A Tale of Two Medicines: The Red Pill and the Blue Pill

As coronavirus ravages our healthcare systems, economies, and personal lives, we will be faced with difficult decisions. Shall we choose the blue pill or the red pill?

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W.carter, Red and blue pill, Wikimedia Commons

The Blue Pill

While the two pills represent any number of difficult choices, to begin let’s discuss the pills in the context of medicine. The blue pill represents modern medicine and its merits, abilities, and research efforts to find a treatment for coronavirus. Currently the blue pill is saving lives as courageous doctors, nurses, and health care providers work diligently to save people. I extend my deepest gratitude to everyone working on the front lines in hospitals and clinics around the world.

Within the blue pill are also the researchers that are doing their best to find a vaccine and treatment. With technology and advances in biochemistry and pharmacology, new knowledge is coming to light everyday about possible treatment options. Computer graphics are allowing researchers to see into micro-sized events that occur as coronavirus enters our cells through ACE-2 receptors. The collective knowledge of the blue pill, and its large budgets for research, testing, and clinical trials is impressive.

The Red Pill

Sitting quietly next to the blue pill, is the red pill. It represents the timeless experience of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and more generally naturopathy. For over 2000 years TCM has developed extensive experience in herbal medicine. Though often lambasted for being a pseudoscience or placebo, the fact is the red pill has vast knowledge, which has been validated by pharmacological sciences.

Before “experts” start criticizing herbal medicine in this time of desperate need, I want to remind you that many popular drugs originally came from plants. These include aspirin and morphine for pain, valium for sleep, quinine for malaria, taxol for cancer, coumarin and warfarin for the blood, and digitalis for heart failure. Exceptionally, the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Tu Youyou, for her novel treatment of malaria. The treatment was derived from a plant compound in Artemisia, which is commonly known as sage.

If a valid form of treatment for malaria can be found in sage, shouldn’t we also be researching what other breakthroughs await in the red pill? The US National Institute of Health Medical Library website, is full of credible studies that have identified many herbal medicines. I will go into more detail about this later, but first let’s consider some history about the red pill.

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ploen, BigStock Photo

A History of the Red Pill

TCM has a long history of at least 2000 years, and during that time there has been over 321 epidemics in China. Looking back across the last 109 years, there was SARS in 2003, H5N1 Bird Flu in 1997, the 1968 Hong Kong Flu, and the 1957 Asian Flu. In 1911 the Great Manchurian Plague swept through China and nearly became a pandemic. Extrapolating from these numbers, and considering zoonosis and Chinese cuisine, we can understand how China has had so many epidemics. The Black Plague also originated in China.

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Traditional Chinese Medicine Pharmacy, aussie 1948, BigStock Photo

In the 1600 and 1700’s Traditional Chinese Medicine developed what it calls the Fever Disease Theories. These fever disease models outline how infectious diseases develop and progress through various stages. The theories also specify how herbal medicines can be used for the various stages. Included in the writings are dozens of herbal formulas, drawing from over 500 herbs. A typical formula will usually contain between 4 - 12 specific herbs. Additionally, each formula has extensive lists of treatments, contraindications, and side effects.

The science behind many herbs has already been well established since the 1960’s and 1970's. Since SARS even more research was done on herbal medicines for infectious diseases, and Chinese doctors and researchers were quick to study what herbs could be effective for treating coronavirus. With SARS research, they identified several primary plants, and dozens of compounds that work in various ways to stop coronavirus. The activities of these medicines can stop viral entry into our cells, prevent replication, and inhibit the spike protein. Make no mistakes, Chinese doctors, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies understand how these herbs work. However, this is also where we enter into the matrix, wage war, and must come to terms with suppression, illusive agendas, profit driven corporate medicine, and dominating one-sided paradigms. Let’s start with waging war against the virus.

