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The Silk Road's Future in Modern Medicine

Why is it that a single drug trial, of only 20 people that is performed in a clinical setting as a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, is given more validity over an herbal remedy with thousands of documented clinical cases, from numerous clinicians, over thousands of years from different parts of the world?  Similarly, why is that a newly developed substance is deemed safer because it has proven to have statistically negligible side-effects than an herb that has over two-thousand years of documented clinical use but has not been studied in the laboratory?  While the advances in modern medicine are numerous and remarkable, we are at risk of losing a long tradition of safe, practical, and efficacious medicines.

The Journey of Medicine Along the Silk Road

Blog1115_AncientMed_CamelFor thousands of years, commodities were traded across Eurasia along a series of routes known collectively as the Silk Road.  While its namesake points to one major product that was brought from China to the west, numerous other items and ideas including minerals, incense, animals, religions, people, and medicines traversed these routes via land and sea. Though all of these products shed light on world history, the trade of medicines and medicinal information has the potential to directly influence modern medical practices. 

One fascinating plant that has a long medical tradition, but has largely fell out of use is Myrrh.  “But I thought myrrh was an incense? “ Many comment, referring to the biblical story of three “wise men” bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Bethlehem as a gift for a child named Jesus.  Yes, myrrh was used as an incense. But it also was a medicine used by ancient Greeks and Arabs. And it was also shipped as far as China where it is still used in traditional medicine preparations today.

Myrrh begins its journey on the Arabic peninsula and the horn of Africa, in modern Yemen and Somalia. It quickly spread northward to Egypt and Greece where it was referenced for its medicinal value in the ancient writings of Hippocrates and Dioscorides.  While both texts give a variety of uses, two categories stand out, women’s health and traumatic injuries.  Myrrh even shows up in the Christian bible as a wine preparation offered to Jesus to numb the pain from the injuries during his crucifixion.

Blog1115_AncientMed_CamelLineThese usages were not confined to Ancient Greece and the Middle East.  Myrrh traversed to the ends of the Silk Road, entering China as early as the fourth century CE. By the twelfth century, myrrh was an established herb in Chinese medicine, appearing in all major texts thereafter. 

Myrrh’s use in traumatic injuries can still be observed in Chinese medicine formulas today, especially in topical formulas used in martial arts. These formulas are rubbed on the body to help with the healing of bruises and injuries from training.  While its usage in martial arts is still considered extremely effective, it is only one of its uses in ancient times.  Myrrh is found in many formularies and materia medica texts in Chinese medicine.  It shows up in two categories of formulary texts, women’s health and trauma, exactly the same two major categories in Ancient Greek Medicine. This means that not only did myrrh, the plant, traverse the Silk Road, but so did the information about its use in medicine! 

As we delve into the history of medicines and their trade throughout the world, we discover thousands of herbs, animals, and minerals that also traversed these routes. As these herbs exchanged hands across cultures, so did the knowledge associated with their uses.  Myrrh is simply one example.

Rediscovering Ancient Medicines

Blog1115_AncientMed_MapAncient medicines can have a direct impact on modern medical practices.  In 2011, researcher Tu Youyuo developed a “new” medication, artemisinin, for the treatment of drug-resistant malaria, after revisiting a fourth century classical Chinese medicine text. Even as recently as March of 2015, scientists used a 10th century anglo-saxon formula to effectively treat methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a type of bacteria that do not respond to conventional antibiotics.  These are merely two examples of the many possible modern applications of ancient medicine.

So why is myrrh and its history important?  Because we are losing this information.  In the modern medical world, where the gold standard of treatments are double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, we are forgetting thousands of years of clinical history!  While we must not discount the importance of our modern, scientific research methods, we also must use the information that has been handed down through history, and also re-discovery the information that has been or is at risk of being lost. 

Medicines such as myrrh stand out because they were traded thousands of miles and used throughout antiquity.  It wasn’t a local treatment for a rare disease, but a major medicine that found its way to the ends of Eurasia to treat common, yet difficult maladies.  While we should continue to look to clinical trials to further test and scrutinize our medical practices, we must not forget to look to the past, along the roads traversed by our ancestors, to learn from the writings left by these great doctors and healers of antiquity.

Dr. Sean Bradley ND, MSAOM, co-founded Seattle Asian Medicine & Martial Arts. He is a graduate of Bastyr University and is a member of the Bastyr University Research Institute. Dr. Bradley regularly works with doctors, scholars, and traditional healers in China to study Chinese medicine.

Photo Credit: Silk Road 1992 by fdecomite; 23 May 07 Dunhuang by Sand and Tsunamis; Map of the Silk Road, by Train, Eastbound by Simon Pielow

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