Herbal traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is used to treat several ailments, but its efficiency is poorly documented and hence debated, as opposed to modern medicine commonly providing effective therapies. The aim of this review article is to present a practical reference guide on the role of herbal TCM in managing gastrointestinal disorders, supported by systematic reviews and evidence based trials. A literature search using herbal TCM combined with terms for gastrointestinal disorders in PubMed and the Cochrane database identified publications of herbal TCM trials. Results were analyzed for study type, inclusion criteria, and outcome parameters. Quality of placebo controlled, randomized, double-blind clinical trials was poor, mostly neglecting stringent evidence based diagnostic and therapeutic criteria. Accordingly, appropriate Cochrane reviews and meta-analyses were limited and failed to support valid, clinically relevant evidence based efficiency of herbal TCM in gastrointestinal diseases, including gastroesophageal reflux disease, gastric or duodenal ulcer, dyspepsia, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn's disease. In conclusion, the use of herbal TCM to treat various diseases has an interesting philosophical background with a long history, but it received increasing skepticism due to the lack of evidence based efficiency as shown by high quality trials; this has now been summarized for gastrointestinal disorders, with TCM not recommended for most gastrointestinal diseases. Future studies should focus on placebo controlled, randomized, double-blind clinical trials, herbal product quality and standard criteria for diagnosis, treatment, outcome, and assessment of adverse herb reactions. This approach will provide figures of risk/benefit profiles that hopefully are positive for at least some treatment modalities of herbal TCM. Proponents of modern herbal TCM best face these promising challenges of pragmatic modern medicine by bridging the gap between the two medicinal cultures.
Keywords: Evidence based trials; Gastrointestinal disorders; Herbal traditional Chinese medicine; Traditional Chinese medicine.