Expat Life

Traditional and modern medicine: A peaceful coexistence? Part I

Modern medicine is rooted in plants. Dating back thousands of years examples of important medicines extracted from botanicals include reserpine, morphine, penicillin, and vinca alkaloid anti-cancer drugs.

Wikipedia.com defines herbalism (also known as herbology or herbal medicine) as “the use of plants for medicinal purposes.” Herbology’s scope includes fungal and bee products, minerals, shells, and even certain animal parts.

According to Raintree.com, a website devoted to tropical herbs, traditional herbal remedies are generally administered as infusions (hot teas), decoctions (boiled teas), tinctures (alcohol and water extracts), or macerations (cold soaking).

Other methods include hot baths (the patient soaks or bathes in water and herbs), inhalation of powdered plants (like snuff), steam inhalation, and aromatherapy.

MedicineHunter.com reports that 40% of the pharmaceuticals used in the U.S. today are sourced from plants. Plant-based medicines include the cancer drug Taxol (from Taxus brevifolia) and the anti-malarial quinine from Cinchona pubescens. Other medications such as pseudoephedrine, menthol and methylsalicylate are made from plant-derived materials, or synthesized materials from agents originally derived from plants.

Ecuador’s 2008 constitution recognizes the validity and importance of ancestral treatments both for indigenous communities and for the population at large. In Quito, the Ecuador National Museum of Medicine was established in 1982 by Dr. Eduardo Estrella Aguirre to, “preserve the unique aspects and heritage of South America’s indigenous medicine.” The museum features indigenous food, nutrition and health, as well as medicinal plants and medical archeology.

In 2012, the BBC reported about a hospital in Riobamba that offers patients traditional indigenous Andean medicine alongside Western treatments.

When a patient arrives they are asked what beliefs they have and then, if appropriate, they are referred to a “yachak” (or shaman) instead of a conventional doctor.

The traditional treatments offered include “limpias” or spiritual cleansing treatments, which are meant to clean the patient’s aura.

According to the team behind the hospital, their ability to offer a combination of cures is very important especially in indigenous areas, where people are often skeptical of accepting Western medicine.

They say people are more willing to take other medication if it goes alongside what the shamans say. See the video here.

Dietary Supplements: As Advertised? Or Something Else?

Plant medicines and herbalism is an ancient practice, and may be effective and safe for many conditions, but they are medicines after all, with potentially potent chemical ingredients. Respect herbals and plant medicines both for their ability to heal and for their ability to interact with other herbal ingredients. Work with a credentialed herbalist and don’t self-medicate.

Some Potential Reactions Between Nutraceuticals & Pharmaceuticals

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration defines a dietary supplement as a “product intended for ingestion that contains a “dietary ingredient” (which is) intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet.” It may be a vitamin, mineral, botanical or herb, amino acid, a concentrate, metabolite, constituent or extract…or any combination of the above. A pharmaceutical drug is a drug “used to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent disease…classified by mode of action, route of administration, biological system affected, or therapeutic effects.”

Herbal supplements may interact with pharmaceuticals, for example, by enhancing the potency of a drug, by increasing a certain side effect of a drug, or by even blocking the intended therapeutic effect of the drug. Some herbal supplements can increase bleeding or cause high blood pressure, which could be life-threatening if you’re scheduled for surgery.

Consumers have a way to educate and possibly protect themselves from interactions. Online tools, such as an excellent drug interaction checker from Medscape.com can help you determine if the supplement has potential to interact with your prescription medication, or to make sure that you aren’t taking two or more supplements that could interact with each other.

Before taking any supplement, especially if you’re also taking a prescription medication, review potential interactions, and if you find any, review your findings with your prescribing doctor.

Seeking Reliable Information

Have you “heard” that a certain supplement can help with a symptom? Are you relying on anecdotal evidence? Are you relying on information from a website that markets the very products they are advocating?

One such website, Natural News, is defined by Wikipedia as a website that sells pseudo-science. Forbes.com writes about the website’s founder, Mike Adams (who calls himself the ‘Health Ranger’), who once lived in Vilcabamba, saying that his bio contains a “buffet of grandiosity garnished with fact-scarce ideology.”

According to RationalWiki.org, Natural News is a website which promotes “alternative” medicine, conspiracy theories and attacks on science. They write that “even other quacks think it’s a quack site.” [Read the reference here].

Alternet.org quotes Science-Based Medicine blogger Dr. Steven Novella, assistant professor at Yale University and clinical neurologist, who describes Adams’ site as “a crank alt-med site that promotes every sort of medical nonsense imaginable. If it is unscientific, antiscience, conspiracy-mongering, or downright silly, Mike Adams appears to be all for it — whatever sells the ‘natural’ products he hawks on his site.”

Grist.com writes about this website’s pseudoscience stories, “The health-science stories have a surface-level gloss of technical language which make them seem plausible unless you read them carefully…this is nothing but a conspiracy-theory site.”

RationalWiki.com concludes, “If you cite Natural News on any matter whatsoever, you are almost certainly wrong.” Adams is a “flat-out opponent of modern medicine and opposes any medication or doctor visits.”  And so on.

