Since prehistoric times, man has learned to treat diseases with ingredients obtained from plant, animal and mineral sources. This later developed into a traditional (also called alternative) system of healing unique to their geographical and cultural environment. Even now it is estimated that about 60% of the world’s population, relies on traditional medicine for primary healthcare. Many people, in fact, seem to have more faith in traditional or herbal/alternative medicine than in modern or synthetic medicine.
This may be a good idea because traditional means natural and logically, therefore, there is little fear of side effects or drug reactions. But is that true and does it work? Let’s try and understand the concept behind these two systems.
The healing sciences of Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM have been developed over six thousand years before the advent of modern medicine as we know it today. Another form of natural medicine, Kampo, or traditional Japanese medicine was adapted from TCM. These traditional systems of medicine have now become very well structured because of active support and encouragement from governments.
Apart from these, there is folk medicine practiced by indigenous folks worldwide that form the bulk of healing practices in most of the rural areas. Much of this knowledge has been passed down to posterity from age to age and by word of mouth with very little or no documentation about this system.
Traditional medicine refers to the pre-scientific healing practices of cultures and sub-cultures using plants, animals, and minerals as sources of medicaments. Often traditional medications come in crude forms like potions, lotions, concoctions, tinctures, herbal teas, pastes and powders made locally or manually with little or no equipment. In folk medicine, there may also be less control over specifications and standard manufacturing procedures like correct amounts of ingredients and other good manufacturing practices (GMP).
The advent of modern drugs reportedly first came in 1805 when the German chemist Friedrich Sertϋmer pharmacologically isolated morphine from opium. Thereafter the gates opened to a flood of ongoing discoveries of an ever-expanding range of new drugs with multi-dimensional chemical structures and steric (spatial arrangement of atoms) properties that can cure so many diseases.
Synthetic Medicines are the man-made drugs manufactured after extensive scientific research and clinical tests. They are produced under meticulously controlled conditions, that ensures product consistency and composition preciseness. Synthetic drugs are isolated substance(s) often with chemical structures that are altered for improved functionality, efficacy, bioavailability, easy packaging and storage and longer shelf life, hence their increasing popularity.
Plants: The Origin of Modern Drugs
Most synthetic drugs are plant-based. For example, the new anti-malarial drug artemisinin is derived from the plant Artemisia annua L which was already used in TCM since the third century CE in ancient China. Similarly, the pink Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) is the source for the vinca alkaloids now used in many anticancer therapies. Another anticancer drug is the compound terpene, paclitaxel, used in ovarian cancer treatment. Its source is the Pacific yew Taxus brevifolia. An estimated 3000 plant species among over 35000 studied demonstrated anticancer properties and many other plant species possess medicinal properties.
Phytochemicals: The Basis of the Medicinal Potency of Plants
Plants contain compounds called phytochemicals (biologically active constituents) like alkaloids, terpenoids, polyphenols, lignans, resveratrol, and flavonoids etc. Phytochemicals provide the plant’s protection not only from animals, insects, and pests but also from the harsh conditions of climate and ultraviolet radiation. They also help plants propagate their species by attracting birds and insects for pollination etc. They give plants their distinctive colour, flavour taste, and much of their medicinal properties.
Phytochemicals can also be poisonous or toxic. The alkaloid from the deadly nightshade plant (Atropa belladonna) was the poison used to murder Emperor Augustus of ancient Rome. Yet belladonna is now one of the most important homeopathic cures. The Datura plant’s alkaloid, atropine, useful for asthma treatment can also cause hallucinations and can be fatal.
The safety and standards issue
Natural products are naturally safe. But the reverse can also be true. Since they have many active substances in them they can cause side effects. Sometimes the traditional medicinal practitioners who are inadequately trained may not be so knowledgeable and prescribe medicines at random. This can have adverse side effects. According to experienced folk healers, the type of plants, their ages, the time of collection and the parts used have to be carefully chosen otherwise the medication can become toxic instead.
The alternative medical sciences of Ayurveda, Unani, and TCM have well-defined structures and processes of manufacture, standardized drugs, and methods of treatment. Other traditional systems have no such standards. There is no labeling or information as regards contents of their medicines and no clues about hygiene in preparation. Further, the loss of habitat is steadily depleting the bio-resources for medicinal plants forcing practitioners to take short-cuts at manufacturing with disastrous ramifications. We may thus find the medicines adulterated with allergenic substances that can play havoc with citizens’ health, instead of contributing to their wellness.
Fortunately, governments have now recognized the potential and efficacy of traditional and alternative systems of medicine. Regulatory bodies for standardization like GMP, mentioning of correct names, contents, and expiration etc are now in place and the general public can safely take recourse to traditional medicines with the same confidence as for synthetic drugs.
Which is Better, Traditional or Synthetic?
Traditional medicine apparently employs a more holistic approach. It is considered to be without dangerous side effects. Medicinal plants are generally believed to be safe though they can be toxic, which is why medications should be administered by well-trained practitioners and the medications should be correctly prepared with the right ingredients in the right proportions. For example, in Meghalaya one remedy for high blood pressure is a decoction made with leaves of a tender ‘Jarem’ (Clerodendron colebrookianum) plant, says Bah Wadbor Mawlong, a traditional medicine practitioner from Shillong. Using leaves from a mature plant will cause giddiness and nausea instead, he explained.
The holistic approach of traditional medicine looks at a person in toto. The patient himself gets involved in the process of healing and remains responsible for his own cure, by adapting his lifestyle, behavior and thought pattern to the treatment. Thus, his whole mind, body, and spirit get involved in the process of healing together with the healer. Treatment takes time, but the healing is total.
In synthetic medicine, the drugs are symptom-centric, often detached from the persona of the patient. The drugs, of course, are well-researched, effective pharmaceuticals that can cure in a shorter time-span. Even if synthetic medicines take less time to cure a patient, the possible shadow of side effects and contraindications can be serious (even fatal) along with the possibility of continued medication for the rest of the patients’ lives. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) pharmacovigilance programme, in its effort to improve drug safety, now enjoins upon nations to collect and collate data about adverse drug reactions, and submit them to WHO’s database. But that’s a tough task in a country like India where over 80,000 synthetic drugs are manufactured, and medicine consumption is extremely high.
Traditional medicine, on the other hand, is a lot safer with an insignificant number of cases reported about side effects.
Another factor is cost. In traditional medicine, costs of manufacturing and treatment are hardly comparable with synthetic medicine. This is obvious because generic synthetic drugs take years of rigorous research and money to develop and patent. In traditional medicine patenting can hardly be possible about a plant with multiple medicinal properties. Synthetic medicine is manufactured in state of the art facilities under continuous and stringent quality control that naturally cost money. The other downside of these industries is the pharmaceutical waste generated that negatively impact the environment.
Relative safety, ease of treatment and costs may be the reason why a majority of the world’s population chooses traditional medicine over the synthetic. Though both have their advantages and disadvantages, traditional medicine seem to tilt the scales. Is it so because it is an open source unbounded by intellectual property rights, a science in itself, tested and proven by millennia of time, handed down the generations?
If you have any views regarding traditional and synthetic medicine, why not share with us in our comment section? We’d be happy to hear your voices.