Southern and Southeastern Asia


The current practices within traditional Indian medicine reflect an ancient tradition that can be traced back to at least 900 bc, to written Ayurvedic records. These practices, all holistic in nature, are divided into three principal systems: Ayurveda, Siddha, and Unani. The most ancient is Ayurveda, literally meaning the “science of life,” and has a basis in the spiritual as well as the temporal. The practice of Ayurveda is aimed at the intrinsic whole of the patient and involves the administration of medicinal preparations of complex mixtures containing animal, plant, and mineral products. Siddha can be considered similar to Ayurveda and is governed by the understanding that everything, including the human body, is made up of the five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. In addition, 96 major elements are considered to constitute human beings and include the constituents of physiological, moral, and intellectual elements. An imbalance among any of these is believed to result in disease. Siddha medicine is based more on a psychosomatic system in which treatments are based on minerals, metals, and herbal products. The Unani medical system can be sourced to the writings of the Greek philosopher-physician Hippocrates (460-377 bc). The system was introduced by Arabic practitioners seeking refuge in India from the Mongol hordes invading Persia and central Asia. Unani medicine is based on the medical history of a patient and still includes a major element of plant drug administration that compliments dietary and physical regimes. However, in this case the drugs are usually single herbs administered for specific diseases, rather than the herbal mixtures commonly found in Ayurveda or Siddha.

Ginger Zingiber officinale / Zingiberaceae

Ginger is one of the world’s most commonly used culinary spices. The medicinal use of ginger has an ancient history and can be traced back to Greek and Roman times. In Indian medicinal practice the plant has been mentioned in religious scriptures dating back to 2000 bc. The rhizome of the plant is used and is best recognized in Ayurvedic medicine as an aid to digestion and to treat rheumatism/inflammation. Trikatu (“three spice”) is an example of an Ayurvedic remedy containing ginger, used to improve digestive and respiratory function, which also contains black pepper (Piper nigrum) and Indian long pepper (Piper longum). Across the world ginger is a popular food additive to aid digestion. Some of its more unusual uses are to promote hair growth (Japan), treat nerve disorders (India), and as an aphrodisiac (Cuba, Yemen). Ginger is acknowledged in Ayurveda to be effective against nausea and neurological dysfunction. Ginger consumption has also been reported to have a beneficial effect in alleviating the pain and frequency of migraine headaches.

Studies on the effectiveness of ginger in rheumatic conditions have shown a moderately beneficial effect, but falls short of proving ginger to be a positive, nontoxic remedy for such conditions.

Indian pennywort Centella asiatica / Apiaceae

Indian pennywort is a creeping herbaceous plant that prefers a moist habitat and is found near reservoirs and streams. This pantropical species is commonly found in India and throughout Sri Lanka, Madagascar, China, South Africa, the southeastern United States, Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia. It is possible that Centella asiatica is identical with the medicinal plant called mandukpani in the Sanskrit text of Susruta (ca. 1200 bc), and today it is used not only in Ayurvedic medicine, but in a large number of medical systems, for a great variety of diseases, and throughout its native range. The major application of C. asiatica has been in the treatment of leprous lesions, first reported in 1887. The active triterpenoid principles were identified 70 years later, but in clinical trials have only been found to be effective in aiding wound healing, vein problems, and striae gravidarum (stretch marks of pregnancy). Standardized extracts of C. asiatica are today incorporated into various ointments and tablets. Other potential pharmaceutical uses are also currently being investigated.

Lemon Grass Cymbopogon citratus / Poaceae

Lemon grass, named after the prominent and relatively strong odor of the crushed leaves, can grow up to 3 feet (1 m) high, with long slender leaves. The base of the stalk is used extensively in oriental culinary dishes and as a tea. Its center of origin is unknown. Today it is widely cultivated throughout the tropics and is an important element of popular medicine in many countries. For example, in Cuba it was shown in a poll conducted in the 1980s to be one of the most widely used medicinal plants. The pharmaceutical uses are extremely diverse, but its use as a carminative (to treat flatulence) and for other gastrointestinal disorders seems to be most relevant, owing to the presence of essential oil.

Makandi Plectranthus barbatus / Lamiaceae

Formerly known as Coleus forskohlii, this is an aromatic herb whose roots are the source of the drug used in medicinal preparations. The roots are a dull orange color and in India they are used to improve the appetite and in the treatment of anemia and inflammation. The roots are the only source of the important diterpene (a terpene with 20 carbon atoms) forskolin. Research was carried out on the possible use of forskolin to reduce high blood pressure and it was shown to be a potent inhibitor of the adenylate cyclase. Although this compound could have been developed into an antihypertensive drug, its development was halted and the compound is today mostly used as a model substance in experimental biochemistry as an inhibitor of adenylate cyclase.

Mishmi, Gold thread Coptis teeta / Ranunculaceae

Coptis teeta is a Ayurvedic herb found in the eastern Himalayan regions, particularly the Mishmi hill range of Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India. The rhizome of the plant is a prized medicinal commodity and is used to treat gastrointestinal complaints (WHO 1999) and malarial infections. However, the plant has been brought close to extinction by deforestation and overexploitation for its medicinal properties. Conservation schemes have recently been proposed and these may lead to the recovery of C. teeta. Coptis species found in other continents are also used medicinally by local populations and include C. trifolia (gold thread, North America) C. chinensis (China), and C. japonica (Southeast Asia). The principal active constituent of Coptis is the alkaloid berberine and it is known to display antidiarrheal and antimicrobial activity (WHO 1999).

