Asia Pacific

It’s Time to Rethink Our Approach to Medicine

As COVID-19 ravages our health-care systems, it is perhaps time to make them more inclusive to proven alternative and integrative approaches.
James Spears TCM, traditional Chinese medicine, herbal medicine, herbal remedies scientific evidence, Chinese herbal medicine, herbs to treat coronavirus, Chinese herbal treatment for coronavirus, traditional vs alternative medicine, using herbs in traditional medicine, COVID-19 treatments

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May 22, 2020 14:06 EDT

As the novel coronavirus ravages our health-care systems, economies and personal lives, we will be faced with difficult decisions. Shall we choose the blue pill or the red pill? While the two pills represent any number of difficult choices, to begin, let’s discuss the pills in the context of medicine.

The blue pill represents modern medicine and its merits, abilities and research efforts to find a treatment for COVID-19. Currently, the blue pill is saving lives as courageous doctors, nurses and health-care providers work diligently to protect people. I extend my deepest gratitude to everyone working on the front lines in hospitals and clinics around the world.  

The blue pill also encapsulates the researchers who are doing their best to find a vaccine and treatment for COVID-19. With technology and advances in biochemistry and pharmacology, new knowledge is coming to light everyday about possible treatment options. Computer graphics are allowing researchers to see into micro-sized events that occur as the coronavirus enters our cells through ACE-2 receptors. The collective knowledge of the blue pill and its large budgets for research, testing and clinical trials is impressive.  

The Red Pill

Sitting quietly next to the blue pill is the red pill, which represents the timeless experience of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). For over 2000 years, TCM has developed extensive experience in herbal medicine. Though often lambasted for being a pseudoscience or placebo, the fact is the red pill contains vast knowledge, which has been validated by pharmacological sciences.

Before “experts” start criticizing herbal medicine in this time of desperate need, I want to remind you that many popular drugs originally came from plants. These include aspirin and morphine for pain, valium for sleep, quinine for malaria, Taxol for cancer, coumarin and warfarin for the blood and digitalis for heart failure. Exceptionally, the 2015 Nobel Prize in medicine went to the Tu Youyou for her novel treatment of malaria based on her study of ancient Chinese medical texts. The treatment was derived from a plant compound in artemisia, which is commonly known as sage.

If a valid form of treatment for malaria can be found in sage, shouldn’t we also be researching what other breakthroughs await? The US National Institutes of Health Medical Library website is full of credible studies that have identified many herbal medicines. TCM has a long history, and during that time there has been over 321 epidemics in China. Looking back across the last 109 years, there was SARS in 2003, H5N1 bird flu in 1997, the 1968 Hong Kong flu and the 1957 Asian flu. In 1911, the Great Manchurian Plague swept through China and nearly became a pandemic. Extrapolating from these numbers, and considering zoonosis and Chinese cuisine, we can understand how China has had so many epidemics. The Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century also originated in China. 

In the 1600s and 1700s, Traditional Chinese Medicine developed what it calls the fever disease theories. These models outline how infectious diseases develop and progress through various stages. The theories also specify how herbal medicines can be used for the various stages. Included in the writings are dozens of herbal formulas, drawing from over 500 herbs. A typical formula will usually contain between four and 12 specific herbs. Additionally, each formula has extensive lists of treatments, contraindications and side effects.  

The science behind many herbs has already been established since the 1960s and 1970s. Since SARS, even more research was done on herbal medicines for infectious diseases, and Chinese doctors and researchers were quick to study what herbs could be effective for treating coronaviruses. With SARS research, they identified 10 primary plants and dozens of compounds that work in various ways to stop the virus. The herbs are known to stop viral entry into our cells, inhibit viral replication, modulate the immune system and attack the spike protein.

Make no mistake, Chinese doctors, researchers and pharmaceutical companies understand how these herbs work. However, this is also where we enter into the matrix, wage war and must come to terms with suppression, illusive agendas, profit driven corporate medicine and dominating one-sided paradigms. Let’s start with waging war against the virus.      

Wartime Efforts

It’s said that we are at war with an “invisible enemy,” and this war is devastating our lives. If you become infected with a coronavirus, your immune system will wage a war against the viral invader. Medicines against COVID-19 can also be conceived of in warlike terms, and drugs work like members of the armed services. The blue pill and prescription drugs, with their highly specific activities, are like sharp shooters that precisely target their enemy.

Drugs may also be compared to atomic bombs as they work very quickly at killing off the invaders. However, with the A-bomb we must also consider collateral damage as drugs often have adverse and severe side effects. With such a serious war, many of us will gladly accept any collateral damage — if the benefits outweigh the harm.  

Beyond the Placebo Effect


As part of our armed forces, the red pill is like the army, so we must send large numbers of troops into combat. However, the targeted action of herbs is more diffuse and subtle. Therefore, we must send more of them into action. Do we want a single sniper or an army of troops? In war, both are necessary.

The herbal prescriptions used in China for coronaviruses often contain between six and 15 herbs. They send an army of herbs into combat. Using a number of herbs in coordinated unison allows us to attack the virus from every angle. Though the herbs don’t necessarily have the power of the A-bomb blue pill, they work diffusely on multiple levels. While the individual sniper blue pill is focused on one target, the army of herbs in the red pills attacks across all battlefronts.

Mutually Exclusivity Is Not Required

The paradigm of the blue pill and allopathic medicine takes a reductionistic approach to the problem. The paradigm of the red pill is based on systems thinking and understanding integrative and holistic mechanisms. Both pills have their own scientific systems and language, but the blue pill often insists it has all of the answers. This is directly related to its singular and exclusive way of thinking. When the blue pill berates the red pill, it’s as if it is condemning another for speaking a foreign language. If the red pill overstates its abilities or fails to understand how the science works, it does itself a disservice in communicating with the blue pill. When the two pills fail to work together, they cost health-care systems billions and fail to prevent unnecessary suffering. 

In the current pandemic, people in Asian countries were very quick to put on face masks. However, the blue pills in Western countries were slow to adopt wearing them. The red pill paradigm, so common in Asia, has so far resulted in better containment and lower infection numbers. While there are various factors contributing to this, face masks, efficiency with lockdowns and herbal medicines have all played a role in overall better numbers across the region. 

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Of particular interest on the herbal medicine side is a report from Dr. Tang Ying, the director of the Infectious Disease Department at a county hospital in Henan province. His hospital recorded zero infections among over 1,000 employees. How? The staff were required to consume herbs to modulate the immune system and inhibit the virus. The red pill appears to have worked in this hospital. 

Within the paradigm of the blue pill is the pharmaceutical industry, which has come into question in recent years. From endless lists of side effects and oxycodone epidemics to hard-line business practices that place profit over lives, the corporate form of modern medicine needs to be reexamined. While also doing a lot of good and helping people in many ways, there is much room for improvement in the blue pill model.

Perhaps now is the time to reevaluate our health-care system. We can make it more inclusive to proven alternative and integrative approaches that offer viable, cost-effective solutions. Currently, a number of rigorously tested herbal medicines have been used in China, but few people in Western countries even know these options exist.

While we weigh the costs, strengths and weaknesses of both pills, let’s not make the mistake of being confined to a single perspective. Let’s embrace the abilities of each pill to play its respective role in an integrative medical solution. There is room — and a dire need — for each form of medicine to be present in health care. Not only for the latest coronavirus, but also for a variety of other health-related conditions and diseases. The blue and red pills need not be mutually exclusive. What is needed is an openness for the higher calling of medicine and humanity.

*[This article has been crossposted on Medium.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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