This is Your Sperm on Ancient Chinese Medicine

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Sorta transcript:

Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, is a load of garbage that I’ve criticized in the past for having little to no resemblance to Actual Medicine that Works, or AMW. So I was pretty surprised to see an article the other day claiming that “Ancient Chinese Medicine Outright Blocks Sperm From Egg.” Considering what we already know about TCM, and adding to that what we know about China’s notorious population control problems, this one really triggered some red flags for me.

According to the article, researchers at UC Berkeley identified several compounds found in plants that can stop sperm from wiggling their little tails hard enough to get to an egg. One of these compounds, lupeol, is found in mangoes and dandelion coffee, neither of which are used for anything related to contraception unless you’re really turned on by mangoes. But according to the article, the other compound is pristimerin, which is found in the “thunder god vine” that TCM customers have used for contraception.

I read the study, which didn’t mention TCM at all, so I was confused until I found a press release from UC Berkeley, which was clearly written by someone hoping to catch some eyeballs with a flashy headline, which is what people who write press releases are paid to do. And it worked, because the news definitely got around. The problem, as usual, is that it’s totally misleading.

“Thunder god vine” is an interesting plant with a lot of interesting compounds that have interesting capabilities that researchers are studying. One of the nice things about folk medicine is that if enough people take it for long enough, you can start to see some patterns. Like people chewing on willow bark and finding that sometimes it helps a little with pain, which led to scientists isolating and perfecting aspirin.

“Thunder god vine” is most often used arthritis, not contraception, because it has mild anti-inflammatory effects. But some women taking it long-term found that they stopped getting their periods, which makes pregnancy much more difficult. And some men who took it found that it decreased their sperm count. That doesn’t make it a reliable form of birth control in any sense, but it did tip off the researchers that it might be worth exploring what’s going on.

When they isolated the pristimerin compound, they found that that specific compound stopped sperm from swimming aggressively to push through cells and into the egg. By isolating it and studying it more, they might be able to come up with an actual reliable form of birth control using either that hormone or lupeol, which again is found in things that no one ever suspected could be contraceptives.

So that’s exciting, but it doesn’t deliver on the promise the headline made, at all. To make matters worse, the press release goes on to completely screw up its description of “Plan B” birth control. They claim that it works by stopping a fertilized egg from implantation, which isn’t true. Plan B prevents fertilization by stopping the egg from traveling down the fallopian tube in the first place. If that has already happened and the egg is fertilized, there’s a possibility that it might prevent implantation. However, that is not the primary way it works, and getting that wrong only plays into the hands of the Religious Right who want to ban contraceptives.

It’s unfortunate that the press release chose to focus on TCM, because the way more interesting finding, in my opinion, is that the researchers figured out something that might stop a woman from conceiving — both testosterone and hydrocortisone interfere with progesterone, the hormone that tells the sperm to start hustling to the egg. Because of that, a woman who is stressed out might have more trouble conceiving than someone who isn’t.

So it’s good, interesting science with a lot of potential for future uses. It’s just a shame that UC Berkeley’s PR department decided to go for inaccurate clickbait and lend credence to TCM, which is dangerous malarky.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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