Neem Azadirachta indica / Meliaceae

Azadirachta indica or neem is a principal species used in the Ayurvedic medicine of India and today is a tree grown throughout the (sub)tropics. The species is drought resistant and thrives in arid conditions with annual rainfall of between 15-46 inches (400-1200 mm). It can grow between 0-1500 m above sea level, but it is intolerant to freezing, extended periods of cold, and waterlogged soils. Neem trees can reach a height of 80-100 feet (25-30 m) and provide valuable shade with their dense canopy of pinnate leaves.

Neem is thought to have originated in the northeastern region of India (Assam) and in Myanmar (formerly Burma). The exact location of origin is uncertain and some attribute it to the whole of the Indian subcontinent, others to dry forest regions throughout South and Southeast Asia. Neem has also been established in China, Nepal, Australia, West Africa, central America, and the United States. The introduction of neem to East Africa is thought to have arisen during the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railways. Indian migrant workers are believed to have brought neem seed with them in order to cultivate this important medicinal plant. However, the tree is most widely used in India.

The neem tree possesses many medicinal uses derived from all parts of the plant. As part of Ayurvedic medicine, the leaves are chewed for 15 days in late winter in order to maintain a healthy body. Tonics prepared by boiling the leaves, often with other herbal constituents such as ginger (Zingiber officinale), are useful against intestinal worms, fevers, and internal ulcers. Externally, the juice of the leaves is applied to the skin for the treatment of boils and eczema. The twigs are used extensively in dental hygiene to brush the teeth and are incorporated into pastes or mouth washes. The fruits of neem are used against leprosy, intestinal worms, and urinary diseases. Neem oil (Margosa) is a chemically diverse mixture that includes the isoprenoids azadirachtin and nimbidin, plus numerous fatty acids such as oleic and palmitic acids. The oil is used to treat chronic skin complaints, leprosy, and ulcers, and it is also sold as a natural botanical insecticide. Azadirachtin is the major insecticidal principle of neem.

Much controversy surrounds the development of this traditional insecticide and medicine. In 1992 the U.S. company W.R. Grace submitted a patent application in which a simple extraction procedure from the seeds of the neem tree was described. The plant material is extracted with a lipophilic solvent (e.g., ethyl ether), instead of with a watery one, as has been done for many centuries in India. This results in an increased stability. However, is this an innovation? American patent law does not recognize oral traditions like the Indian ones and approval of such a patent would have, for example, resulted in the exclusion of Indian companies from the U.S. market. This patent and some related ones have been revoked, but the conflict continues.

Turmeric Curcuma longa / Zingiberaceae

Turmeric is endemic to peninsular India, especially the provinces of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Maharashtra. The plant’s growth habit is erect with large, pale green elongated/ribbed leaves; the flower develops a spike 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) with a cylindrical inflorescence of yellow flowers. Curcuma longa has a small, branched rhizome that is bright yellow on the interior.

The rhizome is the source of turmeric, widely used in Indian cuisine, the dyeing of cloth, and traditional medicine. At the close of the 19th century, turmeric was used in laboratories in “turmeric paper” to test for alkalinity before litmus paper was produced. Medicinally, turmeric is considered to be a strong antiseptic and is used to heal wounds, infections, jaundice, urinary diseases, ulcers, and to reduce cholesterol levels. Turmeric, in the form of a paste, has been used to treat external conditions such as psoriasis (i.e., as an anti-inflammatory) and athlete’s foot (i.e., as an antifungal). A major medicinal compound from C. longa is the phenolic constituent curcumin. This compound has been shown to be effective against some forms of cancer and has been intensively examined as a possible anti-inflammatory drug. In the United Kingdom an extract is currently being developed as a veterinary medicine for use in canine arthritis.

Psyllium Plantago spp. / Plataginaceae

The seeds, which have a seed coat particularly rich in mucilage, are used medicinally for treating constipation, dysentery, irritable-bowel syndrome, and a variety of skin conditions. Certain types of mucilage are well known to have beneficial effects, on the gastrointestinal tract including antidiar-rheal and anti-inflammatory effects. A number of species are used, including blond psyllium (Plantago ovata, Asia), black psyllium (P. afra, Asia), P. asiatica in Indochina, and great plantain (P. major, widespread throughout Asia).

Winter cherry Withania somnifera / Solanaceae

Winter cherry, also known as Indian ginseng, has similar alleged rejuvenating properties to that of ginseng in Chinese medicine. The plant is endemic to India, particularly in the sub-Himalayan (1000 m) tracts of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, and the drier parts of India. Its use can be traced back to Assyrian sources, and the drug was already used in Mesopotamia as a narcotic. Ancient sacred writings of Hinduism from India praise the plant as a wonder drug, and it was used as a charm and as an aphrodisiac. In Europe it has been known since the 16th century and it is included in many herbals. In Ayurvedic medicine the roots are used to treat ulcers, fever, breathing difficulties, cough, tuberculosis, dropsy, and a variety of nervous disorders.

Southeast Asia

Java tea Orthosiphon aristatus / Lamiaceae

Java tea, or Indian kidney tea, is native to Southeast Asia and Australia and has a long tradition of use in India and neighbouring regions. It was introduced into European phytomedicine only toward the end of the 19th century, and today the leaves are widely used in Europe in the treatment of kidney and bladder problems, especially infections. Other uses include treatment of gout and rheumatism.