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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tibetan Medicine, Part II

Air Date: Week of

In the second part of our series on alternative healing, Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey explores the pitfalls of using a Western scientific approach to examine Tibetan medicine. A Western company is also marketing a form of Tibetan medicine, but some question how close to the real thing it is.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Tibetan medicine is a complicated system that takes a very different view of the human body, and the causes of disease, compared to its Western counterpart. Demonstrating how it works is difficult to do in terms that are easily understood by Westerners. But some California researchers are trying. In the second in our series on alternative healing, we look at Western attempts to assess Tibetan medicine. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports.

TOOMEY: If you want advice from a Tibetan doctor, you don't have to travel to the rooftop of the world to see one. At least not on this morning. All you have to do is walk into this New Age bookstore just outside of Boston. Go past the electric fountain.

(New Age music, and chimes)

TOOMEY: Pass under the ceiling dripping with chimes. And turn into a small back room, where for $50 you can consult with Lapsong Tensin Sowa, both monk and doctor. He's here on a fund-raising tour for his monastery in India. Dr. Sowa, short in stature and quick of smile, sits near a table piled high with dozens of plastic jars. Each container is filled with large pills made from rock and resin, fruit, and herb.


SOWA: [speaks in Tibetan]

TRANSLATOR: This medicine will help those who have a problem with wind element and blood. It balances their elements. So then, when it's playing an important role to move our bodies and supply energy to our channel.

TOOMEY: Channels balance a system of wind. This is the lexicon of Tibetan medicine, which defines illness as the state of imbalance among three humors, or principle systems in the body. The wind system Dr. Sowa speaks of deals with circulation, including that of blood and nerve impulses. The system of heat deals with metabolism, and the cold system governs the body's structure. Among a long line of patients today is Mark, not his real name. He's a computer programmer who suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome. Western medicine, he says, hasn't relieved the pain he experiences when using a keyboard. He's heard about Tibetan medicine and thought he'd give it a try.

MARK: I've already been through experiences of going for a quick remedy and finding out it wasn't what I had hoped for. And then having to go to a deeper level. When I heard the Tibetan monks were coming, it had a special appeal to me, because I know that there's something they can offer that's rare in this country.

TOOMEY: After an examination that included feeling not one but 12 pulses, the doctor had some recommendations for Mark.

MARK: He felt that I should not eat cheese, or hot food, spicy foods. He decided that the best course of action for me involved massage. So it ended up that he didn't prescribe any of his natural remedies. He felt that that wasn't necessary.

TOOMEY: Massage and dietary changes are a growing part of Western medicine, but cutting out spicy foods and cheese to treat a nerve problem may seem like a stretch. Mark's condition is painful and chronic, but the Tibetan doctor didn't think it required any pills. In Tibetan medicine, these are used as a last resort, only after dietary and behavioral changes have failed. So how would Tibetan medicine treat a life-threatening disease? That's what a group of scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, are studying. A Tibetan physician is working with them on the project. That's given UCSF professor Debu Tripathy the chance to observe the power of the Tibetan physician's diagnostic skill.

TRIPATHY: I've been very impressed by Dr. Dhondan's acumen in talking to someone very briefly, examining their tongue, taking their pulse, and making conclusions about their medical situation that I could never get from that straightforward an exam.

TOOMEY: The UC-San Francisco study will gauge the ability of Tibetan medicine to shrink tumors in about 30 women with advanced breast cancer. From a Western viewpoint, all these women have the same condition. But where the Western doctor sees one disease, the East sees many. For the Tibetan doctor, cancer can arise from numerous and very different imbalances. And it's these imbalances that dictate which customized combination of ingredients must be used to treat the patient. Again, Dr. Tripathy .

TRIPATHY: It's quite possible that certain genetic and protein characteristics of a tumor may correlate with some of the humor imbalances that a Tibetan physician might see.

TOOMEY: But there are problems in studying Tibetan medicine. In Western experiments, just one drug can be studied at a time. So with a nod to the Eastern system, UCSF researchers have allowed the Tibetan doctor to use seven formulas. Even so, he's had to reject some patients for inclusion in the study. He explained that their disease wouldn't respond to any of these seven medications. Dr. Tripathy says it isn't clear whether this compromise on the part of both medical systems will produce a valid study. But he hopes this research will at least help build a bridge between the two. He already sees links between recent Western discoveries and the Tibetan method of differentiating cancers.

TRIPATHY: We are now starting to individualize patients by molecular and protein characteristics, in the same theme, the same way that Oriental medicine has been doing this for centuries. So I kind of find it ironic that we are now following in these footsteps.

TOOMEY: But one company isn't waiting for the results of clinical trials. Herbert Schwabl heads up Padma, a company that's been selling Tibetan preparations in its home country of Switzerland for more than 25 years. Padma didn't ask any Tibetan medical school for permission to use these formulas. The company is using ones handed down from a Mongolian doctor, who traveled to the West in the nineteenth century.

SCHWABL: Tibetan medicine is not an old style medicine that only lives out of the past. It is really in Padma, Tibetan medicine is living today, also.

TOOMEY: Padma is now selling its so-called basic formula in the U.S. Mr. Schwabl says the supplement, a mixture of 20 ingredients, boosts the immune system and promotes healthy circulation. Mr. Schwabl says the company also wants to help organize and promote Tibetan doctors working in the West.

SCHWABL: We are Westerners. We know how the things work here. We have not a mission to make a better Tibetan medicine in a traditional way as the Tibetans can. They can do this in a perfect way. There's no need to help them there. But we can help them here with our know-how in the West, to work here and to help Western people who need Tibetan medicine. I think that's the point of Padma.

TOKAR: Tibetan medicine is not a pile of pills.

TOOMEY: Eliot Tokar is a New York-based practitioner of Tibetan medicine, and one of the few Westerners to have apprenticed with its physicians. Mr. Tokar is skeptical of Padma's approach. In seeking to profit from Tibetan medicine, he says, Western pharmaceutical companies could end up boiling down this ancient and complicated system into nothing but that pile of pills. And even those might not be authentic.

TOKAR: On the other hand, they might be based in traditional formulas, but then a lot of the herbs are changed. So when you take a traditional formula, even, and then bring it through some several stages of change, then you're selling it to people who don't even understand the traditional way that those formulas were used. In what way is that really Tibetan medicine?

TOOMEY: Small published studies carried out in Israel have demonstrated that Padma's formula helps patients who suffer from severely-blocked leg arteries. But Padma isn't marketing its product for this condition alone. The company advertises that its supplement will, quote, "keep baby boomers in the fast lane." Eliot Tokar says people could end up buying this product for any and every condition.

TOKAR: This is not good medicine. It's not good science. It doesn't help really many patients.

TOOMEY: Padma says it's not competing with Tibetan physicians, and if someone has the chance to see one of the handful of Tibetan doctors practicing in the U.S., it's an opportunity that shouldn't be missed. But Eliot Tokar cautions, Tibetan medicine can maintain its integrity as it develops here, but only through the careful and considered work of its individual doctors working with individual patients. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.



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