This article contains general information only and does not recommend or endorse any particular treatment. It is not intended to replace the advice provided by your own doctor or medical or health professional.
Endometriosis is a condition affecting around 700,000 females that occurs when the tissue that is supposed to line the inside of the uterus exists elsewhere, like on the surface of the uterus, fallopian tubes or bowel.
In Western medicine, the female condition is treated with pain-relief medications, hormone therapies, the contraceptive pill or even surgery. But in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) circles a go-to treatment is a therapeutic herbal tea.
“My home remedy is a traditional Chinese herbal remedy that’s been passed down from generations through to my granddad. It helps with period pain and endometriosis.”
27-year-old, Joanna says her grandfather’s herbal concoction treated her cramping, diarrhoea and vomiting that she believes was caused by undiagnosed endometriosis.
“My home remedy is a traditional Chinese herbal remedy that’s been passed down from generations through to my granddad,” Joanna tells SBS. “It helps with period pain and endometriosis.”
Joanna’s TCM tea features in SBS's new series, Medicine or Myth? The show follows everyday Australians who pitch health remedies to a panel of medical experts in the hope that their alternative treatment will be selected for a real-world trial.
The TCM remedy proposed by Joanna consists of three Chinese herbs. The first is Psoralea fruit (called bu Gu zhi in Chinese), which is usually used with other herbs as a tonic for male reproductive issues. Next is liquorice root (gancao) that aims to alleviate physical pain and nourish deficiencies in energy or blood flow (also known as tonifying qi). The final ingredient is white peony root (bai shao yao) commonly used for menstrual disorders.
“[White peony root] acts to relieve pain and inflammation when there is a uterine infection,” says Joanna’s grandfather, Dr Yan – a Chinese herbalist with 60 years experience, who also appears on the show.
“So the white peony root helps to relieve the spasm. It cools the blood so you don’t have the spasm and then it causes the pain.”
“What’s important to understand is that in TCM, painful periods and endometriosis are symptoms [of an illness] rather than the causes."
To determine if the TCM remedy has value, the lead of the show’s expert panel, Dr Charlie Teo seeks the advice of a trusted source on the subject.
He visits the NICM Health Research Institute and speaks to Dr Mike Armour who has an Honours Degree in Biomedicine and is a Chinese Medicine practitioner specialising in women's health.
Dr Amour comments that the herbal tea proposed shows promise, confirming that the chemical constituents of liquorice root “has got this anti-spasmodic effects”.
“With [white peony root], again our lab studies show anti-inflammatory properties here.”
3-ingredient herbal brew: a medicine for endometriosis or myth?
Drinking a cup of herbal tea to treat a painful, chronic condition sounds much more relaxing than taking regular pain medication, hormonal treatment or having surgery. But can a cup of herbal tea really help women with endometriosis?
Brendan Meek, a Sydney-based TCM practitioner, says it’s possible that a TCM brew can help ease pain associated with endometriosis. But first, it’s vital to know the differences in the way western medicine and TCM approaches the condition.
He explains that endometriosis is a western medical label and not an actual term that is used in TCM. However, Chinese medicine practitioners believe that the health issue relates to energy and blood flow.
These may be "energy stagnation, blood stagnation, congealed cold or deficiency of energy and blood," says Meek, an acupuncturist accredited with the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society (ATMS). "You can have up to 12 combinations of these causes."
"A one-size fits all approach to treating everyone’s [pain] is rarely effective."
Meek says the herbs used in the three-ingredient remedy have anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic effects. But there’s no single magic bullet TCM tonic to treat endometriosis in all women.
“The formula looks quite positive in terms of treating the symptoms of pain and cramping. But when you reflect on Chinese medicine’s strengths, it’s all about treating patients individually. A one-size fits all approach to treating everyone’s [pain] is rarely effective.”
Naseema Haffejee, a registered acupuncturist and Chinese medicine herbalist, also clarifies that TCM does not cure endometriosis.
“But it has a good history of providing pain relief through herbs and acupuncture,” says Haffejee.
“In saying this, herbal formulas for endometriosis would typically include herbs that break up blood stasis, move blood and qi, remove inflammation and finally herbs that will protect and reinforce the body’s qi and blood.”
Haffejee says she wouldn’t prescribe the tonic presented by the show’s participant. This is because TCM remedies for health conditions not only vary from patient to patient but may differ practitioner to practitioner.
Both TCM practitioners add that Chinese herbal tea remedies are not to be taken lightly. The ingredients are often potent and complex. Always consult a TCM practitioner with expertise and qualifications and don’t try making your own remedy at home unless you are an experienced TCM herbalist.
Are alternative remedies simply a myth or do they have a place alongside modern medicine? Medicine or Myth? follows everyday Australians as they pitch their diverse and sometimes divisive health remedies to a panel of medical experts, led by Dr Charlie Teo, in the hope of being selected for a real-world trial.
#MedicineorMyth is an eight-week series airing Monday nights at 8.30 pm on SBS and then all the episodes are available on SBS On Demand.