Myanmar’s Traditional Medicine

The belief in turning to nature to heal and cure, is strong in nearly all Asian nations, and in Myanmar, even more so. Traditional medicine treatments have been followed in Myanmar for generations and continue to be popular even today, though more in remote rural areas, not least due to non availability of western (allopathic) medicines. Herbs and medicinal plants are found in abundance in this largely agrarian country, and serve as highly affordable remedies for diseases.

Understanding of traditional medicine remains vague. According to the World Health Organization, traditional medicine can be defined as the “sum total of knowledge, skills and practices” of unique cultural origin that can be used for treating diseases and promoting wellness. This includes home remedies, naturopathy and all that we refer to as alternative medicine, but has been followed for decades.

Evidence has been found of the first use of traditional medicine as far back as 600 BC, and was passed on from one generation to the next, with its use becoming secondary once western medicine became popular and offered quicker remedies to symptoms of illnesses. In the midst of ups and downs in its use, the Myanmar government’s decision to formally include traditional medicine in the nation’s healthcare system, has given the science of natural healing a much needed boost, while also promoting holistic well being.

Allopathic versus Traditional Medicine

There is no denying that allopathic or western medicine is the treatment of the last resort, and the preferred option for life-threatening, killer diseases, which also provides quick relief. But while curing one set of symptoms, it leaves a trail of side effects that can be damaging as well. Naturopaths argue that western treatment is all about suppression of symptoms, not internal healing which is so essential for well being.

However, western medicines are tried and tested, subject to strict regulations, and their efficacy closely monitored at all times. Pain management, and a seemingly better quality of life, with complete rehabilitation, are some of the benefits of allopathic treatment. Millions of dollars have been spent in research to come up with treatments and potential cures of virtually every disease found to be afflicting any human being.

A crucial difference between western and traditional medicine is the approach – the former looks at a malady in isolation, focusing only on the affected body part, while the latter looks at the whole body and offers holistic remedies. Western medicine is based on the tenet that the symptoms of an illness need to be cured, while traditional medicine considers symptoms to be a manifestation of a body imbalance that has to be restored. The former uses highly potent, strong medicines which are a combination of chemicals, with the idea of destroying the disease, the latter opts for slow-acting, less potent medicines that are safer and devoid of side effects which will cure and also provide insights into the disease. Traditional medicine is much cheaper, and far more affordable by a larger section of the population besides being easily available, compared to its western counterpart that is expensive and not easily obtainable especially in remote, rural areas.

International Acceptance and Impetus from government

In the last couple of decades, traditional and herbal treatments have been gaining international acceptance and an increasing number of people opt for this path towards wellness, not just because it is cheaper, but also because it is safer and virtually devoid of side effects. According to a World Health Organization Bulletin, the global market for their products stands at US$ 60 billion, with 80% of Africa’s population using it in some form, 75% of Myanmar’s population resorting to traditional medicine treatment due to easier access, availability and affordability. Countries like China, India and the US with WHO participation, are investing substantial amounts of time, effort and money in research in the field.

The Myanmar Government’s National Health Policy has incorporated traditional medicine within the realm of treatment while also encouraging service and research in the field. The four-year Health Plans have also included traditional healthcare services into the mainstream of the health program. The Health Ministry has a separate Department of Traditional Medicine that looks into formal education in the field, has set up 14 Traditional Medicine hospitals and 237 clinics, and ensures distribution of traditional medicine kits in states and districts. There are over 9000 registered traditional medicine practitioners in the country, though only 1612 have degrees from public institutions. Mandalay has a full-fledged University of Traditional Medicine and eight herbal gardens have been developed, the largest being the 196-acre National Herbal Park in Naypyitaw that boasts of over 500 different species including some rare ones.

Method of Traditional Medicine Treatment

Myanmar’s system of using traditional medicines for healing shows the influence of Buddhist philosophy, Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic concepts due to its proximity to India, and the prolonged Indian influence during British Rule.

The system believes that the human body can be afflicted with 96 different diseases, and these are all treatable by using dried and fresh, roots, herbs, flowers, barks, leaves and stems. Medicines can be prescribed for cough and cold, fever, malaria, heart ailments, stomach ulcers, kidney stones, besides pain killers both mild, and strong.