Metaphors of War Time Efforts

It’s said that we are at war with an “invisible enemy,” and this war is devastating our lives. If you become infected with coronavirus, your immune system will wage a war against the viral invader. Medicines against COVID-19 can also be conceived of in war like terms, and drugs work like members of the armed services. The blue pill — and prescription drugs — with their highly specific activities, are like sharp shooters that precisely target their enemy. Drugs may also be compared to A-bombs, as they work very quickly at killing off the invaders; however, with the A-bomb we must also consider collateral damage, as drugs often have adverse and severe side-effects. With such a serious war, many of us will gladly accept any collateral damage, if the benefits outweigh the harm.

As part of our armed forces, the red pill is like the army, so we must send large numbers of troops into combat. (Remember the blue pill is the sharp shooter that works with extreme precision.) However, with herbs their targeted action is more diffuse and subtle. Therefore, we must send more of them into action. Do we want a single sniper, or an army of troops? In war, both are necessary.

The herbal prescriptions used in China for coronavirus often contain between 6–15 herbs. Using a number of herbs in coordinated unison allows us to attack the virus from every angle. Though the herbs don’t necessarily have the power of the A-bomb blue pill, they work diffusely on multiple levels. The herbs are known to inhibit viral replication, modulate the immune system, and attack the spike protein. While the individual sniper blue pill is focused on one target, the army of herbs in the red pills attacks across all battlefronts.

Paradigms of the Blue and Red Pills — Mutually Exclusivity is NOT Required

In the paradigm of the blue pill and allopathic medicine, they take a reductionistic way of approaching the problem. The paradigm of the red pill is based on systems thinking, and understanding integrative and holistic mechanisms. Both pills have their own scientific systems and language, but the blue pill often insists it has all of the answers. This is directly related to its singular and exclusive way of thinking. When the blue pill berates the red pill, it’s as if it is condemning another for speaking a foreign language. If the red pill overstates its abilities, or fails to understand how the science works, it does itself a disservice in communicating with the blue pill. When the two pills fail to work together, they cost healthcare systems billions, and fail to prevent unnecessary suffering.

In the current pandemic the Asians were very quick to wear face masks. However, the blue pills in Western countries were slow to adopt wearing them. The red pill paradigm so common in Asia, has so far resulted in better containment and lower case numbers. While there are various factors contributing to this, face masks, efficiency with lockdowns, and herbal medicines have all played a role in overall better numbers in Asia. Of particular interest on the herbal medicine side, is a report from Dr. Tang Ying, the director of the Infectious Disease Department at a county hospital in Henan province. His hospital recorded zero infections among over 1000 hospital employees. How? The staff were required to consume herbs to modulate the immune system and inhibit the virus. The red pill appears to have worked in this hospital.

Within the paradigm of the blue pill is the pharmaceutical industry, which has come into question in recent years. From endless lists of side effects, oxycodone epidemics, to hardline business practices that place profit over lives, the corporate form of modern medicine needs to be re-examined. While also doing a lot of good, and helping people in many ways, there is much room for improvement in the blue pill model. Perhaps with coronavirus it is time to revaluate our healthcare system. We can make it more inclusive to proven alternative and integrative approaches that offer viable cost effective solutions. Currently a number of rigorously tested herbal medicines have been successfully used in China, but few people in Western countries even know these options exist. The matrix of allopathic healthcare has been successful at stamping out effective natural medicines, in favor of pharmaceutical drugs.

While we weigh the costs, strengths, and weaknesses of both pills, let’s not make the mistake of being confined to a single perspective. Neither do we need to transform the red pill into the blue pill. Herbs on their own are very effective. We need not wait for pharmaceutical blue pills to be made. Rather, let’s embrace the abilities of each pill to play its respective role in an integrative medical solution. There is room — and a dire need — for each form of medicine to be present in healthcare. Not only for coronavirus, but also for a variety of other health related conditions and diseases. Mutual exclusivity of the blue and red pills is not required, just an openness for the higher calling of medicine and humanity.

I’m a doctor of acupuncture and herbal medicine. I also teach yoga therapy, and enjoy writing on integrative medicine and health. www.ihsociety.com

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