The Genetic Literacy Project writes that Natural News has been characterized by science-based Skeptic.com as the “#1 worst anti-science website.” They invite readers to check out NaturalNewd.com, a caricature website that underscores Adams’ bizarre promotions and claims. It is great for a giggle.

Smart Supplements: Know Your Source

Should you take a vitamin or mineral supplement? It depends upon your unique needs and medical status.  If you have a deficiency (confirmed with credible serum blood testing, not a “machine”) then yes, and your physician or pharmacist will advise you.  A multivitamin is advised for seniors over 60, especially if they don’t eat a varied diet.  Some problem nutrients for older people are vitamin D, B12 and other B vitamins, and magnesium.  Read more from Berkeley Wellness here.

If you’re buying a supplement or vitamin, it’s been shown that even well known brands may not contain the active ingredients as advertised, and worse, may contain ingredients that can be hazardous to your health.

How to know what’s the best supplement? In the U.S., third-party independent testing agencies, USP and NSF assure that products bearing their seal contain the ingredients that are listed (and nothing more). ConsumerLabs.com is an independent testing website and publishes its results and recommendations online.  I’m a member, and find their information invaluable.

I visited two Fybeca pharmacies here in Cuenca, and each pharmacist I questioned said that supplements sold in pharmacies are inspected for safety and efficacy.

Since coordinated care is essential, when you see your health care provider, don’t hold back…give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health including any supplements, vitamins, or minerals that you consume, frequently or infrequently.

In Part II, I’ll continue to explore some popular dietary and herbal supplements and review effectiveness, possible side effects, and best resources for further reading.


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Nutrient Supplementation.


Berkeley Wellness. Do you need a multivitamin? http://www.berkeleywellness.com/supplements/vitamins/article/do-you-need-multivitamin

BBC News. Ecuador hospital offers indigenous Andean treatments. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-18354510

BusinessWire.com.  India Alternative Medicines & Herbal Products Market Outlook to 2021 – Herbal Medicines and Herbal Skin Care Products to Drive Market Growth


Cancer Research UK. Cancer Statistics for the UK. http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics#How2

Center for Science In The Public Interest: DNA Testing Reveals Herbal Supplements Often Missing the Advertised Herb. http://cspinet.org/new/201502031.html

CuencaHighLife.com. Indigenous medicine regaining favor among Ecuadorians as traditional medicine incorporates many of its ancient remedies and practices. https://www.cuencahighlife.com/indigenous-medicine-regaining-favor-among-ecuadorians-as-traditional-medicine-incorporates-many-of-its-practices/

Drugs.com. Drug Interactions Checker. http://reference.medscape.com/drug-interactionchecker

Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases, provided by the USDA’s National Agricultural Library. https://phytochem.nal.usda.gov/phytochem/search

Ecuador.com. Ecuador National Museum of Medicine. http://www.ecuador.com/blog/ecuador-national-museum-of-medicine

Federal Trade Commission. Health Claims, Truth in Advertising and Marketing.

Food & Drug Administration. Public Notification: Oxy ELITE Pro Super Thermogenic contains hidden drug ingredient.

Forbes.com. #NaturalNonsense: Science Supporters Condemn Natural News Founder Mike Adams. http://www.forbes.com/sites/kavinsenapathy/2016/12/23/naturalnonsense-friends-dont-let-friends-read-natural-news/#1ee891bb4143

Genetic Literacy Project. Mike Adams: Called “everyone’s favorite über-quack”, runs “#1 anti-science website. https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/glp-facts/mike-adams/

Grist.org. Don’t believe anything you read at Natural News. http://grist.org/food/heres-why-natural-news-is-neither/

Huffington Post. How To Find The Best Medical Information Online. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-t-miller/online-medical-information_b_3667454.html

Medicine Hunter. About Plant Medicines. http://www.medicinehunter.com/about-plant-medicines

Medscape. Drug Interaction Checker. http://reference.medscape.com/drug-interactionchecker

New York Times. Spike in Harm to Liver Is Tied to Dietary Aids. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/22/us/spike-in-harm-to-liver-is-tied-to-dietary-aids.html?google_editors_picks=true&_r=1

NSF. Look for the NSF Mark. http://www.nsf.org/consumer-resources/look-for-the-nsf-mark

RAPS: Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society. Group Asks FDA for More Warning Information on Dietary Supplement Labels. http://www.raps.org/Regulatory-Focus/News/2015/03/16/21739/Group-Asks-FDA-for-More-Warning-Information-on-Dietary-Supplement-Labels/

RationalWiki.org. Mike Adams. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Mike_Adams

Science-Based Medicine: Lies, fraud, conflicts of interest, and bogus science: the real Dr. Oz effect. https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/lies-fraud-conflicts-of-interest-and-bogus-science-the-real-dr-oz-effect/

U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention. USP Verified Dietary Supplements. http://www.usp.org/usp-verification-services/usp-verified-dietary-supplements

Wikipedia. Herbalism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbalism


Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is... Read More

  • Regina Potenza

    I enjoyed this week’s column. Can you give me the location of the Museum of Medicine in Quito?

  • LadyMoon

    Thank you for doing all the hard research and teaching us where to find valid information. Great article!