Traditional medicine (also known as indigenous or folk medicine)
comprises medical aspects of traditional knowledge that developed over
generations within various societies before the era of modern
World Health Organization
World Health Organization (WHO) defines traditional
medicine as "the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices
based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to
different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance
of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or
treatment of physical and mental illness".
In some Asian and African countries, up to 80% of the population
relies on traditional medicine for their primary health care needs.
When adopted outside its traditional culture, traditional medicine is
often called alternative medicine. Practices known as traditional
medicines include Ayurveda, Siddha medicine, Unani, ancient Iranian
medicine, Iranian (Persian), Islamic medicine, traditional Chinese
medicine, traditional Korean medicine, acupuncture, Muti, Ifá, and
traditional African medicine. Core disciplines which study traditional
medicine include herbalism, ethnomedicine, ethnobotany, and medical
The WHO notes, however, that "inappropriate use of traditional
medicines or practices can have negative or dangerous effects" and
that "further research is needed to ascertain the efficacy and safety"
of several of the practices and medicinal plants used by traditional
medicine systems. The line between alternative medicine and
quackery is a contentious subject.
Traditional medicine may include formalized aspects of folk medicine,
that is to say longstanding remedies passed on and practised by lay
people. Folk medicine consists of the healing practices and ideas of
body physiology and health preservation known to some in a culture,
transmitted informally as general knowledge, and practiced or applied
by anyone in the culture having prior experience. Folk medicine may
also be referred to as traditional medicine, alternative medicine,
indigenous medicine, or natural medicine. These terms are often
considered interchangeable, even though some authors may prefer one or
the other because of certain overtones they may wish to highlight. In
fact, out of these terms perhaps only indigenous medicine and
traditional medicine have the same meaning as folk medicine, while the
others should be understood rather in a modern or modernized
Similarly, a home remedy is a treatment to cure a disease or ailment
that employs certain spices, vegetables, or other common items. Home
remedies may or may not have medicinal properties that treat or cure
the disease or ailment in question, as they are typically passed along
by lay people (a practice that has been facilitated in recent years by
Botánicas such as this one in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, cater to
Latino community and sell folk medicine alongside statues of
saints, candles decorated with prayers, lucky bamboo, and other items.
1 Usage and history
1.1 Classical history
1.2 Medieval and later
1.3 Colonial America
1.4 Modern usage
2 Knowledge transmission and creation
3 Folk medicine
3.1 Home remedies
4.1 Safety concerns
4.2 Use of endangered species
5 See also
7 External links
Usage and history
Medicine in ancient Greece and
In the written record, the study of herbs dates back 5,000 years to
the ancient Sumerians, who described well-established medicinal uses
for plants. In Ancient Egyptian medicine, the
Ebers papyrus from c.
1552 BC records a list of folk remedies and magical medical
Old Testament also mentions herb use and cultivation
in regards to Kashrut.
Many herbs and minerals used in
Ayurveda were described by ancient
Indian herbalists such as
Sushruta during the 1st
millennium BC. The first Chinese herbal book was the Shennong
Bencao Jing, compiled during the
Han Dynasty but dating back to a much
earlier date, which was later augmented as the
Yaoxing Lun (Treatise
on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs) during the Tang Dynasty. Early
recognised Greek compilers of existing and current herbal knowledge
include Pythagoras and his followers, Hippocrates, Aristotle,
Dioscorides and Galen.
Roman sources included Pliny the Elder's Natural History and Celsus's
De Medicina. Pedanius
Dioscorides drew on and corrected earlier
authors for his De Materia Medica, adding much new material; the work
was translated into several languages, and Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew
names were added to it over the centuries.
Latin manuscripts of De
Materia Medica were combined with a
Latin herbal by Apuleius
Platonicus (Herbarium Apuleii Platonici) and were incorporated into
the Anglo-Saxon codex Cotton Vitellius C.III. These early Greek and
Roman compilations became the backbone of European medical theory and
were translated by the Persian
Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, 980–1037), the
Rhazes (Rāzi, 865–925) and the Jewish Maimonides.
Medieval and later
Medicine in medieval Islam and Medieval medicine
of Western Europe
Arabic indigenous medicine developed from the conflict between the
magic-based medicine of the Bedouins and the Arabic translations of
the Hellenic and Ayurvedic medical traditions. Spanish indigenous
medicine was influenced by the Arabs from 711 to 1492. Islamic
physicians and Muslim botanists such as al-Dinawari and Ibn
al-Baitar significantly expanded on the earlier knowledge of
materia medica. The most famous Persian medical treatise was
Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine, which was an early pharmacopoeia and
introduced clinical trials. The Canon was translated into
Latin in the 12th century and remained a medical authority in Europe
until the 17th century. The
Unani system of traditional medicine is
also based on the Canon.
Translations of the early Roman-Greek compilations were made into
Hieronymus Bock whose herbal, published in 1546, was called
Kreuter Buch. The book was translated into Dutch as Pemptades by
Rembert Dodoens (1517–1585), and from Dutch into English by Carolus
Clusius, (1526–1609), published by Henry Lyte in 1578 as A Nievve
Herball. This became John Gerard's (1545–1612) Herball or General
Hiftorie of Plantes. Each new work was a compilation of existing
texts with new additions.
Women's folk knowledge existed in undocumented parallel with these
texts. Forty-four drugs, diluents, flavouring agents and emollients
Dioscorides are still listed in the official
pharmacopoeias of Europe. The Puritans took Gerard's work to the
United States where it influenced American Indigenous medicine.
