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Traditional Medicine’s Integral Role in Global Health Care

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Public interest in traditional medicine is on the rise, supported by the foremost international authority on health, the World Health Organization (WHO). In March 2022, WHO established the Global Centre for Traditional Medicine. The centre’s mission is to bridge ancient wisdom with modern science for the health and well-being of people and the planet.

As an integral resource in communities worldwide, traditional medicine holds great promise for advancing whole person health and contributing to future medical advances. Eighty-eight percent of WHO member states report using traditional medicines.1 Traditional medicine has a long history of contributing to conventional medicine and continues to hold promise. Accessed September 27, 2023. https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/traditional-medicine-has-a-long-history-of-contributing-to-conventional-medicine-and-continues-to-hold-promise The WHO recently released a statement outlining the many benefits of naturopathy, acupuncture, herbal medicines, indigenous traditional medicine, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, chiropractic, osteopathy, Ayurveda, and Unani medicine. In August 2023, WHO held its first-ever Traditional Medicine Global Summit in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India,2 The First WHO Traditional Medicine Global Summit. Accessed September 27, 2023. https://www.who.int/news-room/events/detail/2023/08/17/default-calendar/the-first-who-traditional-medicine-global-summit convening a diverse group of partners and stakeholders to share best practices, evidence, and data on traditional medicine’s potential to help transform the healthcare system.

Bridging Healthcare Gaps

Naturopathic physician Amy Hobson has practiced primary care for more than 20 years, witnessing firsthand how traditional medicine supports patient health. As the former vice president and chair of the Washington Association of Naturopathic Physicians’ Governmental Affairs Committee and advisor to the American Medical Association’s Current Procedural Terminology Editorial Panel (on behalf of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians), she has a unique perspective.

Dr. Hobson sees myriad opportunities for traditional medicine to bridge vital gaps in the healthcare system. “We need to create doors that patients feel comfortable walking through to access medicine and health care,” she explains. “Part of that gap is that people don’t trust the medical system. They may feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated to reach out for medical care because of bad past experiences or a lack of experience. It’s this great unknown.”

We often think of traditional medicine in the historical sense, as in ancient wisdom passed down through generations. But Hobson notes it can also mean “traditional medicine for our neighborhoods’ different ethnicities and cultures. Having a doctor who looks like you or has some commonality with you is one way to get people connected with health care.” Previous research has indicated that mistrust in the medical system and lack of diverse representation among healthcare providers can particularly affect racialized and indigenous people.3Waller BY, Giusto A, Tepper M, et al. Should we trust you? Strategies to improve access to mental healthcare to BIPOC communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Community Ment Health J. Published online May 3, 2023:1-5. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-023-01124-y4Feliz VA, Hobbs SD, Borunda R. Strengthen and respect each thread. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(21):14117. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph192114117

Traditional medicine starts at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, prioritizing physiological and safety needs. A similar concept, the Therapeutic Order, guides naturopathic medicine, which begins by removing obstacles to good health, supporting the body’s natural healing abilities, and restoring weakened systems.5Staff for INM. What is naturopathic medicine? Institute for Natural Medicine. Accessed September 27, 2023. https://naturemed.org/what-is-naturopathic-medicine

“We ensure the fundamentals of health are in place, such as clean air; clean water; good, healthy food; exercise; and stress reduction,” says Hobson. “It’s about meeting patients where they are to get them the care and screening they need.”

In contrast to conventional medicine, traditional medicine takes a broad-spectrum approach. “With antimicrobial resistance and bacteria and viruses mutating, we see the medicine that used to work doesn’t work anymore,” says Dr. Hobson. “Broad-spectrum treatments like oregano oil6Kozics K, Bučková M, Puškárová A, Kalászová V, Cabicarová T, Pangallo D. The effect of ten essential oils on several cutaneous drug-resistant microorganisms and their cyto/genotoxic and antioxidant properties. Molecules. 2019;24(24):4570. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules24244570 kill more kinds of pathogens. Modern medicine [specifically targets] certain bacteria, and it’s not just antibiotics. Where there’s resistance, we have to return to broad-spectrum treatments. This is where traditional medicine can be helpful, at least as a stopgap, while we develop new medications.”

