Advances in traditional pharmacology that will surprise you

The pharmaceutical industry has always relied on the knowledge derived from the study of plants coming from different parts of the world. However, it has not always been the case that the study of those plants, undertaken by more traditional communities, be seen as a really useful kind of research for the pharmaceutical industry. But in more recent times, different fields related to ethnomedicine have become important for the industry, and indeed the most important one is ethnopharmacy.

Ethnomedicine, also known as traditional medicine, can be seen in general as the study of the sort of medicine practiced by different ethnic groups, with a special emphasis on indigenous peoples from several parts of the world. It is usually considered as an interdisciplinary field of study, given that it combines research methods of a rather ample variety of disciplines, including ethnobotany and medical anthropology.

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On the one hand, ethnobotany is the scientific study of the relations that may exist between peoples and plants. Its aim is to document, describe and explain the relationships between the culture of certain groups of people and the uses that they give to different sorts of plants. Those uses do not only refer to their presence in things such as rituals, dye, construction, or cosmetics. It may also refer to food, clothing, currency, and of course, medicine. On the other hand, medical anthropology refers to empirical research and theoretical analyses having to do with what representations of health, illness and nursing practices have different social groups and cultures.

This type of intellectual and academic background may lead one to think that ethnomedical studies belong exclusively to anthropological research, but that is not actually the case. They also have to do with research pertaining to drug discovery. So, those studies related to anthropological research certainly focus on things like the perception of some group of people regarding a traditional medicine, and the cultural context where this happens. But the focus of drug discovery research is different. The point here is to find certain plants that may become marketable pharmaceutical products. And that is the reason why ethnopharmacology is one of the main disciplines to be found in ethnomedical studies.

Ethnopharmacology can be described in general as the study of the uses that different ethnic groups around the world give to several types of drugs. This helps to understand why it is part of ethnomedical studies, and why it is closely linked to ethnobotany. Because it depends on a good amount of knowledge concerning plant use and its connection with things like health, illness, and disease. This interdisciplinary field of study also has an interest in how a given human society perceives the use of pharmaceuticals, and this includes both traditional and modern societies. Therefore, even though ethnopharmacology has focused a lot on more traditional medicines, it likewise has a clear impact and a clear incidence on the study of modern pharmaceuticals.

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Ethnopharmacological studies deal therefore with the cultural contexts in which a given society uses certain drugs. And as a consequence, it is important for this discipline to identify the natural material that will be employed in the production of a drug. So, besides ethnobotany, such a process also involves references to ethnotaxonomy, medical ethnobiology, ethnomycology and ethnozoology. It also must take into account disciplines such as ethnopharmaceutics, or the study of the traditional ways to prepare distinct types of pharmaceuticals, ethnopharmacology, which is the evaluation of the pharmacological action of these pharmaceuticals, and clinical ethnopharmacy, whose attempt is to identify their clinical effectiveness.

Another aspect to take into account regarding ethnopharmacology is the study of the dimensions both social and medical implied in the uses of pharmaceuticals by a society, traditional as well as modern. The point is that ethnopharmacology is mainly involved with how to contribute to improve public health based on pharmacy practice-related issues.

Ethnopharmacological studies have been undertaken with respect to many sorts of illnesses, diseases and parts of medicine. For example, there are studies having to do with research on cancer, immunology, gastric dysfunction, anti-inflammatory, antinociceptive and diuretic activities, cardioprotection, among many others. The main idea behind all these studies is to find ways to deal with contemporary medical issues based on more traditional, less aggressive, and even healthier approaches to illness and disease. It is therefore important in these ethnopharmacological studies to appeal to the same methods that an ethnic group has traditionally employed to collect its plants, extract their pharmaceutical properties, and prepare and produce the drugs that it uses. The purpose here is to ensure that empirical consistency be granted, and that the experimentation performed there can be taken as truly legitimate from a scientific point of view.

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Ethnopharmacology is, therefore, about how the modern world can benefit from the knowledge about plants and their pharmaceutical uses that many peoples around the world have obtained during centuries and centuries of trying to face different types of illnesses and diseases.

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