Herbal Healing #3/4 ( By TIMEasia.com )

In 1995, Ryoo launched the Joins project to develop a new way of treating arthritis, which afflicts 10% of the world's over-60 population. Ryoo decided to submit traditional Korean herbal remedies to stringent tests based on Western scientific methods. "Western medicine can't completely cure arthritis because they don't know its exact cause," he says. Ryoo began by analyzing the causes of arthritis using traditional methods. His studies showed there were three major causes: "wind," "coldness" and "wetness." Imbalance in these three conditions, along with "dryness," is considered the root cause of all diseases in traditional medical practice. Ryoo then scoured the 600 herbs used for centuries in Korea, performing a long screening process that included tests on animals, and finally narrowed the field to three herbs. Ryoo combined them into a yellow pill the size of an aspirin and christened it Joins.

After some encouraging initial results, Ryoo decided to compare Joins with the toughest competition from the West, Voltaren, a powerful anti-inflammatory drug widely prescribed for arthritis. (In 2001, Voltaren raked in sales of more than $500 million for its Swiss manufacturer, Novartis.) Ryoo was sure Joins would produce fewer side effects than Voltaren, which can cause severe gastric problems, but feared it might not match up as a painkiller: "Comparing the efficacy of a herbal medicine with a chemical medicine like Voltaren is risky. Chemicals are like sharp knives: if you use them properly they will do their jobs perfectly, but if you miss your target, they might cause serious side effects. Herbs are like dull knives―they are not as swift, but they have fewer side effects."

Tests by five major Seoul-based hospitals showed Joins was as good a painkiller as Voltaren and did indeed produce fewer side effects. Ryoo now wants to prove that Joins can also protect the joints, curing arthritis instead of just relieving its symptoms. In vitro experiments conducted at Seoul National University and Cardiff University in Wales show Joins may reduce joint tissue degradation.

Of course, countless promising drugs have failed after cantering effortlessly through years of trials. But Ryoo's project shows vividly that traditional medicine's strongest advocates are now willing―indeed eager―to subject their cures to stringent scientific examination. Ryoo's method―creating a new formula from a combination of traditional herbs, then subjecting the result to clinical testing―is the reverse of most attempts to unlock the secrets of traditional medicine. The more common approach is taken by Singapore's Eu Yan Sang group. The company commissioned the Chinese University of Hong Kong to subject its best-selling product, Bak Foong or White Phoenix, to three years of scrutiny.

Bak Foong pills are made from a complex traditional formula with no less than 20 exotic ingredients, including flying squirrel feces, deer antler, black sesame seeds, essence of white-feathered chicken and cinnamon bark. Eu Yan Sang wanted to test the original concoction to see how it achieved its supposed benefits, which, aside from helping with menstrual pain, are also characterized by the company as "building resistance to colds, increasing blood and vital life force and settling extreme emotions."

Professor Chan Hsiao-chang, who led the study, says tests showed that Bak Foong pills help adjust estrogen levels, lower blood pressure and boost the immune system. While it's no miracle cure, it did prove to have a broad and benign effect on the body. That, she says, helps validate the basic principle of Chinese medicine: "to readjust and balance the elements in our bodies back to a normal and healthy level."

The question remains: How do traditional remedies achieve such results at the molecular level? Liu Jikai, a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Botany, China's premier center for the study of traditional medicine, thinks he has the beginnings of an answer. Liu, who holds degrees in both traditional Chinese and Western medicine, says the common thread running through the most effective traditional formulas is the high proportion of two classes of compounds: polyphenols and saponins. Polyphenols are famously found in wine, tea, chocolate and fruits, while saponins occur in a wide range of grains and vegetables from spinach to tomatoes.

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