Danshen: Chinese medicine for strong bones

My vocabulary has a new word: danshen. That’s the name of an old herb, used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for over two thousand years to treat such diverse issues as hypertension, stroke, angina, heart attacks, diabetes, chronic renal failure, and bone healing. The plant, also known as red sage, is the Asian cousin of the common sage in western kitchens.

I’ve never explored traditional Chinese medicine; however, I’m convinced that a nutritious diet from healthy soil must be our foundation for good health. And it’s clearly no accident that our food supply is enhanced by flavourful ingredients – like onion, garlic, ginger, chilli, and many herbs – that bring us significant healing benefits in small doses… like good medicines. So why shouldn’t some of the Chinese herbs – perhaps even all of them – be in that group? As a wise man said in Sirach 38:4, “The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible person will not despise them.

I find it very exciting, then, when the pharmaceutical world takes cues from what grows in the soil, and that’s what this story is about. For awhile drug companies have tried to develop osteoporosis drugs that block an enzyme called Cathepsin K (CatK), because that enzyme has the effect of breaking down collagen to weaken our bones. But to date the clinical trials have failed because of disturbing side effects like stroke, skin fibrosis, and cardiovascular issues. Serious fails.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia guessed that the root problem was these drugs were blocking all the effects of CatK – both the bone disease-relevant functions as well as its benefits throughout the body. That’s why the side effects were so severe. So they extracted a compound from danshen that they found can block CatK only in bone tissue, while allowing it to work in other parts of the body.

So far, this danshen extract has just been tested in mice, but early results are excellent: the treated mice gained 35% bone density, compared with the control group, without the troubling issues that have stymied the drug companies.

OK, I’m not a mouse, and neither are you. It’s really your bones and mine that I’m concerned about. But this is a very promising development that points to good news ahead. In the meantime, if western medical researchers are interested in what the Chinese know, why shouldn’t I be? Maybe I should find out what danshen can do for my bones…the way the Chinese use it.

There’s an old expression: “You learn something new every day.” In my experience, that’s not universally true. There are dull days when nothing new comes along. There are also people who appear to have stopped exploring new ideas long ago. But my good days – the truly lovely ones – always feature learning something new. Today that is the word danshen, which is infused with hope and promise.



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