Studies document the rise of multidrug-resistant organisms, especially with increased use of antimicrobial products during the COVID-19 pandemic.7Lai CC, Chen SY, Ko WC, Hsueh PR. Increased antimicrobial resistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Int J Antimicrob Agents. 2021;57(4):106324. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijantimicag.2021.106324 Antibiotic-resistant pathogens are another pressing healthcare issue worldwide. Microorganisms can quickly adapt to new antibiotics, resulting in chronic infections, health complications, and even deaths.8Rizvi SAA, Einstein GP, Tulp OL, Sainvil F, Branly R. Introduction to traditional medicine and their role in prevention and treatment of emerging and re-emerging diseases. Biomolecules. 2022;12(10):1442. https://doi.org/10.3390/biom12101442 Vital tools like traditional medicine are needed now more than ever to support natural immunity and provide protection from a wide range of diseases.

Eradicating Global Disease and Pain

In conventional medicine, this broad-spectrum approach is sometimes deemed vague. But Dr. Hobson points to the advantages of traditional medicine in treating patients affected by earthquakes, floods, and displacement. “Think about the Sudanese people in Chadian refugee camps,” she says. “These are giant camps with 400,000 people who need health care now. We can serve people with nutrition (when possible) and broad-spectrum things that treat many different maladies, but it’s also about what’s available. Do we really want Doctors Without Borders to bring many specific different medications, then try to figure out who needs what? In traditional medicine, we can work on a broader scale to help more people. We won’t waste medications or have them sitting in a room [somewhere] because we can’t find the right person to [administer] them to patients.”

Crowded and unsanitary living conditions, violence, extreme stress, and lack of healthy food in refugee camps contribute to eye infections that can lead to blindness,9Sanders AM, Abdalla Z, Elshafie BE, et al. Prevalence of trachoma within refugee camps serving South Sudanese refugees in White Nile State, Sudan: Results from population-based surveys. PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 2019;13(6):e0007491. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0007491 tuberculosis,10Meaza A, Yenew B, Amare M, et al. Prevalence of tuberculosis and associated factors among presumptive TB refugees residing in refugee camps in Ethiopia. BMC Infect Dis. 2023;23(1):498. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12879-023-08469-5 cholera,11Kisera N, Luxemburger C, Tornieporth N, Otieno G, Inda J. A descriptive cross-sectional study of cholera at Kakuma and Kalobeyei refugee camps, Kenya in 2018. Pan Afr Med J. 2020;37:197. https://doi.org/10.11604/pamj.2020.37.197.24798 and many water-borne diseases.12Salih A, Mohamed M. A case analysis of a mass treatment approach to control GI and water-related conditions in Sudan. BMC Public Health. 2021;21(1):2111. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-12154-0 A study of 21 refugee camps in Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe revealed that only 30% of refugees could access basic sanitation, and only 24% had access to hand hygiene facilities.13Calderón-Villarreal A, Schweitzer R, Kayser G. Social and geographic inequalities in water, sanitation and hygiene access in 21 refugee camps and settlements in Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Int J Equity Health. 2022;21(1):27. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12939-022-01626-3

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Prevention on a Worldwide Scale

Pain prevention is just as essential. “There are so many pain treatments,” says Dr. Hobson. “But finding the root causes and preventing the pain is where we really shine. Let’s say someone has a leg length difference. If we can find it when they’re 22—instead of treating them decades later for correlated back pain—that’s prevention.”

