This article is over 13 years old


Discovering the Secrets in Old Cures

For 5,000 years, traditional Chinese medicine has relied on herbs and acupuncture to treat every type of illness. But these products aren’t widespread in the U.S. — mostly because Western doctors don’t really know how they work. Now, researchers at UT Health Science Center Houston are cracking open the ancient code. From the KUHF NewsLab, Melissa Galvez reports.


To embed this piece of audio in your site, please use this code:

<iframe src="" style="height: 115px; width: 100%;"></iframe>

Dr. Nathan Bryan is a professor at the Brown Institute for Molecular Medicine at UT Health Science Center Houston. But recently, he’s taken to grinding up herbs with an old fashioned mortar and pestle.

“This is Dan Shen, it’s actually tree bark. So what you do is you grind this up, and you can create a purified extract of it…”

Chinese herbs drawer openFor thousands of years, people in China and other East Asian countries have taken tree bark, flowers, roots, and even insects to treat everything from headaches to tumors.  In the US, you can get these treatments at traditional Chinese medicine stores, but they aren’t prescribed by Western doctors.  Bryan explains:

“The Chinese culture and Eastern culture have used these medications for over 5,000 years. But they haven’t penetrated the US market because no one knows how they work. We know they work, they’re quite effective, but without isolating the active compound in the traditional Chinese medicines, it’s tough to get FDA approval.”

So he and his researchers mixed traditional herbs used for heart problems, and then tested their nitric oxide output.  Nitric oxide is crucial for things like regulating blood pressure and fighting infections, but people who have cardiovascular disease have low levels of it. It turns out that these traditional Chinese herbs create nitric oxide, which fills in for what the body lacks. Bryan hopes that someday soon, the FDA will approve these compounds for use in treating patients.

(Sounds of Chinese music and a door shutting).

At the Oriental Herbs and Acupuncture Center on Bellaire Blvd, Cathy Tian weighs  what looks like mushrooms for a client.  She says this small store is one of the most famous in Texas, with more varieties of herbs than most others.

“500!  500!”

Dr. Lulin Lu is the doctor and acupuncturist there.  He’s studied both traditional and Western medicine since the 1940’s.  Tian explains that Dr. Lu prescribes a different set of herbs for each individual case.

“Doctor check your pulse, check your circulation, good or no good, and then doctor give you herbs.”

Dr. Llulin LuMichelle Tang moved to Houston from China over 10 years ago.  She came to Dr. Lu recently after the medications Western doctors gave her weren’t working.

“I lost my job like a month ago, and I was really devastated.  I couldn’t go to sleep for 5 days. So that Saturday I came to Dr. Lu’s office, and he did some acupuncture, and at night I also took some herbs, and that night I went to sleep immediately. So my mom said, ‘It’s magic!'”

Some people say magic.  Others, nitric oxide.

From the KUHF NewsLab, I’m Melissa Galvez.

This story first aired on September 17, 2009.