Traditional Asian medicine

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When the topic of traditional Asian medicine was first mooted, we were sceptical. To a magazine based in Europe and steeped in the history of science, there is much about traditional Asian medical practice that seems mystical and pseudoscientific. Other than well known success stories — artemisinin for malaria, and arsenic trioxide for leukaemia — there seemed to be a lack of scientifically proven remedies.

Yet a bit of probing revealed what a complex story this is. Not only are big efforts underway to modernize traditional medicine in China and Japan, but Western medicine is adopting some aspects of the Eastern point of view too. In particular, modern medical practitioners are coming around to the idea that certain illnesses cannot be reduced to one isolatable, treatable cause. Rather, a fall from good health often involves many small, subtle effects that create a system-wide imbalance.

But do traditional medicines actually work? Their personalized nature makes randomized controlled trials — the gold standard for testing drugs — extremely difficult. Rarely are two formulations identical. However, as modern medicine becomes more personalized, using biological and genetic markers, it is inadvertently developing the tools to better test traditional medicines.

Although artemisinin and arsenic trioxide are the archetypal examples of successful modern medicines mined from traditional Asian medicine, they do not represent the ideal convergence of the two systems. There are unique aspects to traditional Asian medicine that could hold great promise if they are artfully investigated. The goal of science should be to rigorously test each claim and sort the medical wheat from the pseudoscientific chaff.

We acknowledge the financial support of Saishunkan Pharmaceutical Co., ltd and Kitasato University Oriental Medicine Research Center in producing this Outlook. As always, Nature takes full responsibility for all editorial content.

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  1. Associate Editor, Nature Outlooks.

    • Michelle Grayson

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  1. Report this comment #34847

    J B said:

    Although brief, this article suggests a more sophisticated approach to what traditional medicine can offer than much popular writing on the subject. Between partisan credulity, and dismissive skepticism comes this genuinely scientific approach. Asian medicine is a vast and very complex topic. Any attempt to reduce it to right or wrong is simplistic at best.

  2. Report this comment #34868

    Charles Murtaugh said:

    It's convenient that Nature should publish this supplement a few months before my subscription comes due for renewal. I'm now thinking to save my money instead for powdered rhinoceros horn or tiger penis.

  3. Report this comment #36952

    Tobias Baskin said:

    Based on the articles in this supplement, one could summarize efforts to unite practices of traditional Asian medicine with those of the West as: ?More drugs, less hocus-pocus?. But, what if the hocus-pocus were bioactive? That hocus-pocus can cure is obvious from the necessity of the double-blind trial: If the patient sniffs out which pill is the placebo, then it becomes mere sugar; but if the patient has no clue, then, to the contrary, the placebo becomes an effective medicine, curing about one-third of the time. What if traditional Asian medicine arises from taking the placebo effect and exploiting it brilliantly? I suggest that this possibility be considered by those spending millions to screen herbal infusions for active molecules, and that those seeking to unite Eastern and Western medicine need to pay attention to the role of the mind.

  4. Report this comment #39350

    Neha Mittal said:

    I am just wondering while talking about traditional Asian medicines, how one can leave the Ayurvedic Medicines that mainly belong to India.
    Or the article should be Traditional Chinese Medicines??

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