The Neglected Allies Of Modern Medicine

Is the enduring attraction of traditional medicine a good thing or a paradox? Zaria Gorvett investigates.

AsianScientist (Dec. 6, 2012) – Stroll through a pharmacy in Singapore, a “health shop” in China, or a market in Indonesia and you could be confronted with anything from bear bile, to the highest quality bird’s nest, to drinks enriched with seahorses. Apart from being struck by the creative use of natural ingredients, you might be baffled that such concoctions have endured into a modern age of science.

Despite the credibility of modern medicine, traditional treatments remain remarkably popular. In China, herbal preparations account for 30-50 percent of total medicinal consumption, and 70 percent of Indians rely on Ayurveda, one of the oldest systems of organised medicine, to meet their primary healthcare needs.

According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), public interest in archaic remedies is also increasing in Europe and North America. In 2003-2004, annual revenues in Western Europe reached over £3 billion.

Traditional therapies remain an enigma

But despite the recent improvements in public health which have coincided with the inception of modern medicine, assessing the competencies and limitations of traditional therapies remains notoriously challenging. Studies are sparse, and methods of data collection, analysis, and interpretation often do not adhere to rigorous standards of scientific conduct.

Traditional medical systems and philosophies are also diverse, ranging from herbal, animal, and mineral based remedies, to spiritual therapies, manual techniques, and exercises.

Herbal remedies comprise the majority of traditional Chinese treatments, and usually involve drinking a whole extract from a plant. The underlying belief is that the chemicals found in the plant will work in synergy to prevent and treat illness in the whole body. Indeed, a single extract may be prescribed for tens of very different conditions. Consuming hundreds of active (and inactive) ingredients at the same time makes understanding the pathways involved particularly problematic.

A typical medical hall in Chinatown selling ‘cooling tea’ (Photo: chooyutshing/Flickr/CC).

In contrast, Western pharmaceuticals usually contain just a single active ingredient, which is targeted at a specific receptor in the body. For example, atorvastatin (trade name: Lipitor), currently the best-selling drug in pharmaceutical history, is used for lowering blood cholesterol. The drug works by binding to an enzyme in the liver which is critical to cholesterol production, and disabling it.

The effectiveness of acupuncture – the insertion of needles into superficial structures in the body – has been investigated by the Cochrane review, which found that the procedure may provide pain relief from a number of afflictions, including migraines, neck disorders, tension headaches, and some types of osteoarthritis.

However, critics have suggested that the benefits of acupuncture are the result of an intriguing quirk of human biology called the placebo effect. This phenomenon, in which the brain associates treatment with a physiological response regardless of activity, can lead to a false impression of the performance of a therapy. Indeed, “sham acupuncture” has been found by clinical trials to be just as effective as the authentic procedure.

Zaria Gorvett is a freelance science writer based in the UK. She graduated with a bachelors degree in biological science from the University of Exeter, UK and a masters degree in medical microbiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.

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