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Traditional Herbal Medicine and Western Approach: a Contrast

by D. P. Agrawal

 It seems that there are some basic differences in concepts and approach of the Traditional Knowledge Systems and western science. The latter tries to extract the active principle from an herb and administers it in isolation. On the other hand, the traditional medicine uses a holistic approach and is given in conjunction with other herbs etc. to ensure their synergy and the mixture is changed according to the requirement of the disease.

Bhandary and Chandrashekar emphasise that the modern scientific methods of verifying the efficacy of traditional herbal cures are to be better called ‘re-evaluation’ efforts, because every time a traditional healer administers a medicinal plant to a sick individual, the efficacy of the indigenous tradition is empirically tested and evaluated…So far, such re-evaluation of traditional medicinal plants was focused mainly to discover new drugs for western medicine. Isolation and characterization of single-activity bioactive principles or ‘magic bullets’ from plants against disorders predominantly associated with western lifestyles such as cancer, AIDS, cardio-vascular and nervous diseases, etc. was the ultimate aim. The driving force undoubtedly is the multimillion dollars-worth market potential tagged to such products. An analysis of the total money spent on drug development in the United States indicates that 26% of it goes for cardiovascular drugs, 18% for cancer, and 14% each for nervous disorders and antibiotics. But the surprising fact is that these categories of diseases hardly find a place in the indigenous pharmacopoeia where the priorities have been easily detectable  such as complaints of the gastrointestinal and urino-genital systems, skin diseases, etc. In fact, few indigenous languages have word for cancer, leukaemia or hypertension! In the Ethnomedicine of coastal Karnataka, major diseases treated are those of the skin (20%), digestive system (18%) and urino-genital system (15%). The reluctance of modern scientific approaches to recognize this basic difference in the priorities of the western demand, which it needs to fulfil and that of the traditional practices from which it seeks guidance, is the major reason for the recorded low success rate in this field. In spite of bio-prospecting activities, there are only 89 plant-based drugs currently prescribed in the western medicine , discovered by studying traditional medicinal knowledge which globally involves more than 20,000 species of plants.

Bhandary and Chandrashekar further point out that another limitation of the modern methods of re-evaluation of herbal remedies is with regard to the multi-herbal preparations. Traditional practices abound in such compound formulations whose curative effect seems to be resting on the principle of co-operative action of many active ingredients, each targeted against a particular symptom of the disease under treatment. For example, we have recorded 24 multi-herbal methods of treatment for herpes – a skin inflammation caused by viral infection and associated with severe burning sensation. An analysis with the help of published literature revealed that these compound preparations involve a combination of herbs claimed to possess mainly anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, wound-healing and coolant properties. These drugs are prepared either by grinding with limejuice, rice-washed water or the juice of pericarp of tender fruits of a local variety of coconut called gendali. Any modern attempts of re-affirming the scientific basis of these remedies need to be holistic and flexible enough to consider all these aspects, rather than just fractionating the involved herbs individually with different chemical solvents and looking for those elusive antiviral or anti-inflammatory compounds in them (Bhandary and Chandrashekar 2001).

Tiwari (2001) has also emphasised that the concept of synergy is central to the holistic approach. The trend of the modern concept to isolate pure compounds may not achieve the desired results, as observed in the natural version. Once an active principle is isolated from the natural product without its synergical associates to support and/or balance its action, it may lose its character as present in its natural form. The isolation and study of a problem from its environment is the beauty of modern science. However, the natural/holistic approach attempts to solve problems by taking these in their entirely, with all their inter-linkages and their complexity. This may be the reason why Ayurvedic preparations have different permutations according to the disease conditions.

Tiwari says, “It has been observed by our own experience that a majority of Ayurvedic preparations prescribed in disease conditions now being explained to be mediated through oxidative stress, possess strong antiradical properties. Kumar ( Chem. Indust. News 2000, XI: 561-563) observed that Ayurveda, the science of longevity is not just a collection of therapeutic recipes, but a framework which defines the conditions of sickness and connotes them with healing practices. As rightly and timely perceived by Kochhar (Journal of Biosc. 1999,  24: 259-268) that it is in the framework of cultural Copernicanism, where concerted efforts are being made in the world of medicine to identify Traditional Knowledge Systems and accord them the recognition. It is high time for us, therefore, to explore the possibility of identifying our traditional therapeutic knowledge and interpret it according to the recent advancements in order to give it a deserving place.”


Bhandary, M. J. and K. R. Chandrashekar. 2001. On scientific re-evaluation of traditional herbal medicine.  Current Science 81(9): 1153-54.

(For further information contact e-mail : konambi@yahoo.com

Tiwari, Ashok K. 2001. Imbalance in antioxidant defence and human diseases: multiple approach of natural antioxidants therapy. Current Science 81(9): 1179-1186.

(For further information contact: astiwari@yahoo.com)

Posted on 09/29/2004