Francisco Hernández, physician to
Philip II of Spain
Philip II of Spain spent the years
1571–1577 gathering information in
Mexico and then wrote Rerum
Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus, many versions of which have been
published including one by Francisco Ximénez. Both Hernandez and
Aztec ethnomedicinal information into the European
concepts of disease such as "warm", "cold", and "moist", but it is not
clear that the Aztecs used these categories. Juan de Esteyneffer's
Florilegio medicinal de todas las enfermedas compiled European texts
and added 35 Mexican plants.
Martín de la Cruz wrote an herbal in
Nahuatl which was translated
Juan Badiano as Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis
Latin 241 and given to King Carlos V of Spain in
1552. It was apparently written in haste and
influenced by the European occupation of the previous 30 years. Fray
Bernardino de Sahagún's used ethnographic methods to compile his
codices that then became the Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva
España, published in 1793. Castore Durante published his Herbario
Nuovo in 1585 describing medicinal plants from Europe and the East and
West Indies. It was translated into German in 1609 and Italian
editions were published for the next century.
In 17th and 18th-century America, traditional folk healers, frequently
women, used herbal remedies, cupping and leeching. Native American
traditional herbal medicine introduced cures for malaria, dysentery,
scurvy, non-venereal syphilis, and goiter problems. Many of these
herbal and folk remedies continued on through the 19th and into the
20th century, with some plant medicines forming the basis for
At the turn of the 20th century, folk medicine was viewed as a
practice used by poverty-stricken communities and quacks. However,
synthetic or biomedical products have been questioned by some parts of
Western society, allowing for interest in natural medicines. The
prevalence of folk medicine in certain areas of the world varies
according to cultural norms. Some modern medicine is based on
plant phytochemicals that had been used in folk medicine.
Researchers state that many of the alternative treatments are
"statistically indistinguishable from placebo treatments".
Knowledge transmission and creation
Indigenous medicine is generally transmitted orally through a
community, family and individuals until "collected". Within a given
culture, elements of indigenous medicine knowledge may be diffusely
known by many, or may be gathered and applied by those in a specific
role of healer such as a shaman or midwife. Three factors
legitimize the role of the healer – their own beliefs, the success
of their actions and the beliefs of the community. When the claims of
indigenous medicine become rejected by a culture, generally three
types of adherents still use it – those born and socialized in it
who become permanent believers, temporary believers who turn to it in
crisis times, and those who only believe in specific aspects, not in
all of it.[verification needed]
Elements in a specific culture are not necessarily integrated into a
coherent system, and may be contradictory. In the Caribbean,
indigenous remedies fall into several classes: certain well-known
European medicinal herbs introduced by the early Spaniard colonists
that are still commonly cultivated; indigenous wild and cultivated
plants, the uses of which have been adopted from the Amerindians; and
ornamental or other plants of relatively recent introduction for which
curative uses have been invented without any historical
Rights of ownership may be claimed in indigenous medical knowledge.
Use of such knowledge without Prior Informed Consent of or
compensation to those claiming such ownership may be termed
'biopiracy'. See Commercialization of indigenous knowledge, also the
Convention on Biological Diversity
Convention on Biological Diversity (in particular Article 8j and the
Curandera performing a limpieza in Cuenca, Ecuador
All cultures and societies have knowledge best described as folk
medicine. Although there is large overlap, the denotative and
connotative definitions differ. Folk medicine often coexists
with formalized, education-based, and institutionalized systems of
healing such as Western
Medicine or Great traditional medicine systems
Unani medicine, and Chinese medicine, but is
distinguishable from formalized or institutionalized healing
Some examples of strong informal and to some degree institutionalized
folk medicine traditions are: Traditional Chinese medicine,
traditional Korean medicine, Arabic indigenous medicine (source of
Unani medicine, along with ancient Greek medicine), Haitian folk
medicine, Uyghur traditional medicine, Various African herbal folk
remedies, Celtic traditional medicine (in part practiced by the Irish
medical families), Japanese
Kampō medicine, traditional Aboriginal
bush medicine, Georgian folk medicine, and others.
A home remedy (sometimes also referred to as a granny cure) is a
treatment to cure a disease or ailment that employs certain spices,
vegetables, or other common items. Home remedies may or may not have
medicinal properties that treat or cure the disease or ailment in
question, as they are typically passed along by laypersons (which has
been facilitated in recent years by the Internet). Many are merely
used as a result of tradition or habit or because they are effective
in inducing the placebo effect.
One of the more popular examples of a home remedy is the use of
chicken soup to treat respiratory infections such as a cold or mild
flu, and according to one in vitro study, there may be benefit from
this use. Other examples of medically successful home remedies
include willow bark tea to cure headaches and fevers (willow bark
contains salicylic acid, which is chemically similar to
acetylsalicylic acid, also known as aspirin); duct tape to help with
setting broken bones; and duct tape or superglue to treat plantar
Kogel mogel to treat sore throat.
In earlier times, mothers were entrusted with all but serious
remedies. Historic cookbooks are frequently full of remedies for
dyspepsia, fevers, and female complaints.
Many European liqueurs or digestifs were originally sold as medicinal
remedies. In Chinese folk medicine, medicinal congees (long-cooked
rice soups with herbs), foods, and soups are part of the healing
Many people also use aloe leaves to cure ailments of the skin.
Although 130 countries have regulations on folk medicines, there are
risks associated with the use of them. It is often assumed that
because supposed medicines are herbal or natural that they are safe,
but numerous precautions are associated with using herbal
Use of endangered species
Sometimes traditional medicines include parts of endangered species,
such as the slow loris in Southeast Asia.
Endangered animals, such as the Slow loris, are sometimes killed to
make traditional medicines.
Shark fins have also been used in traditional medicine, and although
its use has not been proven, it is hurting shark populations and their
Bioprospecting, the commercial exploitation of folk medicinal
Old wives' tale
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