Healthcare practitioners commonly advise patients to take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for chronic pain. “But this is where we’re missing the boat,” Hobson explains. “The pain continues because the medication becomes less effective, or the pathology worsens. We should move toward acupuncture,14Huang L, Xu G, Sun M, et al. Recent trends in acupuncture for chronic pain: A bibliometric analysis and review of the literature. Complement Ther Med. 2023;72:102915. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2023.102915 dry needling,15Hernández-Secorún M, Abenia-Benedí H, Borrella-Andrés S, et al. Effectiveness of Dry Needling in Improving Pain and Function in Comparison with Other Techniques in Patients with Chronic Neck Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Pain Res Manag. 2023;2023:1523834. https://doi.org/10.1155/2023/1523834 and physical therapy16George SZ, Fritz JM, Silfies SP, et al. Interventions for the Management of Acute and Chronic Low Back Pain: Revision 2021. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2021;51(11):CPG1-CPG60. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.2021.0304 for pain.”

With opioid addiction skyrocketing into a public health crisis, patients and healthcare practitioners need alternative ways to relieve pain. “The epidemic of opioid use often starts with chronic pain,” notes Hobson. “But where does that chronic pain come from? How did the chronic pain start? For people with addictions, it’s often mental health pain that’s being medicated.”

As a primary care physician, Hobson recognizes that a solid therapeutic relationship can bring healing. Addressing mental health pain (including the pain of loneliness) is central to patient care. “When you connect with a healthcare provider you trust, they’re part of the family. You know this person. That connection itself relieves suffering.”

Transforming Health Care 

A harmonious patient–doctor connection is best made when physicians have enough time to thoroughly assess their patients and determine the most effective personalized treatments. Using physical medicine as an example, Dr. Hobson notes that naturopathic doctors have more tools to treat pain, such as spinal adjustments and needling (trigger point therapy), which ease muscle spasms. “As providers,” she says, “we need time to use those therapies. If we only have seven minutes with a patient, we can’t put needles in and let them sit. It isn’t about modalities; it’s about the healthcare system itself. How can doctors get paid to see [one] patient for an hour and still make a living versus the expectation of seeing 57 patients a week?”

Wellness has returned to public health conversations, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. But Hobson sees a fundamental disconnect between wellness expectations and the current economic climate. “The hard part about wellness is that the onus is on the patient to get proper exercise and sleep. It’s much easier to take pain medication or drink caffeine to barrel through your day, then drink alcohol at night to take the edge off until bedtime. This is [especially] difficult in the United States, where many people are overworked and underpaid. You can have dinner with your family or exercise or meditate. We should be able to do all those things. Traditional medicine addresses this better than modern medicine—it’s about lifestyle.”

Healing Practices Steeped in Time

People around the world have relied on herbal medicine for more than 60,000 years17Yuan H, Ma Q, Ye L, Piao G. The Traditional Medicine and Modern Medicine from Natural Products. Molecules. 2016;21(5):559. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules21050559—a stark difference from the more recently formed pharmaceutical industry, about 200 years old.18Atanasov AG, Waltenberger B, Pferschy-Wenzig EM, et al. Discovery and resupply of pharmacologically active plant-derived natural products: A review. Biotechnol Adv. 2015;33(8):1582-1614. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biotechadv.2015.08.001 Up to 40% of today’s medications are derived from plants used for centuries of healing.19The First WHO Traditional Medicine Global Summit. Accessed September 27, 2023. https://www.who.int/news-room/events/detail/2023/08/17/default-calendar/the-first-who-traditional-medicine-global-summit The poppy plant produces opium (for morphine20Krishnamurti C, Rao SC. The isolation of morphine by Serturner. Indian J Anaesth. 2016;60(11):861-862. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5049.193696), white willow bark is similar to aspirin, the seeds of Silybum marianum (milk thistle) treat liver disease, and Artemisia annua (sweet wormwood) tackles multidrug-resistant malaria.21Veeresham C. Natural products derived from plants as a source of drugs. J Adv Pharm Technol Res. 2012;3(4):200-201. https://doi.org/10.4103/2231-4040.104709

Central to traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and indigenous healing, plants provided the first sources of medicine. Why certain herbs were effective in treating certain health conditions may not have been well documented, but their ability to relieve pain, cure disease, and save lives was widely communicated. “This is the double-edged sword of traditional medicine,” Hobson points out. “You use it because it works and has for a long time. We expect everything to be evidence-based. But those of us on the frontlines of medicine just want to relieve suffering and keep our patients safe.”

