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What is a traditional medicine system?

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A traditional medicine system is a class of healthcare practices (and products) with a public and lengthy record of use. Throughout history, different societies have developed various traditional medicine systems to provide health care to its people. Over the course of time, these systems became the foundational structures underpinning basic health care practices. Each system is rooted in the respective society’s tradition, culture, religious beliefs, and formalized practices. For example, the different systems differ in their origin, governance, and the type of treatments employed to treat different conditions, ailments, and diseases. For the most part, there is a lacuna regarding the exchange of knowledge between systems around the world. This gap exists due to a myriad reasons, the most important being that the reservoirs of knowledge of these different systems are in different languages, making it nearly impossible to collate, harmonize, and interchange the knowledge in order to increase understanding of the different systems and improve and advance health care around the world.

The following lists the most common traditional medicine systems, in alphabetic order: (note: this list is not exhaustive)

Traditional medicine systems

  1. African traditional medicine 

The African traditional medicine system is an array of traditional medicine disciplines predominantly practiced in Africa by over three thousand tribes. Making the traditional medicine practices in Africa very distinct due to the different cultures, traditions, and religious beliefs throughout the continent. In Africa, it is estimated that about 80% of Africans rely on traditional medicine to meet their health care needs. The reliance on traditional medicine as a primary health care is due to a number of factors including accessibility, affordability, availability, and expertise. 

In most African cultures, an illness is believed to be caused by psychological conflict, spiritual factors, or disturbed social relationships that create a disequilibrium that manifest as physical or mental ailments and conditions. African cosmology (defined as how Africans perceive, conceive, and contemplate the universe) is also used to explain the threat to oneness of spirit, body, and soul (which is the mind, will, and emotions).   

  1. Ayurveda

Ayurveda is a holistic system of medicine developed from Indian philosophy, known as darshana. Indian philosophy has six schools of thoughts, namely, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. The foundations of ayurveda are Vaisheshika (or Vaiśeṣika) and Nyaya. Vaisheshika was first mentioned in literature in 150 BC and it places an emphasis on the inferences and perceptions that should be acquired about a patient’s pathological condition for treatment. Nyaya prioritizes collecting extensive data on the patient’s condition before administering the treatment.

Ayurveda theorizes that the entire universe is made up of five elements (air, earth, fire, space, and water), which form the three doshas of the body (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha). According to ayurveda, most diseases are connected with the psycho-physiologic and pathologic changes in the body which are caused by an imbalance in the three dosha. Furthermore, ayurveda believes that the body, mind, and spirit are connected to each other. The treatment of a disease deals with discovering the root cause of the disease in order to provide a permanent cure and immunity.  

Ayurveda is made up of eight major divisions, known as Ashtanga Ayurveda, which are: 1. Internal Medicine (Kayachikitsa) 2. Pediatrics (Kaumar Bhritya) 3. Psychiatry (Bhootavidya) 4. Otorhinolaryngology and Ophthalmology (Shalakya) 5. Surgery (Shalya) 6. Toxicology (Agada Tantra) 7. Geriatrics (Rasayana) and 8. Aphrodisiacs and Eugenics (Vajikarana

  1. Chinese traditional medicine

Chinese traditional medicine is a holistic and natural medicine system that originated in China five thousand of years ago. The treatment of diseases and disorders is based on the understanding of the universe as described in Taoism, the analysis and differentiation of symptoms, herbal medicines, and mind and body practices such as acupuncture, Tai Chi, massage therapy, and nutrition therapy.  

Chinese traditional medicine theory has eight major parameters that describe the patterns of disharmony in the body: yin and yan, external and internal, hot and cold, and excess and deficiency. There are additional parameters that are used, such as qi (the vital life force flowing through the body) and zang fu (organs).    

  1. Kampo

Kampo is the Japanese traditional medicine system. It was introduced into Japan in the 5th century from China via Korea and it initially was used by the members of the upper class society. It was only during the 15th that it was made available to the general public. During the Meji era (an era of radical disruption in Japan) a legislation was enacted that recognised  doctors of medicine (MDs) as the only certified medical doctors, making Kampo practitioners uncertified professionals. After which Kampo was removed from medical education. In 1967, the Japanese national health insurance began the coverage of Kampo, resulting in its integration to modern medicine. 

  1. Korean medicine

Korean medicine shares its origins with Chinese and Japanese medicine. From the earliest history until around the 19th century, Korea’s culture and politics were influenced by China. Around the 10th century Chinese traditional medicine was introduced in Korea via merchants and diplomats. The 13th century saw Korea’s medical practitioners making extensive efforts to develop their own traditional medicine system. The publication of the donguibogam (a Korean medical encyclopedia) in the 17th century prompted the merging of Chinese traditional medicine with the unique characteristics of Korea. This led to the divergence of Chinese and Korean traditional medicine that by the 20th century these were two distinct systems.     

Korea later introduced a school of medicine known as eight constitution medicine, which classifies individuals into eight types based on their congenital arrangement of organic strength: Pulmotonia (PUL), Colonotonia (COL), Renotonia (REN), Vesicotonia (VES), Pancreotonia (PAN), Gastrotonia (GAS), Hepatonia (HEP), and Cholecystonia (CHO).

