Chinese Herbs & Drugs – Interactions & Alternatives

Recently I attended a seminar held by Dr. John Chen, a recognised authority on Western pharmacology, acupuncture, and Chinese herbal medicine. He writes extensively, researches and teaches at the University of Southern California (Professor at the School of Pharmacy) and has a private practice.

Dr. Chen’s knowledge and experience with Western drugs and Chinese herbs is vast and here is a summarised version of his lecture:

‘A lot of people take Western medicine medication for a range of chronic conditions. At times a Chinese herbal formula can be used giving much less side-effects. How do Chinese herbs work together with drugs/ which ones are contraindicated and which ones compatible. Could I safely take my prescribed drugs alongside Chinese herbs?
Here’s a rundown of some common conditions with the drug and herb interactions:

Gastritis/stomach inflammation: In cases with high stomach acidity, drugs such as Tagamet and Zantac are often prescribed and they are designed to inhibit stomach acid. Chinese herbal formula which clears stomach heat and calms the liver can be used 30min to 1 hour before the ingestion of the Western medication. This can lessen the dosage of the antacids because over time these drugs that reduce stomach acid levels can prove problematic.

Proton pump inhibitors such a Nexium work well for more serious digestive complaints, eg. GI bleeding/ulcers but lead to atrophic gastritis, a situation where the cells of the stomach cease to function, as normal acid needed for digestion is not being produced. Chinese herbs can be employed to clear stomach heat and repair the gastric mucosa. There are Chinese formulas that both treat gastric and peptic ulcers and also have an antibiotic action against the Heliobacter-pylori bug. Herbs can also repair aspirin induced damage to the stomach lining and help to protect the physical barrier against NSAIDS medication.

Constipation: Some drugs decrease the motility of the bowel by inhibiting the nervous system and decreasing peristalsis (such as antipsychotics), while drugs that are given for strong pain (opioids/codeine) tend to decrease bowel motions by drying up fluids in the large intestine. There are a couple of effective Chinese herbs to deal with this problem from medication, one particularly for the lack of movement (it works by acting as an irritant to the body, thereby need to eliminate quickly), the other works as an osmotic agent drawing water from the body to the intestines to increase fluidity and soften faeces.

Many herbs are antibacterial and antiviral: Huang Qi (or astragalus) is effective in fighting staphylococcus aureus which can take over when a person’s vitality is compromised. This herb can also work in combination with betalactam-resistant antibiotics such as ampicillin and amoxicillin. It was found in studies that the addition of this herb restored the effectiveness of these drugs against betalactam-resistant staphylococcus aureus and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus.

Cholesterol: A great many cholesterol lowering statin drugs are prescribed and there is at present much controversy about their use in preventing heart disease or strokes. Although most people do not suffer side-effects, there are a significant number of people who are suffering a wide range of side-effects such as muscle pains, renal and liver impairment, memory loss, dementia, sleep disturbance, and an increased risk of liver cancer from these medications. Studies show that the statin drugs have no benefit for most people subjected to them, and do not reduce the death rates in those without established heart disease. Chinese antihyperlipidemic herbs, of which there are many, bring down glucose and cholesterol levels, clear fatty liver, lower blood pressure, increase HDLs. Chinese herbs can be taken with cholesterol drugs, just as in other medications 1-2 hours apart.

Infertility: Clomid is a Western medication that works quite strongly to stimulate ovulation. Wen Jin Tang is one formula that can assist conception with women struggling to achieve conception naturally, and particularly anovulation (failure to ovulate). Clomid causes an unnatural surge in oestrogen and over time causes the ovaries to atrophy because of the strong hormones administered. A study done with 16 infertile women who did not respond to clomiphene nitrate alone were successfully treated with combination of the Chinese formula Wen Jing Tang and clomid. The study reported that 44% of the women experienced ovulation in 49% of the cycles, with no cases of ovarian hyperstimulation observed.

Depression & Anxiety: There are a great many herbal formulas designed to alleviate depression and reduce anxiety gently without becoming habit-forming. These often work spreading the liver qi and/or calming the heart and nourishing the spirit.

Hypertension: drugs can cause many side-effects. There are a number of effective herbal formulas and single herbs which are used for maintenance of healthy blood pressure.

Asthma: Chronic asthma can be managed by a few targeted formulas to support lung and kidney function, which may be preferable to long term corticosteroid prevention. With moderate to serious asthma, acute attacks are often better managed with Ventolin or related puffers.

Chemotherapy: often results in gastrointestinal side effects such as decreased motility/sluggish digestion or diarrhoea. This is a notorious problem as people are weakened even further by not being able to absorb nutrients, resulting in more fatigue and depletion. Chinese herb formulae can be chosen to strengthen the spleen and stomach, help treat diarrhoea and lessen the side-effects of chemo so that the drug and herb can interact favourably for the best outcome for the patient. Administration of a Chinese formula showed effectiveness in alleviating GI side effects associated with chemotherapy in a recent US study. There are a great number of formulas beneficial to support chemotherapy and radiation treatment which affects all systems of the body and leaves patients in a state of deficiency and exhaustion.’

As mentioned Chinese herbs and drugs can be used together by ensuring that there is a 1-2 hour gap preferably, or Chinese herbal formulae can be substituted in numerous conditions for gentler but still efficient management and favourable results.

Feel free to arrange an appointment with our TCM practitioners to discuss these options and both herbal and acupuncture treatment for any of the above.

Anne-Maree Hone
Acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist SNT