Chinese Herb Frauds Debunked

Questionable Practices

Strange but True

Having practiced Chinese medicine for many years, we’ve heard tell of many unusual treatments. Assuming we'll be sympathetic to their forays into non-traditional medicine, our patients confide to us about their forays into odd alternative practices.  After all, what could be stranger than Chinese medicine, which may seem unusual, but has worked well for countless millions over many centuries.


Strange but False

Unfortunately, not all alternative remedies perform as advertised.  In fact, the following three strange remedies, extolled by some of our patients, are pure fiction. Best not confuse them with legitimate Chinese medicine.

Ear Candle Scandal

We’re not sure why these have sometimes been called Chinese ear candles, as they have nothing whatever to do with Chinese medicine. Many people have encountered them, and our guess is that quite a few people we know may have tried them, as our clinic used to sell them back in the 1980s, and we sold quite a few.  Fool that I was then, I couldn’t at first decide if they worked. After all, the purported science behind them seemed sound.

Ear candles are conical tubes made of waxed fabric.  You insert the narrow end of the tube in your ear while the wide end is lit on fire. It burns like a candle (hence the name), but much faster (and more dangerously).  In theory, the burning cone creates a vacuum in the tube that draws excess wax from your ear. After the candle is extinguished you can look inside the tube and, voila, there’s the nasty earwax sucked right from your ear.  So I tried them.

After candling for the first time I examined the large wad of wax.  I never imagined that my auditory canal was so clogged. Pretty impressive, actually it was a little too impressive.  

What made me suspicious was that the second time I tried them, a week later; they worked just as well, as they did the third time.  Hmm I thought, could I have that much earwax? Could anybody have that much earwax?

The common-sense answer to this is no way.  When I told Rodney (my colleague and co-author of this article) about my experience he laughed.  “Just try burning one of these candles away from your ear and see what happens.” Of course, what happens is that you’ll find ‘earwax’ no matter where you burn the candle.  As a matter of fact, when studied, the earwax turns out to be a mixture of candle wax and fabric. It’s sad that so many people are duped by this and continue to practice it.  We’ve heard of people actually becoming obsessed with their monstrous earwax production, thinking that it must be the cause of all their medical issues.

Ear candling is ineffective, but even worse, it can harm you.  Holding a lit candle close to your head is just not a good idea.  Melted wax could easily burn your face or even drip into your ear canal. Worse yet, you might  catch your hair on fire. There have even been reports of punctured eardrums.

In fact, excessive earwax production is very rare.  If your ears feel like they’re clogged, it’s probably because you suffer from “head dampness or phlegm”, a TCM condition which may result in swelling in the middle or inner ear.  There are internal Chinese herbs like BAN XIA and JIE GENG that can help with this. However, these herbs are usually taken in custom formulas. Consult with a TCM herbalist.

 Foot Detox Debunked

This “miracle” product allegedly pulls toxins from your body through the soles of your feet leading people to believe their body is full of toxins.

You can actually buy these at Walmart, so some people might think they’re actually legitimate.  You stick these patches on the bottom of your feet and leave them there overnight. When you peel off the pad in the morning, it’s turned an ugly brown or black color, which according to the manufacturer and gullible proponents, are the toxins that have been removed from your body.  Some patches are purported to contain Chinese herbs. Whether or not they actually do contain Chinese herbs is entirely irrelevant. They’re a scam, plain and simple.

The Federal Trade Commission has even charged some distributors of detox foot pads with deceptive advertising.   The National Council Against Health Fraud, considers detox foot patches to be consumer scams, noting that the most popular brand, Kinoki, was removed from the shelves by the FTC which filed suit alleging the marketer made false claims. Stephen M. Barrett, M.D., states, "All such products should be regarded as fakes, and the proposed mechanisms should be regarded as nonsensical."

Detox foot patches are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and therefore, can’t claim to treat or cure your medical condition. An April 2008 segment of ABC's 20/20 looked into two detox foot pad brands, Kinoki and Avon. The foot patches did indeed turn dark after use, but dropping water on the pad had the same effect. Furthermore, a laboratory analysis of foot patches used by volunteers revealed that no heavy metals, poisons or solvents were secreted into the used pads. The sole benefit of detox foot patches appears to be the placebo effect experienced by gullible consumers who believe they work.