  1. Shamanic medicine

Shamanic medicine is Siberian medicine that is practiced in northern Europe and Asia, and North and South America. The term shaman comes from the Tungusic languages spoken in Siberia and it describes a person that enters an altered state of consciousness in order to gain insights in order to help sick individuals. They use drums to facilitate the trance and to call on spirits. A shaman practitioner is called into the practice of shamanism. The knowledge of diseases, medicine, and treatment methods employed in shamanism is gained during the trance and through trial and error.  

  1. Siddha medicine 

Siddha, like ayurveda, has its roots in India. However, unlike ayurveda, it is unique to Southern India. In the Siddha system, matter and energy are two dominant and inseparable entities that shape the nature of the universe. Similar to ayurveda, siddha is made up of five proto-elements from the three doshas. Siddha is not widespread like ayurveda because it is not aimed at diseases, but rather health. It is primarily aimed at strengthening the body and activating it in certain ways.

In the siddha system, the diagnostic measures are carried out by examining eight sites, namely, pulse (nadi), eyes (kan), voice (swara), touch (sparisam), colour (varna), tongue (na), faeces (mala), and urine (neer).   

  1. Unani

Unani is Perso-Arabic traditional medicine system practiced by Muslims. The Unani system originated in Greece. It is believed that it was established by Hippocrates, a physician and philosopher. Later, Galen, a physician, writer and philosopher, further developed the system. Since then, Arabian scholars and physicians under the patronage of Islamic rulers of different Arabian countries have played a significant role in the subsequent development of the system.  

As a system, Unani was developed to harmonize different medicine systems practiced by Arabs, such as the magic-based medicine practiced by the nomadic Arab tribes known as Bedouins, ancestral medicine, and the Arab translation of Ayurveda.

References and further reading:

  • Cha, W.S., Oh, J.H., Park, H.J., Ahn, S.W., Hong, S.Y. and Kim, N.I., 2007. Historical difference between traditional Korean medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. Neurological Research, 29(sup1), pp.5-9.
  • Che, C.T., George, V., Ijinu, T.P., Pushpangadan, P. and Andrae-Marobela, K., 2017. Traditional medicine. In Pharmacognosy (pp. 15-30). Academic Press.
  • Chen, Y., Zou, J., Sun, H., Qin, J. and Yang, J., 2021. Metals in traditional Chinese medicinal materials (TCMM): A systematic review. Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, 207, p.111311.
  • Garodia, P., Ichikawa, H., Malani, N., Sethi, G. and Aggarwal, B.B., 2007. From ancient medicine to modern medicine: ayurvedic concepts of health and their role in inflammation and cancer. J Soc Integr Oncol, 5(1), pp.25-37.
  • Hewson, M.G., 1998. Traditional healers in southern Africa. Annals of internal medicine, 128(12_Part_1), pp.1029-1034.
  • Jaiswal, Y.S. and Williams, L.L., 2017. A glimpse of Ayurveda–The forgotten history and principles of Indian traditional medicine. Journal of traditional and complementary medicine, 7(1), pp.50-53.
  • Kanu, I.A., 2013. The dimensions of African cosmology. Filosofia Theoretica: Journal of African Philosophy, Culture and Religions, 2(2), pp.533-555.
  • Kuon, D.W., Eight-Constitution Medicine–An Overview. 2003; Seoul: Institute for Modern Korean Studies.
  • Park, H.L., Lee, H.S., Shin, B.C., Liu, J.P., Shang, Q., Yamashita, H. and Lim, B., 2012. Traditional medicine in China, Korea, and Japan: a brief introduction and comparison. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine, 2012.
  • Petri Jr, R.P., Delgado, R.E. and McConnell, K., 2015. Historical and cultural perspectives on integrative medicine. Medical Acupuncture, 27(5), pp.309-317.
  • Qiu, J., 2007. Traditional medicine: a culture in the balance. Nature, 448(7150), pp.126-129.
  • Romero-Daza, N., 2002. Traditional medicine in Africa. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 583(1), pp.173-176.
  • Ravishankar, B. and Shukla, V.J., 2007. Indian systems of medicine: a brief profile. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines, 4(3), pp.319-337.
  • Sindiga, I., Nyaigotti-Chacha, C. and Kanunah, M.P. eds., 1995. Traditional medicine in Africa. East African Publishers.
  • World Health Organization, 1978. The promotion and development of traditional medicine: report of a WHO meeting [held in Geneva from 28 November to 2 December 1977]. World Health Organization.
  • Yeung, W.F., Chung, K.F., Ng, K.Y., Yu, Y.M., Zhang, S.P., Ng, B.F.L. and Ziea, E.T.C., 2015. Prescription of Chinese herbal medicine in pattern-based traditional Chinese medicine treatment for depression: a systematic review. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine: eCAM, 2015.
  • Yuan, H., Ma, Q., Ye, L. and Piao, G., 2016. The traditional medicine and modern medicine from natural products. Molecules, 21(5), p.559.
  • Zhang, X., 1996. Traditional medicine and WHO. World Health, 49(2), pp.4-5.
  • Zhang, X., 2004. Traditional medicine: its importance and protection. Protecting and promoting traditional knowledge: systems, national experiences and international dimensions. Part, 1, pp.3-6.

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