Dr. Hobson recalls a patient with a chronic cough. He had been recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and contracted COVID six weeks earlier. The cough was intensifying, and he needed relief. One of Hobson’s colleagues had shared her success with halotherapy—inhaling sea salt through a special device. Visiting salt caves to ease respiratory symptoms is an ancient practice. Before initiating halotherapy, Hobson consulted her patient’s oncologist to ensure the treatment would not interfere with his cancer care. The patient’s cough improved. “Was it the salt, or was it deep breathing a few times a day?” asks Hobson. “We can spend a lot of effort figuring it out. But in the day-to-day lives of patients and practitioners, you have to do what works.”

Although curiosity about herbal medicine has fostered a quest for knowledge, conventional research often identifies one key chemical in a plant (usually the most abundant) to formulate medications and ignores the rest. Plants are complex and may contain thousands of different components.22Chandran H, Meena M, Barupal T, Sharma K. Plant tissue culture as a perpetual source for production of industrially important bioactive compounds. Biotechnol Rep (Amst). 2020;26:e00450. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.btre.2020.e00450 Traditional medicine recognizes that a medicinal plant isn’t just individual chemicals working on the body; it is the full spectrum of the plant’s constituents working together in synergy. The whole is much more than the sum of its parts.

Traditional medicine is one of many components of a robust and comprehensive approach to health care. Dr. Hobson sees integrative medicine as the future of health care, and advocates for less competition among practitioners. “No one doctor knows everything,” she says. “When we integrate and work as a team, everybody wins. It shouldn’t be a turf war. We all want the same thing—to relieve suffering.”

What else does the future hold for traditional medicine? Hobson feels rebranding is needed for primary care. “Some people think it’s the bottom rung and that specializing is a higher level of doctor. But in traditional medicine, naturopathic medicine, primary care medicine, and family practice, we’re taking all comers. We’re the gatekeepers, the door they walk through, and the hub of that wheel. It’s about building our communities, referral networks, and finding the right fit for the patient.” In naturopathic care, each patient is unique. Treatment is personalized to meet an individual’s needs.

This collective spirit is exemplified by the WHO Global Centre for Traditional Medicine’s guiding concept, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, an ancient Sanskrit phrase meaning “the world is one family.”23WHO Global Centre for Traditional Medicine. Accessed September 27, 2023. https://www.who.int/initiatives/who-global-centre-for-traditional-medicine


This article was produced jointly by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians and the Institute for Natural Medicine as part of the Campaign for Natural Medicine, a public awareness effort to broaden understanding of naturopathic medicine and support access to naturopathic doctors.

Footnotes

This article is provided by

The Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. INM’s mission is to transform health care in the United States by increasing public awareness of natural medicine and access to naturopathic doctors. Naturopathic medicine, with its person-centered principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness overwhelming healthcare systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain optimal lifelong health. INM strives to fulfil this mission through the following initiatives:

  • Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of evidence-based natural medicine
  • Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
  • Research – Expand quality research on this complex and comprehensive system of medicine

About The Author(s)

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Institute for Natural Medicine Staff

Our dedicated content team of professional staff writers represents decades of experience covering essential natural health topics in an accessible, evidence-based, and engaging way. Guided by a shared passion for holistic well-being, each and every one of our writers strives to empower our readers to take charge of their health.

Supported by a rigorous fact-checking and medical editing process from licensed naturopathic doctors that examines the latest in peer-reviewed research, our team brings their in-depth knowledge of natural health practices into every piece of content we produce. We strive to be the gold standard for evidence-based natural medicine, providing trustworthy information and inspiring narratives to help you live your best health, naturally.

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