Ginseng, bear bile: North Koreans look to old cures

Updated 05 May 2013
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Ginseng, bear bile: North Koreans look to old cures

The Man Nyon Pharmacy is lined with rows of colorful packages containing everything from dried bear bile and deer antler elixir to tiger bone paste and ginseng. But the ancient “Koryo” medicine provided at this popular dispensary isn’t just for minor aches and pains.
It has been integrated into the health system from the smallest village clinic all the way up to the nicest showcase hospitals in the privileged capital of Pyongyang. Both modern and traditional styles of healing have long been uniquely intertwined nationwide with doctors from both schools working in tandem under one roof.
North Korean physicians say many patients prefer traditional medicine to the Western kind, but it’s difficult to determine the true situation in this closed and impoverished society where access is limited. Defectors, foreign aid workers and North Koreans agree that many Western drugs are scarce and say villagers still forage for plants in some areas to make their own herbal concoctions.
With the UN Security Council imposing its toughest-ever sanctions following North Korea’s third nuclear test in February, patients may become even more dependent on these home-grown remedies in a country of 24 million people where government health spending ranks among the world’s lowest.
“Doctors are more interested in Koryo medicine rather than Western medicine because they can get it more easily,” said Ri Hye Yong, who manages the frigid concrete pharmacy opened by the government nearly three decades ago. “It’s much cheaper.”
Jang Jun Sang, a department director at the Ministry of Public Health, said in an interview in February that sanctions have cut imports of medical equipment and supplies. But he said North Korea was used to sanctions.
Traditional medicine is cheaper and easier to find. Walls of tiny wooden drawers similar to a library card catalog fill one vast room at Pyongyang Medical College, each containing hundreds of tiny paper triangles stuffed with dried herbs.
“I think Koryo medicine has mysterious characteristics,” said Dr. Ryu Hwan Su, the hospital’s deputy chief, who proudly displayed a jar filled with a fat ginseng root believed to be more than a century old. “It heals illnesses that Western medicines can’t treat.”
Traditional medicine is used widely in many Asian countries, including China, Japan and South Korea, where there is no shortage of modern treatment and equipment. And while scientific research regarding the benefits of some age-old treatments is lacking, therapies such as massage and acupuncture — which can also serve as a local anesthetic — are now widely used in the West.
Some North Korean clinics have their own greenhouses, and herbs are harvested every year in the wild to be processed into teas and other concoctions. The government says Koryo medicine is used to treat more than half the patients in rural clinics. But shortages exist too.
Patients are often prescribed a simple herb they are expected to get themselves, said Dr. Byungmook Lim, a professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University School of Korean Medicine, who co-authored a study comparing traditional medicine in the two Koreas.
The country began marrying traditional medicine with modern practice in the 1950s after the Korean War. Doctors were given training in Koryo medicine and each hospital was set up with a department devoted to it, with prevention as the guiding concept behind the socialized health plan. Unlike in other Asian countries where the two practices are typically kept separate, traditional practitioners in North Korea can prescribe modern drugs and assist during surgeries, while Western doctors can use Koryo treatments.
“We kept talking to each other and consulting each other,” said Kim Jie-eun, who graduated from a Koryo school with some modern training, and practiced in North Korea as a pediatrician and internal medicine doctor before defecting in 1999. She now runs a traditional clinic in Bucheon, South Korea, and recalls that even acupuncture needles were reused in the North. She said frequent shortages of antibiotics meant high-level officials got treated first, while ordinary patients struggled to find medicines.
“I was really angry. They were the same human beings,” she said. “How this could happen?“
But she believes combining the two types of treatment was actually better for patients. She said Koryo medicine — taken from the old name for Korea — was often used alone or in combination with Western drugs to treat a variety of health problems including stroke, hepatitis, high blood pressure, kidney disorders and diabetes.
And it’s still done today. At the new Breast Cancer Research Center at the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, a showcase institution where The Associated Press was recently taken on a tour, patient Ri Jong Suk said she was set to be released after having a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery.
She said during her one-month stay she was given Western medicine along with Koryo treatment, including massage and acupuncture, to help strengthen her immune system, decrease swelling and circulate blood after surgery. The Health Ministry also cites hot springs, mineral water and mud among successful treatments. Cupping is another popular therapy believed to stimulate blood flow by using heated glass jars to create a vacuum on the skin.
Many of these healing techniques are also commonly used in South Korea, which is rooted in the same ancient traditional medicine as its northern counterpart. But in that country, modern and traditional medicines typically operate independently, each with its own licensing and education system.


