9 August 2019 is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. While the theme this year is indigenous languages, I’m choosing to celebrate our indigenous people by celebrating their plant medicine.

Indigenous medicine has a long lineage. The use of 67 Himalayan herbs has been documented in Vedic texts dating from 4,500 – 600BC. Sheng-Nongs herbal book, circa 3000BC, discussed medicine based on plants, animals and minerals. There are documents from the 8th century AD on Tibetan medicine. Unani medicine also has a long lineage. In fact, Western medicine, as we know it, is the baby of the family.

Indigenous people and the primary health care system

Research shows indigenous people suffer when integrated into the predominant primary health care system. Their health outcomes are significantly worse when compared to the general population and their well-being, mental and emotional health has also been shown to suffer. Whilst Western allopathic medicine tends to focus on physical and mental health; indigenous cultures look to the physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual dimension. I think Western medicine would better serve its patients by looking at those dimensions too.

How western medical herbalists approach healthcare

Medical herbalists combine the wisdom of both aspects – scientific and tradition. For example, in addition to choosing herbs based on a presenting condition, the herbalist will also choose herbs based on that person’s constitution. For example, it’s not helpful to give somebody a herb that will heat them up if there natural state already runs hot. They may also prescribe herbs based on the conversation which leads to the herbalist’s assessment of how they are feeling within themselves.

Lifestyle adjustments will also be discussed, including the amount and type of support at home and in the community. Formal relaxation and meditative practices may be suggested. Whilst from a scientific perspective they serve to soften an overstimulated hypothalamus – pituitary – adrenal (HPA) axis, they also serve a spiritual aspect and facilitate a sense of connection.

There are many things our indigenous cousins can teach us when it comes to health, heart and well-being. Great health is a holistic, dynamic practice based on preventative and reactive interventions.


Harfield, S.G., et al., (2018). Characteristics of Indigenous primary health care service delivery models: a systematic scoping review. Globalization and Health. 14(12 ).

Li, R., (2017). Indigenous identity and traditional medicine: Pharmacy at the crossroads. Can Pharm J (Ott). 2017 Sep-Oct; 150(5): 279–281.

Pei Sheng-Ji (2001) Ethnobotanical Approaches of Traditional MedicineStudies: Some Experiences From Asia. Pharmaceutical Biology. 39:sup1, 74-79, DOI: 10.1076/phbi.39.s1.74.0005