Globalization and Alternative Medicines
Globalization and Alternative Medicines

From ayurveda to acupuncture, alternative (or complementary) treatments are increasingly becoming globalized. Many of these treatments originated thousands of years ago in the developing world, where they are still commonly used. Sometimes these treatments are the only affordable health care option in these countries. Increasingly these treatments are being adopted by Western countries. Fears exist about the commodification of these treatments and the subsequent repercussions for local communities who rely on them.

More than one-third of Americans use some form of alternative or complementary medicine, and that number doubles, when taking into account prayer being used for health reasons.1 In France, 75 percent of the population has used alternative medicines at least once. In Germany, 77 percent of the pain clinics include acupuncture. And, in the United Kingdom, expenditure on alternative medicine averages US$2300 million per year.2

American and European Departments of Health are increasingly examining these complementary medicines through calls for funded research. Many of the treatments are also starting to be covered by American and European health insurance companies. In Europe, regulations of alternative medicines focus on consumer protection and quality issues, rather than on financial regulations, since the bulk of the sales are in the private market.

Schools to train practitioners and to certify existing practitioners are giving these therapies more clout, as certification allows for higher quality-control within the field. Despite their increased acceptance amongst Western countries, many still question their effectiveness.

This analysis will examine different types of alternative medicines, related government policies, and the ramifications for the developing world.

Traditional vs. Modern Medicine

Dr. Erick Gbodossou, president of the NGO Promotion of Traditional Medicine (PROMETRA), writes about the difference between traditional and modern medicines. He notes that the African concept of health and disease, similar to other traditional concepts, is associated with human agents (enemies, ancestors, witches, spirits, God) and physical agents (sun, dust, rain, and food.).3 Traditional healers use metaphysical and somatic diagnostic tools; healers examine physical, social, and spiritual dimensions of the patient.

In contrast, modern medicine focuses on the patient, studying movement, physiology, and other body systems. Modern medicine relies on research and scientific studies for breakthroughs, while traditional medicine is often more static and is passed down through apprenticeships.

Alternative or complimentary medicines includes professionally organized treatments, such as acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, homeopathy, and osteopathy; complementary medicines, such as aromatherapy, massage therapy, meditation, and yoga; and alternative disciplines, such as Chinese herbal medicine and ayurveda.4


Acupuncture originated thousands of years ago in China. It includes the stimulation of pressure points through the insertion of thin medal needles to remove the blockage of the qi (energy flow) and to restore balance to the body. Chinese medicine is based on a theory of balancing yin and yang; yin reflects the cold, slow, or passive principle, while the yang reflects the hot, excited, or active principle.5

Acupuncture is often sought out by people seeking to improve their immune system, to reduce pain, to increase energy, to eliminate allergies, and to lose weight. There are few known complications. Since the 1970’s scientists have been studying its efficacy through clinical trials examining how it can be used to manage migraines, treat knee pain, help infertile couples, and more.6

A 2002 study found that 8.2 million adults in the U.S. have used acupuncture. In the U.S., acupuncture is regulated by the licensing of practitioners, providing standard for the needles, and by requiring single-use for the needles.7 Acupuncture is covered by some U.S. health insurances, but not all.

Ayurvedic Medicine began in India thousands of years ago and is based on the balance amongst space, air, fire, water, and earth.8 Ayurveda treats problems on a metaphysical level and takes into account all the senses (touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing). Treatment includes warm oil massages to stimulate the nervous system, as well as yoga, diet, medicines, and prana (breath) to remove impurities, toxins, and stress. Hospital treatments often include other restrictions, such as restrictions on time spent talking, reading, writing, using the Internet and watching television.9

Ayurveda is a form of empirical medicine rooted in revelations of the Rishis (seekers of knowledge) who passed it down through the generation through oral traditional and recorded it in the Sastra, sacred Hindu texts. In 1835, ayurveda (along with other traditional forms of medicine) were banned by the British when they colonized India. Soon thereafter ayurveda was forced to go underground. It resurfaced in the early 1900’s, when it was heavily influenced by allopathic and conventional medicine.10

After India’s independence in 1947, Ayurveda received greater legitimacy and government support, as a home-grown, inexpensive, efficient way to improve people’s health. In 1970, the World Health Organization recognized Ayurveda as a health science and as a traditional health system. Today, more than 70 percent of the Indian population use ayurveda as their primary health care; the Indian government allocates 1.6 percent of its medical budget to ayurvedic medicines.11

Ayurveda is taught in Indian undergraduate and post-graduate institutions; students must study ayurveda for five and half years at the undergraduate level and take a half-year clinical internship. Graduates have to register at with state councils.12 With 7,000 private clinics and 500 government clinics and hospitals, ayurveda is often associated with the Indian state of Kerala, but is increasingly found in Goa, as well. Tourists from around the world flock to Goa to receive inexpensive treatment, but many places where it is practiced are not licensed and not regulated.13

Ayurveda is increasingly practiced around the world. Institutes to study ayurveda can be found in Europe and the U.S. In Europe though, ayurvedic drugs are classified as herbal medicine and will not be accepted by the FDA until they have been studied for 15 years.14