Take a healthy approach to the issue of nutritional supplements

Updated 21 April 2018
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Take a healthy approach to the issue of nutritional supplements

JEDDAH: There is a growing need for dietary supplements in Saudi Arabia, given the increasing popularity of junk food and the effective role supplements can play in treating diseases caused by mineral and vitamin deficiencies.

A recent study found that 22 percent of Saudi people take nutritional supplements. It is no surprise, then, that many Saudi businesses have forged partnerships with international dietary-supplement companies.

Dr. Rowaidah Idriss, a Saudi dietitian with a Ph.D. in nutrition, said dietary supplements can be defined as substances that provide the human body with a nutrient missing from a person’s regular diet. However, she stressed that they are not intended to replace healthy eating.

She also warned against taking them without first talking to a doctor or dietitian, as some products can have side effects, especially if taken before surgery or with other medicines. 

“They can also cause problems if someone has a history of certain health issues,” she added.

A blood test can determine which nutrients we are not getting enough of in our diet, and therefore which supplements might be beneficial. Nutritional supplements are also used to help treat certain health conditions. 

“Vitamin C, for example, is often used to reduce cold symptoms,” said Idriss. “Fish oil is taken to lower elevated blood triglycerides.”

She suggested four daily essentials that can bridge nutritional gaps in our diet: a multivitamin, vitamin D, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. 

“I routinely recommend a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement to my clients after consulting with their doctors,” she said. 

“For menstruating women, who require 18 milligrams of iron each day, a daily supplement helps boost iron intake.”

She said people over the age of 50 are advised to take a multivitamin to ensure they are getting enough B12, which plays a key role in the functioning of the nervous system and the development of red blood cells. 

“Older adults are more vulnerable to B12 deficiency because they are more likely to have decreased production of stomach acid, which is needed to release B12 from the proteins in food.” said Idriss. 

“It is also a good idea to take a daily multivitamin if one is following a low-calorie diet.”

She also pointed out that a high intake of DHA and EPA, the two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, are linked with a lower risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. A deficiency of DHA might also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. 

“A daily intake of 1,000 milligrams of both DHA and EPA is equivalent to eating 12 ounces of salmon a week,” said Idriss.

The dietitian believes that the Saudis who take food supplements often do so more to benefit their appearance than their health. 

“Saudi women consume more dietary supplements than other people in Saudi Arabia,” she said. 

“They do so either to lose weight or to care for their hair and nails. Bodybuilders also take large amounts of supplements.”

However, both groups, according to Idriss, tend to take supplements on the recommendation of friends and trainers, not doctors. 

She warned that commercials and social-media rumors can persuade people to buy supplements online that may not be approved as safe by the Saudi Food and Drug Authority, and advised people to get as much of their daily nutrient needs as possible from healthy eating.

Dr. Rowaidah Idriss

“Along with vitamins and minerals, a healthy diet provides fiber and hundreds of protective phytochemicals, something a supplement cannot do,” she said, adding that the body absorbs natural food more effectively than supplements.

In addition, combining supplements with medications can have dangerous, even life-threatening, effects. 

“Drugs for heart disease and depression, treatments for organ transplants, and birth-control pills are less effective when taken with herbal supplements,” she said.

“Taking an anticoagulant, aspirin, and a vitamin E supplement together may increase the potential for internal bleeding or even stroke.”

 

Natural sources

With the spread of fast-food restaurants and their alluring ads, the long-term health of the Saudi people is in danger, as children and young people snub natural sources of nutrients, such as fruit and vegetables. 

“This can lead to many deficiency diseases. Moreover, vegetarians can develop similar illnesses due to the absence of meat in their diet,” she said.
Dr. Ashraf Ameer, a family-medicine consultant, said the importance of nutritional supplements lies in treating mineral and vitamin deficiency, especially for pregnant women, growing children, diabetics, people with chronic diseases, and the elderly. 

“However, these products should come from reliable companies and meet Saudi food and drug requirements,”he added.

Mohammed Yaseen, who has a food supplements business, said his company works with a leading British health-care company to provide the Saudi market with high quality products.

“With this we hope we can contribute to the national transformation program by raising private-sector spending in health care from 25 percent to 35 percent, which in turn would lead to the sector’s financial sustainability and boost economic and social development in the Kingdom,” Yaseen said.

Decoder

Vitamin Terms

DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid. EPA stands for eicosapentaenoic acid.  Phytochemical is a biologically active compound found in plants.