Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a collection of a broad range of healing practices sharing common concepts that developed over thousands of years in what we know today as China. These practices evolved long before the development of science-based medicine and include such pseudo-medical procedures as Gua Sha, Cupping, and acupuncture to name a few. Many attempts have been made to prove the validity of such practices but because, for the most part, they are based on superstitions and the metaphysical rather than evidence-based research, nearly all have been shown to be without merit. Despite this, the use of TCM has significantly increased here in the west – with TCM shops becoming common on the high street.
Although most people see TCM as complementary to orthodox medicine for those suffering relatively trivial problems, some market it toward those suffering from serious health conditions with the promise of helping with their symptoms or, in some cases, flat-out curing them. Although false hope peddling is commonplace here online, I wanted to see if the same opportunistic (almost predatory) approach to selling unproven medical products and services to the very ill is being practiced in the real world.
I turned up one sunny afternoon at my local TCM store and although I am not in the best of shape and a little on the pale side, I knew I would not be able to pass myself off as seriously ill and, no doubt, would fall at the first hurdle if I was asked any questions, so I decided that I would pretend to be asking on behalf of someone who was suffering from breast cancer. Before I even entered the store, an employee approached me and asked if I needed assistance. I told my lie of how I was looking to help a relative who had cancer, and was recommended a tea made from Cordyceps for the princely sum of £18.
Cordyceps are a group of parasitic fungi that were the inspiration behind the zombie-like creatures in the video game ‘The Last of Us’. After infecting their host, they can alter its behavior before replacing its tissue and spouting fruit that release spores into the air, hoping to infect others. The specific cordycep being sold here is called Ophiocordyceps sinensis, which infects larvae of ghost moths. Those who practice TCM believe this cordyceps can help with fatigue, diabetes and sexual dysfunction, to name a few, and also as a treatment against cancer. The fungus was investigated to see if any of these claims had any basis in reality and it was discovered that cordyceps might indeed have potential to be used in modern medicine. Research has shown that cordyceps have blood thinning properties and can stimulate progesterone production and reduce kidney toxicity from harsh medications. They have also shown that the fungus does indeed have anti-cancer properties.
One of the compounds isolated from the fungus and thought to be responsible for its anti-cancer properties is 3’-deoxyadenosine (Cordycepin). One proposed mechanism of action is that it can down-regulate MHC class II antigen expression, preventing the cell from evading immune response.
However, 3’-deocyadenosine is an adenosine derivative, and some enzymes cannot discriminate between the two – therefore, amongst other things, it can be incorporated into RNA molecules causing premature termination of its synthesis – resulting in unwanted side effects. This is the real danger associated with not just taking cordyceps but herbal remedies sold at your local TCM store in general. The remedies they sell, unlike pseudo-medical products such as homeopathy, actually contain active ingredients that will have an effect on your body. These herbal remedies have well documented herb-drug interactions and can be harmful to people suffering from certain medical conditions. For example, cordyceps should not be taken if you are diabetic and using insulin, as it can have an additive hypoglycemic effect.
Even if 3’-deocyadenosine (the active anti-cancer compound in cordyceps) was 100% effective and had no side effects, it still would be risky self-medicating using this herbal remedy, because you are unaware of the necessary dosage and are also ingesting thousands of other compounds contained in the infected larvae that may have negative effects.
So, in summary, stay away form TCM cancer cures because, in the best-case scenario, they will do nothing but rob you of your money or, worst-case, they may end up giving you even poorer health.