There are various methods practiced for healing with traditional medicines, but the principal components of this system of treatment include the following:

  • The Desana System-  Based on the tenets of Buddhism, this system follows the natural course of life and treats ailments through diet modifications and use of herbs and mineral compounds on the basis of their therapeutic qualities.
  • The Bethizza System- This system closely follows the principles of Indian traditional medicine, namely Ayurveda. It helps to restore any imbalance in the body by finding the right balance between the three main doshas, in the body, namely Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. The treatment involves use of mineral compounds and herbal extracts.
  • The Astrological or Netkhatta System – This system seeks to cure illnesses on the basis of the patient’s astrological chart, the date and time of birth, the position of planets and stars. The suggested diet is based on these astrological calculations.
  • The Vezzadara System- Alchemic practices and meditation form the foundation of this system. It involves techniques of converting heavy metals into inert substances by killing processes to acquire supernatural power. Thus poisonous substances like arsenic, and metals like mercury and lead go through a series of chemical processes and are combined with other compounds to make drugs that heal and cure.

Manufacture of Traditional Medicines

Herbal concoctions as home remedies are prepared by hundreds of families, based on knowledge passed on from generation to generation. On a mass scale traditional medicines are manufactured by both the public and private sector. The public sector units come under the purview of the Department of Traditional Medicine which ensures that GMP (good manufacturing practices) standards are followed. The private sector units export a large amount of their production. FAME is the largest and only well known manufacturer in the private sector.

Popularly Used Herbs

Traditional medicine uses plants and herbs to make powders, gels and tablets for treating disease and body disorders. These are known to have no side effects, and in case they do not benefit the patient, they do no harm either, and are hence considered safe.

A wide variety of plants and herbs with specific therapeutic qualities are used for making medicines, ideally using every part of the plant. Herbalists follow an elaborate method of collecting plants, and not in a random manner. Myanmar is home to some very rare plants and every effort is made not to make them extinct. Cultivation of these and other plants is picking up in the government sponsored herb gardens in the country.

Some of the herbs used include the following:

  1. Asiatic Penny Wort- This wild plant grows in wet places and is particularly useful for treating impaired memory and eye diseases. The whole plant is crushed into a powder, and used with honey to improve memory, while powdered leaves used with honey and milk helps cure eye diseases.
  2. Sweet flag – This aromatic herb grows in streams and ponds, immersed in mud. The rhizome is used to treat indigestion and colic and is administered with honey.
  3. Neem – With its antifungal properties this phyto-medicine is particularly useful for skin diseases and is made into cream and used as an antibacterial, antifungal treatment.
  4. Tamarind- Known as a cleansing fruit, it helps improve digestion and a sore throat, besides serving as a mild laxative.
  5. Ginger – An excellent remedy for digestive disorders, it is used in its fresh and dried form to treat nausea, colic, and general indigestion.
  6. Blue evergreen hydrangea- Known by the local name Yin Pya Myit, this is 25 times more potent than quinine and therefore, highly effective as an anti-malarial treatment.
  7. Sweet broom weed – This plant contains amellin which is effectively used in the treatment of diabetes.

Myanmar is at the crossroads of rapid growth and development. The need of the hour is to improve its health care system, make medical aid available in its backward and remote rural areas, so as to improve the quality of life of its people. Western medicine is not easily available and remains often unaffordable by a large section of the population. While it remains the treatment of the last resort, it requires the constant balancing of cure and side effects. Hence, it makes sense to turn to traditional medicine for smaller ailments that are treatable by non-intrusive herbal and natural compounds, which have virtually no side effects. Holistic treatment also comes only with traditional medicine. The western world despite its access to the best of western medicine is also now turning to traditional treatments propounded by Ayurveda and other Asian traditional treatments, so why should we not accept and adopt age old remedies and improve our health and well being?

The middle path may of course be ideal, that takes the best of both traditional and western medicine, opting for the best fit, for specific ailments. Holistic healing, that blends good dietary practices, exercises like yoga, meditation to alleviate stress and anxiety, combined with natural therapeutic treatments, can go a long way in keeping us free from illness and disease. Traditional medicine may just be the starting point of looking at curing ailments that will do more good and no harm.