical category is that of a serotonin uptake inhibitor. Neurotransmitters are another expression of jing/essence, produced in the extraordinary organ, the brain. The substance of the brain is seen in Chinese medicine as being produced from marrow governed by the kidney. The neurotransmitters include aspects of both kidney yin and yang. As a result, Prozac influences the kidney yin and yang systems. Inhibition of serotonin release causes an internal accumulation and stagnation of serotonin. A Western understanding of the effects of Prozac stops with the inhibition of the serotonin neuroreceptors; but for the Chinese practitioner, the inhibition can then lead to a stagnation of fluids in the body, especially around the kidney and the brain. Prior to Prozac, other antidepressants suppressed norepinephrine as well as serotonin, which caused unwanted side-effects such as urinary inhibition, impotence, constipation, and severe dry mouth. In Chinese medicine these are clearly yin vacuity signs.

Prozac was originally proclaimed a "clean antidepressant:" that is, one with no side-effects. Even though Prozac wasn't supposed to influence norepinephrine uptake, according to pharmacist/acupuncturist Robert Zeiger it is a "dirty" drug; it has the same side-effects as the other antidepressants but they're more masked by a more sophisticated design.

One of the complaints about Prozac is a tingling, spicy taste in the mouth. In Chinese herbal medicine excessive doses of kidney yang tonics will produce a dry mouth with a pungent taste. The following side-effects of Prozac are now recognized as well: headaches (liver yang rising or dispersal of yang qi upwards from the kidney), nervousness and tremor (build-up of liver wind and yang); insomnia (agitation of the hun or shen, kidney and heart yin vacuity); reduced concentration (also connected with the kidney), and gradual development of Anxiety as Prozac consumes the yin. My experience with Western medications is that a major symptom being treated often reappears as one of the side-effects. Prozac seems to narrow the focus of an individual to the 'here and now,' reduce outside distraction as well as self-reflection on stored emotions or conflicts. This perhaps is the most controversial effect of Prozac; that it strongly influences the psychological orientation, effecting the very life-will of a person (the hun, shen, po, yi, and zhi may all be affected).

Other side-effects include abnormal dreams involving either the shen/heart spirit or the hun/ethereal soul. Hot flashes and palpitations are associated with kidney or liver yang rising with a deficiency of kidney/heart yin similar to what occurs at menopause. So Prozac acts to disperse the kidney yang upward and outward, showing 'opening orifice' effects (awakening the senses) . For those patients who are suffering immobilizing depression this may mean a feeling of increased energy and awareness. This would be a very different experience for someone whose depression is caused by repressed anger with an inability to express negative emotions. Chinese medicine considers this type of depression to be under liver qi depression/gan qi yu. Taking Prozac, in my opinion, would be a very negative experience for such a patient. It could easily lead to the violent symptoms described in courts and in lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies. In short, different constitutional types will react differently to Western medications, and appropriate cautions and contraindications should be listed.


There are problems with the use of pharmaceutical drugs as medicine. They work allopathically, attacking specific pathogens, tissues, or symptoms, but because of their synthetic origin, disturb the equilibrium of the body and mind. They are either extreme yin or yang and their therapeutic bandwidth is beyond that which the body/mind can absorb within the visceral or meridian structure. Without an understanding of individual constitutional sensitivity, there can be disastrous side effects. This is what distinguishes the approaches of Chinese medicine, which are designed to work within the therapeutic bandwidth of the dynamic human ecology, according to the special and unique characteristics of each individual case.


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