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Study Alternative Medicine

Alternative and Complementary Medicine

Author: Anne Cowper DBM MNHAA National Herbalists Association of Australia
The alternative and complementary medicine industry in Australia is growing at a rapid rate. It is currently estimated that the market is worth over one billion dollars, with more than 20% of that market being herbal medicine and related products. In Australia, as well as overseas, this market appears to be growing at about 30% per year.

The rapid growth is largely due to a growing demand from the public, with reportedly more than 50% of Australians using herbal or complementary medicines. One reason for this growth is a strong desire from people to take greater control of their own health and well being. This can be achieved through consultation with an appropriately trained practitioner and through methods such as improving nutrition, or changes in lifestyle techniques such as increasing exercise and reducing stress. Another reason is the perceived or real need to avoid the unwanted side effects of conventional medical drugs.

What is alternative and complementary medicine

Many terms have been used for this growing field of medicine. Natural therapies, holistic medicine, naturopathy, complementary medicine and alternative therapies are some of the terms which have been used to describe the broad range of modalities incorporated in this field, the more prominent of which are herbal medicine, nutrition, massage and homeopathy. Within each of these fields there are further different forms. For example with herbal medicine there is western herbal medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, each with its own particular philosophy and treatment regime. Forms of massage include reflexology, shiatsu, Reiki and the Bowen and Alexander techniques. Other forms of treatment include acupuncture, iridology, Bach flowers, aromatherapy and gem therapy.

The term alternative and complementary medicine (ACM) has been picked up by some of the newer institutions, and is looked upon more favorably by the more conventional scientific and medical profession.

Western Herbal Medicine

In Australia, western herbal medicine is one of the most popular forms of ACM. There are many colleges throughout Australia teaching comprehensive courses in western herbal medicine. The National Herbalists Association of Australia (NHAA) was founded in 1920 and is the national body for practising herbalists. The NHAA has a minimum required standard for full practising members and accredits only those courses which meet those minimum requirements. There are currently twelve colleges in Australia with fully accredited courses. Another four are presently under review.

An accredited course in herbal medicine requires a minimum of 700 hours of study in herbal medicine and medical sciences. Many courses also require additional study in areas such as nutrition, counselling, iridology and massage.

The majority of courses in herbal medicine are currently conducted through private colleges although recently, degree courses have been implemented in several of the universities in Australia.

Western herbal medicine incorporates a relatively traditional philosophy of treatment, maintaining scientific and medical terms consistent with conventional western medical practice. However the fundamental difference between ACM and conventional medicine is treatment of the overall person, not the disease. For example, an "allergy'is not a disease, but rather a symptom of a physiological imbalance which is treated from many different aspects included improving the immune system. Diseases of the skin are not just treated with topical agents, but are treated internally with "detoxifying'or "cleansing'agents for areas such as the liver and bowel. Specific herbs are used for treatment of pre-menstrual syndrome, however discussion of dietary and lifestyle factors is always included.

Herbal medicines are primarily whole extracts of plant material rather than extracts of an isolated constituent as with orthodox drugs. The additional constituents in the plant temper the action of some of the stronger isolates (such as alkaloids or glycosides), avoiding unwanted side effects within the body while not detracting from their efficiency.

Most herbal medicines used by practitioners are in the form of liquid concentrated extracts. Herbal practitioners in Australia can practice as prime contact therapists and can dispense their own medicines.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM has existed in Australia since the influx of Chinese migrants to the gold fields over 100 years ago. Although some herbs are common to both TCM and western herbal practitioners, most are different and need to be imported from overseas.

TCM philosophy is based on the yin/yang principle of balancing and harmonising conditions within the body. Most TCM herbs are dispersed as dried chopped herbs and need to be prepared by the patient.

Ayurvedic Medicine

Ayurveda is defined as the science of life. The word is derived from Sanskrit roots, ayus meaning life, and veda meaning knowledge or sciences. Its teachings date back to at least 5000 BC. Today the system is very much alive in India and its influence has spread to the rest of the world. Ayurvedic herbs and foods are categorised according to energetic qualities, which in turn can be matched to each individual's constitution.

Although there are few purely Ayurvedic practitioners in Australia, many herbal practitioners incorporate some Ayurvedic principles and herbs into their practice.

The success of Herbal Medicine

The complex and individual nature of each person's health, or lack of health, and the need for very personalised and individual forms of treatment, is one of the reasons for the efficacy of the practice of herbal medicine. A recent conference for General Practitioners in Australia reflected an awareness by the medical professions of the increasing popularity of ACM. The conference was titled Emerging medicine strategies for integrating orthodox and complementary health care. Their promotional material stated:

""patients are now more concerned with health management and an orientation towards wellness. How will this affect your business GPs need to acquaint themselves with other therapeutic approaches and integrate various ethical non-pharmaceutical modalities into their clinical practice."

The Future of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in Australia

The growing trend towards this form of medicine in Australia has led to many positive changes over the last few years, particularly in the field of herbal medicine.

Quality and Safety

To ensure the quality and safety of medicines in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of the Government has established a Complementary Medicines Evaluation Committee (CMEC) to make recommendations a safety, quality and efficacy of herbal substances which are required to be listed or registered with the TGA. Herbal remedies are considered by the TGA to be "reasonably safe with less adverse reactions than conventional pharmaceutical treatments'.


There are many institutions world-wide carrying out research into the use of herbal medicines. In Australia investigations are being made into the use of traditional medicines, including Australian aboriginal medicine, as a source of new pharmaceuticals. Sydney University has established the Herbal Medicines Research and Education Centre (HMREC) to "promote high quality scholarship and research excellence in herbal medicines through teaching, research and international linkages'.

Australia is one of the leading countries in the world in regard to practice and teaching of alternative and complementary medicine. The standard of education and practice of ACM is as high as any in the world. Australia is at the forefront of continuing to raise these standards to a professional and academic level recognised and respected by the Australian public, the scientific and medical community, and by the world at large.

Author: Anne Cowper DBM MNHAA, Secretary, National Herbalists Association of Australia



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