Health

Animal products to avoid in Traditional Chinese medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine can help cure some ailments, but using endangered animal products has no proven medical benefits

In pursuit of well-being and health, many of us are open to all forms of cures - some more ethical than others.

While Chinese medicine has been around for centuries and has its benefits, remedies that involve animal products that

foster the illegal trafficking industry have to come to an end.

Not just because they are directly harming animals, but also because they are endangering them to the point of extinction, often with no proven medicinal benefits as well.

Here are five animal products used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) remedies that you are better off avoiding.

PANGOLIN SCALES

These nocturnal Pokemon lookalikes are on the verge of extinction, thanks to continued global demand for their scales and diamond-patterned skin.

What it promises: Said to be used to treat everything from inflammation to cancer.

Why you should avoid it: The pangolin is one of the most trafficked animals globally and continues to be a target for poachers in China and Vietnam. Its scales are prepared through roasting, cooking in oil or even urine to supposedly cure a number of ailments.

TIGER PENIS AND BONE

These beautiful creatures are fast dwindling - three of nine species have already been extinct for three decades - and the situation is not helped by the belief that their parts have a mythical (but unfounded) power to heal.

What it promises: Depending on the body part(from bile to whiskers, bone and penis), tigers have been touted as a cure-all for conditions such as insomnia and malaria or even bad skin and meningitis - and of course, they promise virility. Of late, the high calcium and protein content of their bones have been heralded as a tool to promote healing and reduce inflammation.

Why you should avoid it: Aside from the fact that the World Wildlife Fund estimates there are less than 4,000 tigers living in the wild, a lot of their supposed healing properties are mere fiction. In reality, their bones reduce inflammation as effectively as taking a dose of aspirin. And taking tiger's penis together with Chinese herbs for virility is no guarantee, so you are better off with Viagra.

RHINOCEROS HORN

This has been long prized for its beautiful translucent hue and used for both alleged medicinal and decorative purposes. While it has been removed from traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia since 1993, the demand remains.

What it promises: The horn's high keratin content has been its downfall, with poachers hunting down rhinos for their horn to ground into a powder to pass off as a remedy for fever and liver problems. Some even believe it helps to cure cancer.

Why you should avoid it: Today, the Javan and Sumatran rhinoceroses remain on the critically endangered list. That is because they have been perceived as a status symbol in countries such as Vietnam, where young high rollers like to spice up their drinks with rhino horn powder as they believe it can enhance sexual performance as well as cure a hangover.

BEAR BILE

Known also as xiong dan, bear bile has long been used in TCM remedies in the form of pills, powder or a liquid solution.

What it promises: Touted as a way to "reduce heat" and thus tackle swelling and inflammation, it has been used to dissolve gallstones and as a means to stop convulsions and deal with tapeworm issues.

Why you should avoid it: Aside from the fact that there are many modern and less harmfully obtained alternatives (such as the synthetically derived form of ursodiol), consider how bear bile is extracted - through a non-sterilised tube implantation to milk the caged (or metal clamped) animal to produce just 15ml of bile each time. This torture can go on for up to 25 years, or as long as the bear continues to produce bile.

SEAHORSE

Do not be surprised to see these little creatures on display at TCM shops in Hong Kong, the world's largest trading hub for this unusual species of fish.

What it promises: According to a CNN report, the medicinal benefits of seahorses have been around since 700AD, which explains why up to 37 million of them are caught every year. Dried, then mixed with herbs and served as a tea, the seahorse contains nourishing properties that have been touted to cure asthma, urinary problems, erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation. Being a low-cost remedy at US$5 (S$6.80) each does not help.

Why you should avoid it: While seahorses are not extinct, they are a threatened and protected species and are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international treaty created to ensure the global trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. If that fact does not deter you, it is said that long-term consumption of it may lead to kidney damage.

This article was first published in Shape (www.shape.com.sg)

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