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Can We Integrate Traditional Knowledge and Modern Science? (Part 7)

Written by Roy Upton

In most countries, traditional health practitioners such as in Ayurveda, Naturopathy, and TCM are required to be trained in Western anatomy, physiology, and pathology. While many Western medical schools have programs introducing students to traditional healing systems, they are presented as overviews, not as fully developed medical systems, but rather as non-evidenced-based therapies to which patients may be exposed. While traditional health care practitioners benefit greatly from the integrated traditional-western knowledge and integrate this into patient care to greater or lesser degrees, most western physicians cannot provide any guidance regarding traditional practices except to recommend they not be used.

Similarly, applying western standards of either chemical or pharmacological assessment to traditional herbal medicines can inform and increase our knowledge base of the botanical. However, it should be remembered that one of the reasons traditional herbal medicine is growing in popularity despite ready access to modern medicine is due to the failings of modern medicine. Traditional healing systems offer a different paradigm of understanding health and disease that increases the therapeutic options to those in need. Thus, attempting to regulate or restrict traditional herbal healing systems because they do not fit into the typical western paradigm is an antithesis to the healing system itself and a great detriment to patients. Froma traditional herbal medicine perspective, preservation, development, and acceptance of morphological and organoleptic assessment skills are critical in preserving traditional medicine practices, while the analytical tools of modern pharmacognosy enriches the knowledge base.

Regarding traditional medicine practice, there is some protection of traditional herbal medicine principles internationally. In most countries that regulate herbal medicines (e.g., much of Asia, the European Union, and India), herbal medicine practitioners are exempt from standard manufacturing GMPs. This is not the case in the US, where FDA maintains the authority to require practitioners to be in full compliance with standard dietary supplement manufacturing GMPs, an authority that threatens the perpetuation of traditional herbal healing in that country. As recognized by the WHO and European Union, the whole crude plant part is considered to be the active ingredient, not a specific amount of a compound(s) that can be quantified. Macroscopic and sensory evaluation of herbal ingredients, followed by therapeutic experience, are the sole means by which traditional herbal practitioners can continue practicing their traditional healing systems. Not recognizing traditional herbal assessment principles in formal pharmacopoeia limits the expression and evolution of traditional herbal medicine, and instead, pushes herbal medicines solely into a western pharmaceutical paradigm.

Roy Upton is the founder, president, and editor of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP). He has been working and practicing professionally as a herbalist since 1981, and he trained in Ayurvedic, Traditional Chinese, and Western herbal medicine and has also studied and worked extensively with Native American and Caribbean ethnobotanical traditions. As an integral part of his work as a herbalist, he spend a great deal of time defending the rights of consumers to access herbal medicines and to see herbal medicine integrated into the fabric of both our homes and health care systems.

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