The Kampo boom, traditional Japanese phytotherapy comes of age




Drugs_Clinical_Trials.jpgOf the many ancient holistic medical systems that have withstood the test of time, Kampo is one of the more successful ones, particularly in Japan. In a nationwide study of Japanese mainstream medical practitioners performed in October 2000, 72 percent regularly used Kampo medicines. Today, nearly 150 Kampo drugs are available for reimbursement under Japan’s National Health Insurance (NHI) program. Kampo is slowly making inroads into the West as well.

The roots of Kampo are embedded in Chinese medicine, having entered Japan between 700-900 AD, but since then it has evolved on its own. Although predominantly herb-based, there are instances of the use of acupuncture too. The most major ingredient in nearly two-thirds of leading commercial Kampo formulations is the Chinese liquorice root (Glycyrrhizae Radix), followed by ginger.

Today Kampo medicine is the focus of worldwide clinical research in an ever widening list of clinical conditions – Sho-saiko-to (H09) for the treatment of hepatitis C being researched at New York Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (phase II clinical trial), and in the treatment of hepatitis-C induced liver cirrhosis at the UCSD Liver Center. Kampo has been evaluated through placebo-controlled trials in the treatment of headaches, hypertension, fertility problems, insomnia, chronic fatigue, stress-related health problems, and numerous more trials are under way.

The boom in traditional herb therapy noticed in recent years across the world may be part of a greater holistic undercurrent that is prevalent in medicine, but more importantly, it is the realization that it is time modern medicine took a closer look at its folk roots. Folk medicine, as it is increasingly being realized, is much less harmful and more effective that the “traditional” pharmaceutical industry would lead us to believe, than many industrial chemicals to be found in modern pharmacopoeias.

  • Greetings from Japan.
    Yes, Kampo is a “Japanese invention” that has A LOT OF good things to offer. Yet, being a German acupuncturist with 25 years clnical experience in Japan, I believe there is a (serious) problem. The article states correctly “in October 2000, 72 percent regularly used Kampo medicines”. But MANY of these physicians precisely use Kampo, because it is a boom AND big business, without having had much proper training in the relevant concepts of Chinese medicine. In 1996 (I think) the use of “Sho Saiko To” in patients with chronic hepatitis resulted in about 11 deaths. Since then, the notebook published by the company Tsumura – strongly encouraged by the Health Minstry – includes a note written in red about the dangers of Kampo.
    Yet, these deaths were not due to “dangerous” Kampo medicine. They were the result of physicians trained in western medicine, who prescribed the Kampo drug based on the western medical diagnosis “hepatitis” – completely disregarding the fact, that Kampo is NOT prescribed for specific diseases, but rather symptom patterns.

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
See All Posts By The Author

Do not miss out ever again. Subscribe to get our newsletter delivered to your inbox a few times a month.