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For a lot of the parts of the world ( especially the underdeveloped ones), traditional medicine is viewed as the alternative to ( and sometimes more superior than) modern medicine--western medicine, as it is called in China.

My question is, how does scientific community view traditional medicine? Does it view it as something to be shunned by the patients, because traditional medicine is not subjected to rigorous clinical test? Or does it view it as something that requires active research, but in the meantime, can be used by patients when all modern treatment fails?

  • Please do not answer in comments. – anongoodnurse Sep 26 '15 at 16:28
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First, I want to agree with @anongoodnurse

There is debate and mixed views inside the "Western Medical Community" which is a vast, vast group of people.

I wanted to expand on that by pointing out the US government has put a National Institute of Health center together to study what is academically known as "complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)." CAM is basically a catch all for what may be a homeopathic or traditional medicine in any particular location, but paired with modern scientific thinking. The name of the NIH center is the "National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health."

I think a very approachable editorial on what exactly they do was written by a previous deputy director. They represent a growing field of research that applies rigorous logic and scientific testing to alternative medicines. In other words, they use "traditional medicines" as a starting point to drive new modern interventions.

The general premise goes something like this:

1) Community A has traditionally used [Plant/Intervention] B to address disease or symptoms X, Y, and Z.

2) Some aspect of B may infact be pharmacologically/physiologically active. [Note the null hypothesis can also be, and often is, true; that B provides no benefit over placebo or sham operation.]

3) Break down B into it's molecular or procedural components B[1,2,..n]

4) Compare B components to known interventions to make educated guesses as to what really is going on.

5) Test basic components of B, B as a whole, and mixtures of B components (derived from educated guess) to address X, Y, Z, preferably in an animal model first.

6) Refine positive results into traditional medicine drug/intervention M


Cannabis provides a good example of how this can be done.

NOTE: I make no stance on the legalization of cannabis in the US for recreational use, and could see it go either way. I think that a honest conversation about medical vs recreational use should be had, and that medical uses should not drive something that is desired for recreational uses. Please don't derail this post on merits or demerits of cannabis use.


The study of cannabis lead to the discovery of THC the principal psychoactive component of cannabis. This lead to the discovery of medical benefits of THC, and the ability for physicians to use THC in drug form dronabinol (brand name Marinol).

In our example cannabis would be our [Plant B], nausea and loss of appetite our symptoms X-Y, cannabinoids our components of B, and Marinol the final drug produced M.



I include the following note/disclaimer because 1) it shows my point of view on the question asked, and 2) it will hopefully cut of some comments I suspect are likely to come from such a post.

As I'm sure it will come up, it certainly could be true that additional cannabinoids will come up to be medically significant, perhaps in certain combinations, and that may require inhalation as a delivery route. I'm happy for that research to be conducted, and I wait to see what comes out as scientifically valid.

I note that burning and inhaling of a raw plant, with all the chemicals that are produced in the process, is not something I would recommend to any patient. That goes from tobacco, to cannabis, to grass clippings. We have nebulizers to aerosol drugs that need to be inhaled.

This is where taking traditional medicine as a start, and then advancing it to "Western Medicine" comes in. The scientific method has born out in pharmacology, and needed active ingredients from plants/animals can be identified, derived, purified, and normalized so that they can be safely and consistently applied in "Western Medicine" (which can be called "traditional" by the people practicing it).

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My question is, how does scientific community view traditional medicine?

There is no single view of traditional medicine within a large community. There are some who investigate, some who incorporate traditional medicine into their practices, and some who eschew it. Most simply don't know about it.

Indirubin, the active constituent of a Chinese antileukaemia medicine, inhibits cyclin-dependent kinases
A Public Health Agenda for Traditional, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine

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The way science works (or ideally should work) makes any "views" an irrelevant issue. What matters is the evidence obtained in favor or against certain ideas. The fact that people practicing traditional medicine don't themselves do rigorous testing of their methods is then irrelevant, as nothing would stop such methods from being tested rigorously by scientists. The main relevant issue is then what anongoodnurse mentions, obviously if within the medical community little is known about some alternative treatment then it won't undergo proper testing.

A complicating factor in testing alternative medicine treatments is the placebo effect. Recent research points out that the placebo effect and the opposite nocebo effect are much more powerful effects than they previously were thought to be see e.g. this article, and this BBC horizon documentary and also this BBC radio documentary.

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    How is this relevant to my question? – Graviton Sep 28 '15 at 0:24
  • @Graviton I guess this is more than a comment – Ooker Sep 29 '15 at 5:07

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