A doctor explains why traditional medicines have not been widely adopted by Western medicine yet and why traditional healers still use them.
A Doctor’s Guide to Alternative Medicine (Lyons Press, 2014), by Mel Borins, uses scientific research to educate patients and physicians on which traditional medicines and therapies are worth trying, which aren’t and why, and how to use the effective ones safely. Written in clear, accessible language for the layperson while providing citations to full studies for the medical professional, Borins covers natural health products, herbal remedies, acupuncture physical therapies and psychological therapies. In the following excerpt from “Traditional Healing and Herbal Remedies,” from Section 1, Borins describes his encounters with various traditional healers and explains why Western medicine has resisted traditional medicines.
Do you remember your mother using a family remedy when you were ill as a child? Perhaps she gave you a glass of ginger ale when your stomach was upset, or, when you had a fever and swollen glands, she might have swabbed your forehead and throat with an astringent of witch hazel. Ever since recorded time, people have taken herbs for health. Western medicine tends to adopt a rather ethnocentric point of view, believing that our modern way must be the only “right” way, and we all know this is not true. When looking at the scope of human history, modern medicine is in its infancy; people have survived for thousands of years with traditional healing practices.
It wasn’t until I began to travel extensively around the world that I saw for myself how health care is (or isn’t) distributed to populations. The World Health Organization reports claimed that the majority of the world’s inhabitants do not have access to modern medicine and pharmaceuticals. Throughout India, Asia, China, Africa, and developing countries across the world, a shortage of physicians and medical centers, as well as the prohibitive cost of drugs and treatments, mean that accessibility, especially in rural areas, is almost nonexistent.
Some years ago, I decided to merge my love of long-journeyed travels with my sincere desire to become more familiar with the world’s approach to healing and health—what type of services there were and how much accessibility existed for people in different countries and cultures. I wanted to observe how doctors and healers in other countries worked with the resources they had. While we have made leaps and bounds in our knowledge about disease and the body, improved treatments, and designed surgical techniques, equipment, and preventive measures, we still have much to draw upon and learn from the apothecaries and practices of our ancestors.
So in 1981, my wife Bonnie and I set out again, only this time we took our three-year-old son, Larry, and we traveled for nearly ten months, going from Fiji and Raratonga to New Zealand, then up to Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. The Canadian government was instrumental in the success of our journey, putting me in contact with officials in countries where healing practices were outside the realm of Western medicine. Through these dedicated people, I was able to meet and observe healers of many different disciplines.
Of the traditional folk healers, I met bonesetters, herbalists, spiritual healers, and those that combined all three. Particularly in rural areas, these were the mainstay of health care and medicine, and they provided similar care to what a medical doctor does in our culture. In other countries, such as Japan, China, and India, I met medical doctors who practiced Western medicine, as well as those who worked within other well-organized systems of healing and medicine, some of which date back thousands of years. Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic, Unani, Siddha and other disciplines mirrored ours, with universities, medical schools, research facilities, hospitals, and outpatient clinics.
In many countries, where the majority of the population lives in rural areas but most physicians live in the cities, governments have come to recognize the advantage of using what is available locally. In Thailand, for example, the Ministry of Health developed and distributed a handbook with a chapter on indigenous herbs that would help to alleviate common medical problems—and they encouraged people to grow and use them. The health ministry thus capitalized on three main advantages of using herbs: They can be grown locally in remote areas; people trust their effects; and they generally require less medical supervision than drugs.
Traditional folk healers use herbal remedies that were handed down within families from one generation to another. They use the leaves, root, bark, berries, and flowers of natural growing substances to relieve symptoms, and they frequently ask their patients to gather the herbs themselves. The herbs are picked fresh and are usually combined into teas or concoctions.
Practitioners claim that although their method of preparation is somewhat primitive and slow, the natural substances in each plant maintain their activity and purity, and the essence of the herbs is not destroyed. The traditional practitioners that I interviewed in the South Pacific and India believed that Western synthetic drugs are not compatible with the human constitution. One of their major complaints was how modern physicians also apply Western concepts to ancient traditions when they use natural substances. The Western focus has been to isolate the active ingredient in plants and use this as the sole remedy. But processing deranges the plant’s basic cellular structure and this, the traditional practitioners believe, accounts for the problems and side effects that accompany the use of modern drugs. They believe the body repels synthetic drugs, resulting in many iatrogenic diseases (illness caused by a drug, treatment, or physician). They insist that by isolating the active ingredient in an herb, you go against the basic philosophy and traditions of healing.