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine uses medicinal plants to treat and prevent diseases. It is used in traditional and popular medicines all over the world, and has been practiced for thousands of years. Nearly 25 percent of modern medicines are derived from plants that were first used traditionally.15

Traditional uses of herbal medicine often use very low concentrations of the plants. There have been known side-effects and risks to use of herbal remedies, so many call for pharmacological quality and safety studies on herbal-derived remedies. Often their effectiveness is tied to belief in them, with a placebo-like effect. The composition of the remedy (anatomical part of the plant that is used), its storage, environment, time of harvest, and other details, affect the quality and chemical concentrations within each of the batches.16

One of the main critiques associated with herbal medicine is its increased commodification as it becomes more mainstream and subsequent tensions between indigenous and non-indigenous use of it. Herbal medicines are traditionally associated with shamans and nature worship, in which preservation of local cultures and ecologies are intertwined with traditional herbal medicine. On the other, there is the corporate herbal product industry, which takes herbal preparations and markets them as drugs, or medical commodities.17

Regulations often favor large corporate producers of herbal medicines over small, low-tech manufacturers, by instituting certain codes in which large companies can easily absorb the costs to comply. As regulations increase, larger corporations can develop products to fit within government regulations. These corporations often do not take into account other aspects of herbal medicine used by indigenous communities, which make them effective, such as place of growth and time of harvest.18

Problems have arisen amongst users in the West who are not always informed about the correct usage of the herbs. For example, 70 Belgians required renal transplants or dialysis after improperly using Ma Huang (ephedra), used in China for short-term respiratory congestion, but marketed in Belgium as a dietary aid.19

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of people in developing countries rely on alternative medicines, as Western medicine is not as readily available and is often too expensive.20 With increased commodification of herbal and other traditional remedies, questions arise about intellectual property, sustainability, and access for local peoples.


There are many arguments made against the use of alternative and complementary medicines. Many criticize the fact that many of these treatments have not been tested with evidence-based methods, using randomized control trials.

Others worry about the chemical composition of the associated drugs; for example, a research study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, found that 20 percent of Indian-made, Avurveydic preparations that were sold in the U.S. contain significant levels of toxic metals, such as lead, mercury, and arsenic.21

Other complaints focus on the practitioners; for example, in China, there are many poorly trained doctors, that prescribe herbal medicines that have not been mixed properly or are not prescribed in the correct amounts. Some Chinese critics even demand that Traditional Chinese Medicine should not be covered by insurance companies.22


There are hundreds of types of alternative and complementary medicines and many are starting to be used together with Western medicine. Many look to an approach that merges alternative with Western medicines and takes the best of both world. Alternative medicines would certainly benefit from the rigor of research and evaluation placed on Western medicines. A holistic approach to health would certainly benefit many, as our emotional, spiritual, and physical health are intertwined. Increased collaboration amongst practitioners and researchers would benefit everyone, as the patient will have more opportunities to address their ailments and concerns.

1 Arisa. Donya. “Alternative Medicines’ Popularity Prompts Concern: Use of Alternative and Complementary Remedies on the Rise.” The Nations Health. August 2, 2004.
2 “WHO launches the first global strategy on traditional and alternative medicine.” World Health Organization.
3 Gbodossu, Erick. “Traditional modern medicine in the context of globalization.” Indigenous knowledge Notes. No. 68. May 1, 2004.

5 Accupuncture. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines, National Institute of Health.
6 International Council for Medical Acupuncture and Related Techniques. Abstracts of ICMART 2006 Congress.
7 Accupuncture. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines, National Institute of Health.
8 Suarez, Maria. “Ayurveda, the science of life.” Women’s Health Journal. October-December, 2006.
9 Ibid.
10 Mayatitananda, Swamini. “The Globalization of Ayurveda.” Speech. November 2002.
11 Toro, Maria Suarez. “Ayurveda, the science of life.” Women’s Health Journal. October-December, 2006.
12 Singh, Amritpal. “A Note on the Status of Ayurvedic and Herbal Studies in India.” September 25, 2007
13 “Ancient Indian Medicine Faces Challenges of Globalization.” January 19, 2008.
14 Ibid.
15 “WHO launches the first global strategy on traditional and alternative medicine.” World Health Organization.
16 Firenzuoli, Fabio and Luigi Gori. “Herbal Medicine Today: Clinical and Research Issues.” Evidence Based Complement Alternat Med. 2007 September; 4(Suppl 1): 37–40.
17 Jagtenburg, Tom and Sue Evans. “Global Herbal Medicine: A Critique.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Volume 9, Number 2, 2003, pp. 321–329.
18 Ibid.
19 “WHO launches the first global strategy on traditional and alternative medicine.” World Health Organization.
20 Arisa. Donya. “Alternative Medicines’ Popularity Prompts Concern: Use of Alternative and Complementary Remedies on the Rise.” The Nations Health. August 2, 2004.
21 Contemporary Ayurveda. Motely Health News Blog.
22 Macartney, Jane, and Sophie Yu. “In China, medicine debate rages.” Times Online. February 14th, 2007.

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