Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has been around for thousands of years, and for good reason. It’s a holistic approach to health that can help you feel your best, both physically and mentally. But it wasn’t until recently that scientists started to uncover some of the underlying mechanisms behind its effectiveness.
One such mechanism is epigenetics, which refers to changes in gene expression that can occur without alterations to the DNA sequence itself. Epigenetic changes can be influenced by a variety of factors, including the environment and lifestyle choices. Interestingly, research has also shown that TCM can have an impact on epigenetics, making it a promising avenue for investigation.
What is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an alternative medicine system that has been used in China for thousands of years. It is based on the belief that the body is a complex system of energy (called qi) and that health is maintained when this energy flows smoothly along meridians (channels). TCM practitioners use a variety of techniques to help restore the flow of energy and promote healing. These techniques include acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary therapy, and exercise.
There is growing evidence that TCM can be effective in treating a variety of health conditions. For example, acupuncture has been found to be effective in reducing pain and improving function in people with arthritis. As well, herbal medicines are often used as an alternative for treating anxiety and depression.
However, TCM does not follow the conventional Western medical system, which seeks to identify specific pathogens or disease-causing agents and treat them with targeted therapies. As a result, health practitioners are cautious about suggesting TCM as a sole treatment method. Additionally, there may be concerns about the safety and regulation of TCM practices and products.
To validate the efficacy of TCM, more scientific evidence and clinical trials are needed. This is where epigenetic studies can help, as it has been found that epigenetic alterations can be mediated by natural compounds, as well as exercise and other non-drug-type therapies. Therefore, clearly describing these underlying mechanisms of TCM will no doubt benefit the search for novel agents in preventing and treating various diseases.
Epigenetic Studies and TCM
Several studies have investigated the effects of TCM on various epigenetic processes, such as DNA methylation, histone modification, and m6A RNA methylation. Many have shown that TCM can regulate gene expression to inhibit tumor growth, protect against cell damage, reduce inflammation, and improve cognitive function. While most of the studies are preliminary, understanding how TCM influences epigenetic mechanisms provides insight into how TCM promotes health and wellness. Below are some highlighted areas of study with specific research examples that have found a connection between TCM, epigenetics, and health benefits.
DNA Methylation Studies
DNA methylation is a well-researched epigenetic modification that involves adding a 5-carbon to DNA’s cytosine ring via DNA methyltransferases. It’s vital for gene expression and regulation, and faulty methylation can cause severe medical conditions like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. Scientists are exploring ways to either maintain or reverse DNA methylation as a new strategy for treating these diseases.
Natural compounds derived from TCMs, like curcumin and resveratrol, have been shown in studies to decrease levels of enzymes involved in DNA methylation, which can activate certain genes that help fight cancer. Additionally, green tea, commonly used in TCM, contains epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a potent phytochemical with anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. EGCG has been found to inhibit DNA methyltransferases, which can lead to changes in DNA methylation patterns and affect gene expression
In a study published in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine, researchers explored the efficacy of TCM herbs, including Astragalus membranaceus, Ligustrum lucidum, Panax ginseng, Rehmannia glutinosa, Scutellaria baicalensis, Trichosanthes kirilowii, and Zingiber officinale, for cancer treatment. The study demonstrated that these herbs induced DNA demethylation in cancer cells, leading to cell death. Moreover, they were found to modulate DNA methylation by inhibiting DNMTs and activating DNA demethylases. The researchers also suggested that combining these herbs with conventional treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy could potentially enhance their effectiveness. 
In another study published in PLoS One, researchers found promising results regarding the effectiveness of a TCM called San-Huang-Xie-Xin-Tang (SHXXT) in treating atherosclerosis. SHXXT is a combination of three herbs: Coptidis rhizoma, Rhei rhizome, and Scutellariae radix. The study revealed the positive effects of SHXXT on specific molecules and genes associated with atherosclerosis. Notably, SHXXT increased the levels of microRNA-152, a molecule involved in gene regulation. It also reduced the activity of DNMT1, an enzyme responsible for the maintenance of DNA methylation. Moreover, SHXXT increased the expression of a gene called estrogen receptor α (ERα), known for its protective role against atherosclerosis. These findings indicate the potential of SHXXT as a treatment to counteract the negative effects of atherosclerosis.
Research published in the journal Pain examined the effects of the TCM practice acupuncture in addressing chronic pain and its emotional and cognitive implications. The study utilized a mouse model of neuropathic pain and focused on the potential influence of this acupuncture on DNA methylation patterns in the prefrontal cortex. Over a 6-month duration, acupuncture effectively mitigated pain sensitivity, emotional disruptions, and cognitive deficits, leading to the restoration of DNA methylation levels. Notably, acupuncture reversed DNA methylation alterations in genes linked to pain, mitochondrial function, and neural processes, highlighting its potential positive impact through TCM-based epigenetic modifications and intricate molecular pathways.
Histone Modification Studies
Histone modifications are one of the main epigenetic mechanisms that regulate gene expression. Histone proteins are found in the nucleus of cells and are wrapped around DNA to form nucleosomes. Histone modifications can affect how tightly the DNA is wrapped around the histones, which in turn can affect how easily the DNA can be transcribed into RNA.
TCMs have been shown to modulate histone modifications in a variety of ways. For example, some TCM herbs can inhibit histone deacetylases (HDACs), which are enzymes that remove acetyl groups from histones. Acetylation of histones loosens the DNA around the histones, which makes it easier for the DNA to be transcribed. Other components of TCMs can directly modify histones by adding or removing chemical groups. Evidence has shown that TCMs that modulate histones can have therapeutic effects in the treatment of arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, as well as some skin diseases.