In modern medicine we might use two or more drugs to treat a medical condition. For example, for congestive heart failure we might use a diuretic that acts on the kidney, an ACE inhibitor or digoxin that acts on the heart, and potassium to ensure there is no electrolyte (mineral salts) imbalance. Similarly, a traditional healer might use five or more herbs in combination, believing that each herb acts on a different organ system. The herbs are mixed together for the specific ailment and symptoms exhibited by the patient. Although the recipes are handed down from generation to generation, they are often altered to fit the constitution of the individual.
In India, the healing disciplines of Ayurveda, Siddha, and Unani use herbal formulas that have been passed down for hundreds of years. Journals of Ayurvedic and Unani medicine contain many articles describing double-blind studies of herbal formulas that have successfully treated conditions like asthma, vitiligo (loss of skin color or depigmentation), and rheumatoid arthritis. But many of these trials are ignored by modern medicine mainly because the trials were not done in western countries under controlled conditions.
Researchers in China have also published scientific studies that confirm the efficacy of herbs for many medical conditions. With more than five thousand kinds of Chinese medicinal herbs, more than seven hundred patent Chinese medicine factories, and more than fifteen hundred factories of Chinese herbal pills and decoctions, one can easily see that the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine is firmly established.
Many technologically advanced countries like the United States, Japan, Britain, and Germany are interested in studying herbal formulations to isolate the active and toxic ingredients. Pharmaceutical companies will then develop synthetic drugs that mimic the plant’s action. Although this research has helped to create more medications, it does little good for developing countries. The synthetic drugs are so expensive that people in developing countries can’t afford them. This doesn’t only apply to pharmaceuticals, as herbal companies are also becoming more sophisticated. Instead of manufacturing crude natural substances and mixing herbal formulations in the traditional way, they are mimicking the drug companies and producing expensive medicaments in controlled factory environments.
Japan’s Toyama Medical and Pharmaceutical University’s Research Institute for Wakan-Yaku [Oriental Medicines] has an extensive library, sophisticated research equipment, and both inpatient and outpatient departments for treating all kinds of diseases exclusively with herbs. When I visited the institute, Dr. Terasawa, a physician of Oriental medicines, explained that herbs seem to be most successful for disorders such as headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, chronic fatigue, and low energy. Not only do they give relief from the chronic pain of rheumatoid arthritis, neuralgia (nerve pain), and headaches, but the herbs seem to deal with the cause of the problem as well. Herbs are especially useful in patients who cannot tolerate conventional pain medication, and they have helped to alleviate chronic infections such as pneumonitis, chronic vaginitis, and recurrent urinary tract infections.
You may be wondering by now why we don’t incorporate more traditional herb remedies into modern medicine. It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But because modern medicine is based on science that involves experimental trials under controlled conditions, gathering and recording data, and comparing results, we have been slow to adopt folk traditions that have not been proven in western trials. Before western consumers can judge which herbal medications are effective, scientific trials need to be performed with crude substances as well as the extracts or synthetics. Yet because trials require a huge investment of time and funding, most of the time the pharmaceutical companies cannot afford to research herbs that they cannot patent to get a return on their investment.
It makes sense to me that herbal formulations that have seemingly proven successful for generations should be tested to support their continued use in their natural form. If we did this, people in developing nations could be encouraged to collect and grow the plants. We should also be collaborating with poorer countries to support their healing traditions and investigate their practices in a more scientific way—which might be better than using expensive, processed drugs. Collaboration between developed countries’ funding and scientific resources on the one hand, and underdeveloped countries’ generational knowledge, natural resources, and motivation on the other, has to be a win-win situation.
Another major concern for today’s world is that thousands of plants are becoming extinct each year. We need to ensure that great care is taken to preserve species that have served mankind for thousands of years. Herbs that have been used by human beings for such a long time have great potential for use by modern medical doctors. We should be teaching the uses, benefits, and side effects of commonly used herbs in all modern medical schools, and we need to encourage and support research that taps this age-old approach to medicine.
When people from older cultures come to North America, they bring their own belief systems and methods of healing; eventually they blend old practices and beliefs with modern medicine. Patients, especially those from Europe and Asia, will often take herbs before they visit their doctor. Some herbs are also prescribed by western physicians, such as ginger for nausea and senna for constipation. There has been a continual increase in the use of herbs by many segments of the North American population. For example, of 114 randomly selected patients attending a university-based AIDS clinic, 22 percent reported using one or more herbal products in the three months prior to the survey.
Learn about the echinacea herb: Read Examining the Echinacea Herb for more information about echinacera research and Dr. Mel Borins' thoughts on the herb.
From A Doctor’s Guide to Alternative Medicine: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why, by Mel Borins, M.D. Copyright © Mel Borins. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.