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Natural Medicine

Natural Medicine-South Africa

Natural Medicine can be simply defined as any system of medicine that complements and enhances the body’s natural capacity to heal by restoring balance without the use of synthetic drugs or chemicals. Natural medicine generally falls under the umbrella term of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). The various disciplines of natural medicine are highly diverse in foundations, philosophies and methodologies.

However, although heterogenous, the major systems of natural medicine have many common central characteristics that provide a clear distinction from the mainstream medical ethos. These core tenants include a focus on individualising patients from the disease, hence individualising treatments, treating the whole person (as opposed to the disease process a separate entity), promoting self-care and self-healing and recognising the core psychological and spiritual nature of each individual. In addition, many systems focus on good nutrition, lifestyle and preventive practices.

Although natural medicine is associated with less scientific investigation, this knowledge gap is being addressed with an explosion of scientific research into natural medicines and the various principles on which they are based. It is estimated that one third of natural medicines have some published literature supporting their use. In many European countries and America, many, if not most, practitioners of natural medicine systems are registered medical physicians. Therefore, the differences between the numerous natural medicine modalities and conventional medicine are increasingly blurred and are constantly changing.

Why do we need Natural Medicine?

  • Natural medicine is the answer to people who are unable to take prescription drugs, either because they are allergic to them, or because they cannot tolerate the long-term side effects of chemical drugs.

  • Natural medicines can be used in parallel with conventional therapies to improve the health of the individual and to enable the body to recover quicker.

  • Natural medicine broadens the public choice of remedies for common ailment.

  • Natural medicine has a lower profile of side-effects compared to chemical Western Medicine.

  • Natural medicine can be very cost-effective and is ideally suited to primary health care.

What does the School of Natural Medicine offer?

The School offers 5-year training programs in four disciplines of natural medicine:

  • Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture

  • Naturopathy

  • Phytotherapy (Western Herbal Medicine)

  • Unani Tibb Medicine

The study of these disciplines is currently divided into two separate degrees. The first degree is a Bachelor of Science in Complementary Health Sciences, completed over three (3) years. This can be followed by Bachelor of Complementary Medicine (BCM) within your chosen discipline (listed above), completed over two (2) years.

What can be done with my BCM degree?

On successful completion of the course requirements, you will be able to register with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa (AHPCSA) as a Doctor within your studied discipline (e.g. Doctor of Phytotherapy). You can also register with the Board of Healthcare Funders (BHF) to obtain a practice number.

Registration with AHPCSA and BHF will allow you to enter private practice, and to earn a living from consultations and treatments of patients within your specific scope of practice as outlined by the AHPCSA and Department of Health. This will allow you the ability to take a medically relevant history, do a clinical examination, request special investigations (e.g. blood tests; X-rays), make a diagnosis and advise and treat the patient according to your specific discipline (scope of practice). You would be expected to legally and ethically appropriately manage disease process of patients within the private healthcare system.

Other opportunities may be the furthering your studies in the field of research and academics or obtaining work in the health-related industry where available.

Mission Statement of the School of Natural Medicine

The School of Natural Medicine at the University of the Western Cape aims to:

  • Provide training for the Natural Health Professions comparable with international standards which will enable graduates to meet the requirements for registration with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa.

  • Equip graduates with the skills to meet the primary health care needs in South Africa.

  • Prepare graduates to interact and work within a team of other health care practitioners in a responsible and professional manner.

  • Provide a foundation for continuous lifelong learning in the natural health professions, and the skills to pursue research within chosen professions.


The primary treatment provided by acupuncturists involves placing specialized needles in a patient’s meridians, or energy pathways. Acupuncture needles are sterile and about as thick as a strand of hair. You might use these needles warmed or at room temperature, depending on the patient and treatment.

But your first step in treating a patient is to get a complete medical history and learn about any symptoms they’re currently experiencing. This is important because the placement of acupuncture needles needs to be incredibly exact and tailored to the individual person.

You’ll also do a medical exam of each patient. You’ll check some of the standard vital signs that Western healthcare professionals check, such as pulse, blood pressure, and respiration, but you’ll also take care to examine the patient’s tongue. Your education as an acupuncturist will teach you what to look for in a tongue exam, and how certain indicators such as its shape, color, and texture can dictate the treatment you’ll provide.

Many people are surprised by how meticulous and thorough acupuncture exams are.

