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CAM, Natural Medicine and Treatment – Fact or Fiction?

The use of natural medicines and techniques to treat sickness and disease dates back into antiquity. Through a gradual process of trial and error over numerous millennia, the properties (both positive and negative) of countless herbs, plants and naturally occurring substances, as well as various complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices and therapies, were observed and noted. The oral tradition for passing on knowledge was later supplemented with the development of the written word that enabled systematic cataloging of the characteristics of both disease and treatment.

CAM/natural medicines are still widely used today in non-industrialized societies, and even if we discount those old wives’ tale treatments that have been shown to be effective e.g. use of cranberry juice as an antibacterial agent to treat bladder and urinary tract infections (Mc Call et al. 2013 , Chan et al. 2013) they still form the basis for much of modern medicine. For example, in 2001 Fabricant and Farnsworth showed that modern medicine uses at least 122 compounds that originate from ethnomedical sources (ethnobotany is the study of traditional uses of plants). Also, over 12,000 plant compounds (phytochemicals) with the potential to treat disease have been isolated at present out of an estimated number that exceeds a million.

In fact, a high percentage of today’s pharmaceutical drugs incorporate ingredients that once were or are currently obtained from nature, (including simple and inexpensive herbs and herbal extracts) or use synthetic derivatives of these.

A few examples are shown below:




Originally as salicin derived from the bark of the genus Salix (willow tree) and subsequently as acetylsalicylic acid derived from the plant  
Filipendula ulmaria (formerly Spiraea ulmaria)


Ananas comosus (pineapple)


From Papaver somniferum (opium poppy)


From Camellia sinensis (tea but also from coffee, cocoa and other plants)


Digitalis purpurea  (purple or common foxglove)


Ephedra sinica (ephedra, ma huang)


Cinchona ledgeriana (bark of quinine/cinchona/chinchona)


Papaver somniferum  (opium poppy)


Ephedra sinica (ephedra, ma huang)


Taxus brevifolia (pacific yew)


In addition, there are numerous complementary treatments and therapies that are used by health services across the world. For example, UK National Health Service (NHS) notes the following locally provided services:

  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Chiropractic
  • Clinical hypnotherapy
  • Homeopathy
  • Massage
  • Osteopathy

Furthermore, patient support groups and cognitive-behavioral therapy – once viewed as being examples of CAM mind-body therapies – have become increasingly mainstream and considered a facet of conventional medicine.

The world of natural medicines, approaches and techniques in fact represents a huge and diverse collective of niches, studies and disciplines. Each could fill volumes of books therefore the information contained in the following sections can at best represent only a basic overview. The reader is encouraged to use them as the starting point for further study.

CAM, Natural Medicine and Treatment - Fact or Fiction

Although there are many instances whereby the efficacy of a particular natural remedy or technique is supported by scientific research, it must be noted that this is not always the case. A lack of scientific research and peer-reviewed clinical studies may mean that any claims, however bold or popular, are just circumstantial and anecdotal at this present time. Therefore, anyone interested in alternative treatments for allergies must always apply due diligence.

In addition, anyone who receives prescribed medication from a practitioner should consult with them before using herbal or natural medicines. This is especially true for those with moderate to severe allergies that normally require ongoing medication and monitoring by a practitioner. In these cases, natural products are normally used in a purely complementary fashion to any prescribed medication and not as an alternative.

Aside from the issue of possible toxicity, herbal or natural medicines may contain active ingredients that interfere with (by reducing or enhancing) the action of the medication taken by a person. Furthermore, the natural medicine may be medicinally ineffectual (placebo) and have no health benefit whatsoever. This could be problematic for an individual who adjusts their dose of prescribed medication believing that the natural medicine is having some positive effect.

We will next consider Risks of Using Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in this series on Understanding Natural Treatment.

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