In the absence of indisputable scientific proof that herbal medicine works, there are stories like Xiaoyan Ma’s.
Ma, 65, once a philosophy professor at China’s Kaifeng University, lives in a nursing home in Toronto’s Wexford neighbourhood. He suffered a series of mild strokes beginning in the late ’90s, then developed diabetes and started to have seizures. In 2008, a feeding tube insertion punctured his stomach, misdirected food into his abdominal cavity and required emergency surgery. Afterward, he was bedridden and weak, his muscles atrophying.
His son Yuchao sought every treatment imaginable for his father: Western medication, massage, acupuncture, even spiritual healing.
Then he encountered a well-known traditional Chinese medicine doctor and acupuncturist named Shin Ri Ou, based in Japan. Ou sent him a special herbal medication with the consistency and colour of curry powder — a family recipe for people with stroke symptoms, Parkinson’s, dementia and other neurological problems.
After taking the medication daily for 16 days, Ma could move his once-stiff tongue freely. Within a few months, his blood sugar levels dropped. His mind seemed to sharpen — he finally remembered the difference between 100 and seven was 93, not 73 as he had been insisting for months.
Shaky but proud, Ma shows off his ability to stand for several minutes, hands planted on the corner of a desk, during a recent visit to the spartan apartment his wife and son share. When asked how he is feeling, he offers a sweet smile curled slightly to the left, and says, “Hao, hao.” Good, good.
A few weeks later, he starts to walk again, with assistance.
Ou, via Skype from Tokyo, says safflower and ginseng are key ingredients in the herbal formula: safflower acts like a blood thinner and can break up blood clots, while ginseng fortifies the “Qi,” giving energy to the weak.
Ma’s family doctor, Dr. Larry Bacher, doesn’t necessarily attribute his patient’s progress to Chinese herbal medicine or the acupuncture he is receiving regularly. “I’m not sure whether it’s the natural course of his illness or intervention that’s accounting for the change,” he says.
Still, the physician believes herbal medicine has potential if research continues on its efficacy, potential side effects and drug interactions.
“If it’s sensible and it works, why wouldn’t all of us use it?” he asks.