China and the Indian subcontinent have developed what are probably the two most widely known systems of traditional health care: traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine. TCM refers to an ancient healing system that is thought to predate current Western medicine by over 2,000 years.4 It encompasses a range of seemingly disparate techniques and materials, including widely popular areas such as acupuncture, massage, and herbal preparations, as well as the more esoteric areas of moxibustion and qi gong. Ginseng (Panax ginseng) is probably the most famous medicinal herb used in traditional Chinese medicine, and the one best know to Westerners. Many other herbs, such as ma huang and gingko biloba, have been used in Chinese medicine for over 3,000 years but are only now enjoying great popularity in Western industrialized countries.
Ayurvedic medicine, another ancient system of healing, originating before 2500 B.C., provides an integrated or holistic approach to the prevention and treatment of illness using a combination of diets, drugs, and certain practices.5 The term Ayurvedic has its origins in the Sanskrit words ayus, meaning life, and veda, meaning knowledge or science. Ayurvedic preparations are complex and their main ingredients are plant extracts. Around 1,250 plants are currently in use. Well-known Ayurvedic plants include the snakeroot plant (Rauwolfia serpentina), known in India as Sarpaganda. Sarpaganda has been used for centuries to treat insanity as well as physical illnesses such as fever. An extract was isolated in 1952 and subsequently marketed as the drug reserpine for lowering high blood pressure.5 Many Western herbs generally require little processing and are normally used by themselves in infusions or in tinctures. By contrast, Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs often require complicated processing and are not generally used singly, but in combination with other herbs to form compounds.
Specific mention should also be made here of Tibetan medicine, a healing system that combines knowledge and traditions of Chinese and Indian medicine with a strong spiritual component derived from Buddhism.4 Though the Tibetan materia medica includes animal and mineral ingredients, it is mainly herbal, relying on some 1,000 plants. Tibetan medical plants include pomegranate (Punica granatum), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and white sandalwood (Santalum album). Several traditional Tibetan herbal preparations show great promise as therapeutic agents, such as "Padma-28," currently being studied by several groups for its anti-inflammatory activities.6,7 This is a mixture of twenty-two herbs, including spiral flag, Iceland moss, china-berry, myrobalan, cardamom, red saunders, sorrel, camphor, hardy orange, columbine, licorice, ribwort, knotgrass, golden cinquefoil, clove, gingerlily, heart-leaved sida, lettuce, valerian, and marigold.7
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