“While acupuncture could be considered a form of energy medicine, acupuncturists are trained in basic medical sciences,” says Jennifer Bennett, ND, LAc, a holistic practitioner and acupuncturist in Seattle, “and many acupuncturists will go through thorough physical exams and review of systems during appointments, just like other medical practitioners.”

Tools of the Trade

Needles aren’t the only tool an acupuncturist has. You might also apply heat, pressure, friction, or even electromagnetic pulses along a patient’s meridians to achieve healing. And depending on your training and experience, there are a variety of additional methods you can use to treat patients.

Other techniques that are commonly used include:


The burning of moxa, a cone-like stick made of mugwort leaves, on acupuncture points


The act of using glass cups to create a vacuum on the skin to help move blood and break up connective tissue

Gua sha: 

The act of scraping or applying friction on the skin to help move blood and release heat


The application of electricity to needles to help move qi and contract muscles

Ion pumping: 

The use of one-way, electron-moving cables to help balance out osmotic concentrations in the tissues

Tui na: 

A form of Chinese massage that helps to disperse qi and break up muscle tension

What You’ll Treat

Acupuncturists can treat a wide range of ailments. The effects of acupuncture on many conditions are still being studied. Currently, studies by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) show that acupuncture can provide relief for:

  • Back pain

  • Neck pain

  • Headaches

  • Knee pain caused by osteoarthritis

Acupuncture’s effects on other conditions need to be studied further, but many practitioners and patients have seen positive effects on numerous other conditions.

“Acupuncture is best known for treating pain, so many people seek acupuncture for pain relief,” explains Bennett, “but acupuncture is also very good at treating (other) kinds of concerns, from cardiovascular complaints to infertility.”

In her own practice, Bennett often uses acupuncture to help regulate immune system function in those with autoimmune diseases.

“Since acupuncture has the ability to affect all organ systems, it can affect all conditions in the body in one way or another,” she says.

In addition to treating pain, acupuncturists also often address:

  • Nervous system issues—numbness, tingling, pinched nerves

  • Fertility or aiding in conception

  • Migraines

  • Balance or dizziness

  • Menstrual irregularities

  • Skin issues such as rashes or acne

Typical Career Paths and Workplaces

Many acupuncturists see patients in private clinics, but that’s not your only option. Places acupuncturists can be found include:

Where You’ll Work

What You’ll Do

Private clinic

  • Diagnose and treat patients using acupuncture theory and technique

  • Develop care plans

  • Prescribe complementary therapies

  • Keep patient records

  • Handle marketing and other financial concerns

Wellness center or spa

  • Diagnose and treat patients using acupuncture theory and technique

  • Advise patients about other therapies that might help them

Integrative medical center

  • Diagnose and treat patients using acupuncture theory and technique

  • Meet with other healthcare providers about each patient’s overall care plan

Holistic health center

  • Diagnose and treat patients using acupuncture theory and technique

  • Advise patients about other therapies that might help them

  • Chart treatment and results in the patient record

Do Acupuncturists Work with Other Providers?

It’s not unusual for acupuncturists to have their own clinics, but many acupuncturists work alongside other healthcare professionals, where they bring their healing skills to a wider care plan. 

In some cases, a team might be composed of other holistic health providers. If you work at an integrative medical center, most team members might be Western healthcare practitioners.

Either way, a team approach can you help get an even deeper understanding of a patient’s needs. Working with other professionals, you can help patients heal and achieve their health goals.

“Acupuncturists are a great part of a health team as a complementary approach,” Bennett says. “(It) can often help add additional benefits to other conventional and alternative treatments.”

Naturopathic Physicians 

Naturopathic Physicians diagnose, treat, and help prevent diseases using a system of practice that is based on the natural healing capacity of individuals. May use physiological, psychological or mechanical methods. May also use natural medicines, prescription or legend drugs, foods, herbs, or other natural remedies. They also interview patients to document symptoms and health histories.

Other tasks include:

·         Document patients’ histories, including identifying data, chief complaints, illnesses, previous medical or family histories, or psychosocial characteristics.

·         Administer, dispense, or prescribe natural medicines, such as food or botanical extracts, herbs, dietary supplements, vitamins, nutraceuticals, and amino acids.

·         Advise patients about therapeutic exercise and nutritional medicine regimens.

·         Conduct physical examinations and physiological function tests for diagnostic purposes.

