Simon Stanley takes a closer look at Eastern Medicine in the 21st Century. Photo by Vinh Dao.
In October of this year, 84-year-old Chinese pharmacologist Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in recognition of the work she carried out almost half a century ago in a top-secret drug research project. Her name had, until recently, been held under lock and key by the Chinese authorities.
Her achievement has reignited the debate over traditional herbal medicine. After studying ancient Chinese remedies, Tu Youyou discovered the antimalarial known as artemisinin (a derivative of the sweet wormwood plant).
“It’s now the global standard for malaria treatment,” says the University of Copenhagen’s Associate Professor of Anthropology, Ayo Wahlberg. “[It] has saved millions of lives.”
While retaining the theories of traditional Chinese medicine – those of yin and yang, the balancing of hot and cold, the five elements, and the flow of ‘qi’ energy – Vietnamese herbalists some three or four hundred years ago began calling for a more ‘Vietnamese’ approach to medicine.
“The difference has to do with the fact that [Vietnam had] a tropical climate,” says Wahlberg. “The vegetation was different [to China], and their bodies, their constitutions, were more adapted to that. In some ways too, the emergence of Vietnamese medicine was [also] an attempt to come out of the shadow of China.”
Science meets Tradition
From 1945 onwards, traditional Vietnamese medicine (TVM) was again employed to assert national identity in the fight for independence, this time from the French, who had branded it anti-scientific and a threat to public health.
“We must build our own medicine,” declared President Ho Chi Minh in 1955. “Our ancestors had rich experience in the treatment of disease using local medications […] To enlarge the sphere of action of medicine, it is necessary to study means of uniting the effects of oriental remedies with those of Europe.”
According to Wahlberg, it is in these words that modern oriental medicine in Vietnam was conceived – an East meets West combination approach, where old and new were to be embraced in equal measure.
“This was an anti-colonial communist uprising,” he says. “But they were also firm believers in science and its power to transform society.”
Vietnam began standardising and modernising TVM, giving it fresh legitimacy in the wake of its former colonial master.
Wahlberg explains that the practice of combining traditional and modern methods (which is still entrenched in Vietnam’s healthcare policies today), is wholly unique.
“Within [Vietnamese] hospitals you always have a department of traditional medicine which will offer acupuncture and herbal medicine,” he says. “You don’t find this in any other part of the world.
“You can roughly distinguish between acute, life-threatening illnesses, which Western medicine has become very good at treating, and the more chronic conditions which very often Western medicines, quite frankly, don’t have a sustainable solution to.
“It’s in those conditions that herbal medicine and acupuncture become very relevant in a Vietnamese setting.”
Known throughout Vietnam as ‘The King’s Herb’ owing to its scarcity, the isolated active ingredients of this plant have only recently become available to the Vietnamese public. Branded and sold as Crila, the 100 percent natural remedy is now widely prescribed to treat prostate issues in men and ease menopausal symptoms in women.
Crila’s inventor, Dr Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tram, utilised methods of organic cultivation, modern production, and scientific validation to bring the once ancient remedy to a 21st century (Westernised) audience who are gradually waking up to its potential.
But like artemisinin, Crila is another exception to the rule as far as the global scientific community is concerned.
Inadequate trials, translation issues and confusion over the actual herbs being used continue to hinder the universal acceptance of many traditional medicines.
Cancer Research UK, for example, Britain’s leading cancer charity, states that there is currently no strong evidence to suggest that herbal remedies can treat, prevent or cure the disease.
Despite this, it estimates that 60 percent of those with cancer are supplementing conventional treatments with herbal remedies. A lack of ownership and control over their illness, it says, is often their reason for doing so.
As with Dr Tram’s development of Crila, Vietnamese pharmaceutical company FITO Pharma perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Ho Chi Minh’s vision, producing ‘modern traditional medicine’ by blending ancient Vietnamese remedies with modern, Western methods of isolation, extraction, scientific verification and mass production.
Curator of FITO’s Museum of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine in HCMC’s District 10, Hao Bui, explains how intimately linked Chinese and Vietnamese medicine are, to the point that one cannot often distinguish between the two.
“When Chinese doctors first came to Vietnam,” she says, “they found valuable herbs and useful plants which they did not have at home.
“So they took them back to their country to grow and gave them Chinese names. So nowadays, many people think that some herbal medicine ingredients are originally from China, but no, they are from Vietnam.”
Standing in the museum’s ornate shop, Hao guides me through some of the highlights of FITO’s product range, including a variety of organic teas currently being exported to high-end health stores and pharmacies in the United Kingdom and the Ukraine.
“Artichoke tea,” she says, holding up a box. “Very good for the liver, for detoxification [and hangovers apparently], and to help with allergies.
“Many people say that using Western medicine is best for treating allergies, but it has so many chemicals. This is made with natural ingredients.”
Next up, Hao presents FITO’s organic green tea with ginger. As a supposed ‘super food’ rich with antioxidants, the secrets of green tea are still being unravelled by scientists – some studies suggest it can decrease tumour growth. This blend packs a spicy zing.
“Ginger is warm,” she explains, referring to the traditional belief in balancing ‘cool’ illnesses with ‘warm’ remedies and vice versa. “It is for when you have a cold, or a stomach ache – it is very good for digestion or sickness.
“That is why we put ginger with seafood when cooking. Seafood, the sea, it is cold. This is ‘yin’. And so we add spices, the ‘yang’. We’re trying to find a balance.”
To really see the modernisation of traditional medicine, we move on to FITO’s organic herbal capsules.
“In the city,” says Hao, “people want to use Vietnamese medicine but they don’t have time or space to grow herbs in the garden or to boil them. So they can now use tablets.”
Yes, for those with such a busy schedule that even making a cup of tea is impossible, you can now pop a green tea capsule.
Although the jury is still out on the efficacy of traditional herbal medicine, there is clearly much more to be learned.
Drug companies like FITO, in conjunction with Vietnam’s ‘combination’ health policies, are surely the key to cracking its secrets in a modern, scientific environment.
“In the West, there’s an openness [to traditional medicine],” says Wahlberg, “but at the same time the scientific community will say that if you’re making a claim, it has to be tried and tested. But as with any drug it takes a long time. It’s not going to radically change Western health systems overnight.”.
The FITO Museum of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine is at 41 Hoang Du Khuong Street, Ward 12, District 10, HCMC. For more information visit FITOMuseum.com.vn