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Is traditional medicine the future?

Is traditional medicine the future?

Is traditional medicine the future?

Ethnobotany is gaining more and more attention. You might ask: why would this information be of any use for me?

Because: Ethnobotany is the field of study examining the traditional use of plants by humans.

And in a world in which a growing proportion of people are afraid of classical pharmaceuticals, the global market for traditional medicine is expected to grow to 117 billion US dollars by 20241.

Despite all suspicions, this growth will not come from the expansion of traditional medicine in developing countries. Not at all! Western industrial nations, especially European countries, are causing this phenomenon. As early as 2016, they represented the largest market2 for traditional medicinal herbs.

But what makes traditional medicine so popular? What part of it is - simply put - superstition and voodoo folklore?


*This article uses Traditional Medicine synonymously with herbal medicine because we believe that traditional animal-based medicines pose a risk to biodiversity.


Facts: Most people have the wrong image in mind.

Traditional medicine is anything but a niche of the healing art. According to WHO data, more than 80% of people in Africa and Asia use traditional medicine as their primary health measure3.

Traditional medicine is defined as knowledge and practices based on beliefs and experiences of different cultures. It deals with the preservation and restoration of health. Although scientific medicine, often referred to as "Western medicine", saves lives through a worldwide network of physicians, many rely on traditional remedies for everyday life problems.

You probably think to yourself: This is certainly not the case in Europe! But you’re wrong.

What we call a "home remedy" here, herbal medicine or a simple cold remedy from grandma’s days is just as much a traditional medicine as the herbs and root powders from Chinese pharmacy shops in Shanghai or Singapore.

The following representatives are particularly popular in Europe. Chances are you have heard of them. Have you used them yourself?


Ancient wisdom from China 

TCM - or Traditional Chinese Medicine. We think of acupuncture, Qi Gong, herbs, teas, and crushed ivory, all serving to balance the magical power called Qi. TCM’s roots lie in 1st millennium B.C. China. After conquering China, this form of medicine spread over the entire Asian continent. Modifications such as Traditional Korean Medicine are based on its practices but are adapted to different geography and plants found there.

In China, the word "traditional" is omitted from the name. A distinction is made between Chinese and Western medicine.

The teachings of TCM are based on the perception of man being between the natural elements of fire, water, earth, metal, and wood.

The life force "Qi" (Chi) flows through all living things and can be influenced by the two forces, Yin and Yang. One strives for a balanced Qi through herbal preparations, acupuncture or meditative physical activities such as Taichi.


Yogis brought new remedies from India

The healing system Ayurveda (Sanskrit, knowledge of life), which originates from India, just like its relative from China, sees the human being as a unit to be balanced.

Here, too, the universe is perceived as an interplay of the five elements ether, air, water, fire, and earth. In living beings, three forces, the Doshas, are defined, each consisting of several of these elements. Kapha (earth and water), Pitta (fire) and Vata (air and ether) regulate all physiological processes in humans.

When all doshas are balanced, health is achieved. Imbalance leads to pathological symptoms. Ayurveda methods include a special diet based on the person's dosha, oil pulling, and meditation.


What do both have in common?

Since the common goal of the two systems is to restore balance, what they’re looking for is a systemic remedy. A medicine or treatment helping the whole body.

In Western medicine, this is often sought in vain.

Here, the departments of a hospital are already assigned to individual organ systems. Treatments are therefore very specific for acute problems, but it is difficult to recognize a whole-body or chronic disease.



Is traditional medication effective?

Although the theories behind the ancient healing systems seem strange and sometimes simply insane to modern people, their methods are nevertheless based on empirical values.

The explanations may be based on the view of the world at that time. However, herbal remedies can also be considered in the light of modern pharmaceutical research.

The best and most quoted example for this remains artemisinin5 from one year's mugwort. Used against malaria for thousands of years, it was isolated and tested in the 20th century. In order to combat malaria waves, the Chinese government commissioned intensive research on "new" malaria drugs, and pharmacologists first turned to history books.

The substance artemisinin found in this way is now recognized by the WHO as a malaria cure5 because its safety and efficacy could be proven. This list also includes acupuncture as an effective remedy for pain, high blood pressure or depression6.



How dangerous is treatment really?

Problems arise where no safe, effective intake can be confirmed, especially since the quality or origin of the "remedies" can often not be tracked.

Is the safety of a drug really based on empiricism? Or does its origin lie in religion and myths? As soon as all scientific key data can be clarified and the effectiveness of herbal medicine can be confirmed, it is, just like conventional medicines, a treatment measure.

Here, too, medication consists merely of organic molecules that can influence our biochemistry.

Just like that traditional medicine has been freed from the grip of voodoo and can begin its work. As it has been doing for millennia.

What is most important: it is now able to help modern medicine which is currently desperately looking for new drugs.


From tradition into the future?

More and more people in industrialized countries want a way to promote their health independently of pure disease treatment. Traditional medicine promises a way to more balance in stressful times.

Contrary to common belief, modern research does not see tradition as ridiculous humbug7. It only tries to test the efficacy and harmlessness of substances to free effective herbal medicine from its voodoo reputation. Dangerous substances, quackery, and poaching can thus be slowly eradicated.

A return to healing traditions is therefore positive from a scientific point of view, as there are many possibilities for new yet ancient drugs to be found.


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[2] See above.

[3] Bodeker C., Bodeker G., Ong C. K., Grundy C. K., Burford G., Shein K. (2005). WHO Global Atlas of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.


[5] Liao, F. Discovery of Artemisinin (Qinghaosu). Molecules 200914, 5362-5366


[7] Ekor, Martins. “The growing use of herbal medicines: issues relating to adverse reactions and challenges in monitoring safety.” Frontiers in pharmacology vol. 4 177. 10 Jan. 2014, doi:10.3389/fphar.2013.00177. 

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