·         Diagnose health conditions, based on patients’ symptoms and health histories, laboratory and diagnostic radiology test results, or other physiological measurements, such as electrocardiograms and electroencephalographs.

·         Educate patients about health care management.

Western Herbal Medicine:  

Unani Tibb

Unani or ‘Unani Tibb’ is an Arabic term meaning ‘Greek Medicine’. It is a system of medicine which is practised widely in the Middle East, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Unani is based on the balancing of the four humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile), with any imbalance between them seen as the cause of disease. Unani methods are similar to other naturopathic therapies – using clean water, pure air and fresh food to prevent disease and seeking a balance between body and mind. It stands out for its abundant use of syrups and electuaries, (a medicinal substance mixed with honey or another sweet substance).

Unani Tibb medicine is thought to be derived from physicians in Ancient Greece with roots in the teachings of Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen and subsequently developed into a comprehensive healthcare system by Arabic physicians, especially Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna). It uses Avicenna’s Canon as its basic text. Galen believed in a vital energy or creative force that he called ‘pneuma’ that is similar in concept to the Chinese concept of ‘qi’ and the Ayurvedic ‘prana’. Like Hippocrates, he accepted the concept of the ‘humours’ which arise out of the liver and form a subtle network throughout the body. He also assigned foods and herbs to each of the four humours that form the basis of ‘Galenical’ dietetics and medicine that was accepted throughout Europe and the Middle East for 1500 years.

Main principles

Unani Tibb philosophy is largely based on four key axioms:

  • The first is Temperament, which reflects the uniqueness of each individual. This is important in both diagnosis and treatment.

  • Second, Physis which is the body’s innate power for self-healing. The prime objective of Unani Tibb therapy is to support Physis, initially by lifestyle changes; then by the rational use of natural and herbal medications; and finally by the rational application of specific therapies.

  • Third is Qualities, an old concept given a new perspective in Unani Tibb, which takes into account recent developments in clinical science. Disturbance in the person’s qualitative balance is the source of body disharmony and therefore disease.

  • Finally, there are the Lifestyle Factors. Unani Tibb strongly believes that lifestyle diseases, for example, cancer, diabetes and heart diseases are often the result of, or aggravated by, imprudent or even self-destructive lifestyles. Sound practical advice is offered on lifestyle – modifying the patient’s diet, improving sleep patterns, encouraging exercise, for example.

Herbs and foods were energetically classified as hot or cold and there are four degrees each of hot and cold, making a total of eight possible categories into which a food may be placed with different effects.

First degree: The substance affects metabolism, but not in any way discerned by overt physical sensation. Water is an example of a first-degree substance.

Second degree: The substance acts upon the body, causing metabolic change, but in the end is overwhelmed by the body. All nutrients belong in this category. Among the actions caused by second-degree substances are opening of pores, initiation of peristaltic action, perspiration and stimulation of digestion. Ginger is an example of a second degree substance.

Third degree: The substance is not acted upon by the body, but acts upon the body. All medicinal substances belong to this category. An example is the use of Senna pods, which overwhelm the eliminative powers of the colon and force evacuation.

Fourth degree: The substance is a poison. It causes cessation of metabolic function. Some herbs are used as medicine from this category, but only in minute strengths and under the direct supervision of a physician. Hemlock and belladonna are examples of fourth degree poisonous substances.

The difference between these degrees in terms of hot and cold value is that a second degree hot substance would speed up metabolism, while a second degree cold substance would slow it down. In the extreme fourth degree the difference would become more apparent when a hot herb would cause an increase of metabolism beyond the limits that support life, while a fourth degree cold substance would slow down metabolism to the point of death.


Unani Tibb diagnostic methods include both traditional techniques such as pulse and tongue diagnosis as well as standard conventional medical tests and pathological measurements. The foundation of Unani Tibb therapy is lifestyle reform. This embraces changing a person’s diet where necessary, encouraging more physical exercise, better breathing methods, improving sleep quality, and more effective detoxification. The value of this, apart from dealing with the immediate clinical disorder, is that it encourages a more prudent lifestyle and thus reduces the probability of the disorder recurring. Unani- Tibb also employs a number of ‘hands-on’ therapies, such as massage, acupressure, aromatherapy and therapeutic cupping.  In addition there is an extensive range of natural herbal medicines registered for specific ailments.


Association of Unani-Tibb and Alternative Medicine (AUTAM)

The International Association Of Natural Medicine