Independent tests have also shown these to be phony, revealing the fact that used patches contain no more or less toxins than unused.  Any application of distilled water will cause the patch to turn black or brown, proving that the patches discolor through moisture (like from the sweat of your feet).  If you’ve used these products and feel they have helped, you’ve experienced a good example of the placebo effect. Ask yourself, is it really possible to pull out black toxins time and time again. While there are effective Chinese analgesic patches on the market that deliver herbs to skin and muscle layers transdermally, they work because of the herbal formula they deliver.  No patch will pull the bad stuff out folks, don’t fall for it.

In fact, many of us who practice Chinese medicine find ourselves cringing when our patients tell us about their detox or purgation treatments.  Many modern day practitioners of various alternative medicines have latched on to the idea that we are all toxic, because we live in a toxic world.  Actually this is very far from the truth. Though we are often reluctant to assert this to our patients who are convinced of their own toxicity, we know with certainty that ‘toxins’ are not the cause of most of their problems.   The signs of real toxicity are usually pretty dramatic, and that many symptoms attributed to toxicity are really caused by imbalance, poor flow, or deficiency. Purgation, fasting, and detoxification don’t address any of this, and by draining qi as well as toxins, can actually make people worse.

Of course there are complaints that are related to toxicity.  In fact we have an entire category of Chinese herbs devoted to ‘cleaning toxins’. Some of these herbs, like honeysuckle (JIN YIN HUA) or forsythia (LIAN QIAO), are very safe and can be used moderately without causing harm, but others, like isatis (BAN LAN GEN), or portulaca (MA CHI XIAN) are stronger and must be used with more caution, preferably under supervised guidance by a TCM practitioner.

Remember, the body is inherently self cleansing, and as TCM practitioners, we know what constitutes real toxicity and what does not.  We hope that the world’s naturopaths, chiropractors, and other alternative health professionals will learn this as well, because detoxifying people who don’t need it, can be ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.


The Great Gallstone Grift

We recently did an email consultation with a woman from abroad, who was seeking herbs to rid herself of chronic gallstones, which she believed was the cause of her “red eyes, hot head, cold hands and feet, migraines, stiff shoulders, lower back pain, muscle pain, stiffness of back of the neck muscles, muscle cramps, nervousness, abdomen gases, parasites, candida (vaginal), peptic ulcer, uterine fibroids, brittle nails and hair loss”.

Though gallstones can be a real and significant problem, there’s not a chance they could cause the litany of complaints listed by this patient.

She told us she was faithfully using a product called Oxy-Mag Gallbladder Flush to rid herself of the constantly recurring stones.  Apparently the gallstones kept recurring despite using the product over and over again. She was sure the product worked. Everytime she drank the Oxy-Mag powder dissolved in olive oil and lemon juice, gallstones appeared profusely in her stool.  Despite the photo she sent, showing multiple greenish yellow stones, we were suspicious. Gallstones simply don’t recur over and over again in this manner. So we asked her a few questions. How many times did she use the flush? “Maybe a hundred times”, she said.  How many stones were expelled with each flush? “Twenty or more each time”. How severe was the pain from the stones” “No pain at all”, she responded. Did the stones sink or float? They floated.

This was our response to her: “What you think are gallstones is a product of the oxy powder ingredients reacting with the olive oil. Though olive oil and lemon juice can occasionally flush real gallstones, these are always small and sparse. Yours are far too large and far too numerous to be real. Real gallstones sink, they don’t float.  Real gallstones hurt (very severely) when passed. Real gallstones disintegrate at room temperature and must be refrigerated to maintain their shape.” As we learned from our subsequent investigation, people have used this product and have been able to produce ‘gallstones’ outside the body.

This fake product produces green globules of fat and material that are expelled in the stool and resemble large gallstones. They are not gallstones at all. Just like ear candling and foot patches, repeated use results in so much foreign matter that the patient believes they are riddled with toxin, detritus, or disease when they are not.  The danger is that these products may delay diagnosis and treatment of the real cause of these symptoms.

If you’re concerned about gallstones, please consult with an experienced Chinese herbologist who can prescribe herbs that may actually help you shrink and pass your real stones.

If you find your practitioner using these therapies, you might raise the question of their legitimacy, educate the practitioner, or find another practitioner.



Copyright Shen Clinic 2018



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