Is “Natural Medicine” a Misnomer?
The World Health Organization has it’s official definitions for various types of non-conventional medicine systems. The following are taken from their website (link).
is the sum total of the knowledge, skill, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness
Complementary/ Alternative Medicine:
refer to a broad set of health care practices that are not part of that country’s own tradition or conventional medicine and are not fully integrated into the dominant health-care system
include herbs, herbal materials, herbal preparations and finished herbal products, that contain as active ingredients parts of plants, or other plant materials, or combinations
So we see that the WHO recognizes these unconventional methods and gives good definitions for them. Our own Philippine Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act of 1997 would do well to take note of these definitions and use them accordingly. (That is another topic for another blog post, however.)
“Natural” vs “Synthetic”
Conspicuously absent from their definitions is the term “natural medicine.” It is a well known fact, however, that many practitioners love to use the term natural medicine so as to distinguish it from so-called “synthetic” or “artificial medicine” – usually referring to products manufactured and marketed by pharmaceutical companies aka “Big Pharma”. The dichotomy is actively promoted by individuals and alternative medicine industries precisely to create an “us vs them” mentality. Also, the term “natural” evokes an idealistic notion of a glorified one-with-the-universe dream free from the dictations of “Big Pharma.” But I’ve always wondered – is not the term “natural medicine” self-contradictory?
Refer To Merriam-Webster
Checking out my favorite dictionary, it can be seen that the word “natural” has fifteen possible definitions. For the sake of brevity I have selected and posted below only the pertinent ones. a : being in accordance with or determined by nature
b : having or constituting a classification based on features existing in nature a : growing without human care; also : not cultivated
natural prairie unbroken by the plow
b : existing in or produced by nature : not artificial
c : relating to or being natural food
The idea therefore is that the ingredients in natural medicine must be necessarily produced by nature and not adulterated with any other chemical. However, let us note the idea of “growing without human care” or “not cultivated”. Does this mean that if medicinal plants are the product of human farming and cultivation, then they are no longer natural? Now let us look at the definition of medicine. This is easier. 1 a : a substance or preparation used in treating disease
I like the fact that the definition here includes both individual substances – single ingredients – and preparations.
So… “Natural” Medicine?
In theory then, natural medicines can exist. Taking a wild ginseng root, chopping it up and administering it through decoction can be considered natural so long as the plant itself is harvested from the wild. But what about if the ginseng is artificially cultivated? Would that still be natural? Take again another product like aloe vera. A cursory search engine viewing of various aloe vera products often shows the ingredient lists as aloe vera PLUS vitamins, or other chemicals. So if the vitamins are artificially manufactured in a factory, does it not make the final product synthetic? Ultimately the lesson I would like to impart is this: it is very difficult to find medicinal substances that are truly all natural. And even then, that ought not to be the basis of whether or not to believe any therapeutic claims made by the manufacturers of products. We are treating disease here. The bottom line is whether or not the product works. “Natural” is useless if it doesn’t work, and can even be harmful if not used properly. Sources: http://www.who.int/traditional-complementary-integrative-medicine/about/en/ https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/natural https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/medicine