This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
Eastern vs. Western Medicine: Health is a subject that affects every human on this planet, for it is, at its core, what keeps us alive. Today we explore modern medical history in the West and how it compares historically and modern-day to more traditional eastern medicine methods.
Following health-driven modalities to their roots can help us dismantle mainstream narratives that may have taken on more power than they deserve. Understanding the history behind medicine and how health is approached differently in other parts of the world is imperative for making informed choices for your health.
Eastern vs. Western Medicine: What Are They?
Western medicine is the healthcare system that relies on medical doctors and other healthcare professionals (including nurses, pharmacists, and therapists) to treat the symptoms of illness and disease using surgery, radiation, or drugs. Other Western medicine names include allopathic medicine, orthodox medicine, conventional medicine, biomedicine, and mainstream medicine.
Western medicine relies on modern science to make diagnoses and prescriptions, which is how it got its “western” name; even if used in Eastern parts of the world, the modern science that is the foundation for allopathic medicine is rooted in the rationalist philosophy of European Enlightenment (the west).
Eastern medicine is the healthcare system that treats the whole person through a mind-body approach and includes therapies like Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese (or Oriental) Medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine, bodywork, sound healing, homeopathy, and naturopathy. Other names for eastern medicine include alternative medicine, traditional medicine, and complementary medicine.
Eastern medicine grew from ancient health modalities, mostly in India and China, and ancestral health modalities rooted in nature’s wisdom. Although the two primary modalities (Ayurveda to India and Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM to China) are different, they share overlapping principles and concepts that act as the foundation for alternative medicines.
Comparing the East and the West
A man with severe foot pain walks and is looking for help; the western doctor gives him painkillers while the eastern doctor tells him to take the rock stuck inside his shoe.
Although this analogy is not real, in the sense that most western medical practitioners could identify a rock in the shoe as the root cause of the pain, the story highlights the overarching metaphor between eastern and western medicine.
The development of medicine under western principles follows hypothetical deduction, while the eastern approach uses the inductive method.1 In western medicine, this means that an individual’s symptoms are cross-referenced to predictions made in experiments. Illness is often labeled as a diagnosis, at which point the associated drug or therapy (surgery or radiation) is implemented. This approach is top-down. In the east, the bottom-up approach examines each individual where they are— and makes a treatment plan accordingly.
The Western approach divides health from disease, the body parts from one another, the mind and the body. In the Eastern system, the whole makes up more than the sum of its parts, and everything is connected. They (eastern practitioners) consider health as a balanced state versus disease as an unbalanced state. They see all body parts as intricately connected and do not separate illness from the body from illness in the mind.
Western medicine’s dissection of the body gives way to an array of specialists. A general practitioner may isolate the problem area and then refer the patient to a podiatrist (feet), a cardiologist (heart), a psychiatrist (mind), or a dermatologist (skin). Historically, medical doctors had become so specialized that they were barely trained in nutrition—this aspect of health is left to dietitians. Eastern medicine practitioners look at the whole person. They are aware of all modalities within the framework of their chosen field (like Ayurveda and its Indian roots or TCM and its Chinese origins).
Another significant difference is the concept of ‘side effects,’ which are common in Western medicine. Treating symptoms with the surgery, radiation, or pharmaceutical drugs comes with a host of side effects that need to be addressed by mainstream medicine, which has a snowball effect. For example, radiation can lead to nausea, for which anti-nausea medication is prescribed, which has side effects of dizziness, anxiety, and constipation, for which antidepressants are prescribed, which comes with side effects (and so on) so on).2
Since eastern medicine aims to balance the body through achieving homeostasis, long-term side effects technically have no place. That being said, there is always room for error in all modalities, and the quality of the practitioner (and the tools they use) is paramount to prevent side effects. For example, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner using herbs tainted with heavy metals or pesticides can clearly create side effects of toxic overload in their patient’s body. Although the modality itself does not promote symptom suppression and a snowball of side effects, there is always the potentiality for harm in the realm of health.3
Eastern vs. Western Medicine: The History of Western Medicine
Compared to the east, whose health modalities have roots are over 5,000 years in Ayurveda and more than 2,200 decades in Traditional Chinese Medicine: western medicine is essentially still in its infancy stages.4-5 Although many people like to link back mainstream medicine to Ancient Greece (and figures like Hippocrates, some 2500 years ago), there was almost no scientific basis for medicine at that time. For example, the circulatory system was only discovered in a science experiment by William Harvey in 1628.6 Before acknowledging the circulatory system, how much medicine could be rooted in genuine ‘science’?
When medical doctors were first introduced to formal education in the 1800s, medical school lasted anywhere from a few months to two years. Many schools had no clinical facilities, and high school diplomas were not prerequisites for admission.7 Training was minimal, unsurprisingly, since there was very little medical science backbone to be trained in.
Medical school in America was only formalized and funded in the first decade of the twenty-first century when the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations decided to fund medical reform to bring prestige to the United States. Their funding of schools based on elite criteria gave way to medicine as a branch of “higher learning,” only accessible through lengthy and expensive training– available only to white, middle-class men.7
The story of medicine’s evolution is deeply connected to power and control, and the oppression of women has been a narrative since the middle ages. During the middle ages, all health-driven modalities were sanctioned through the church, and many hospitals were church-owned. A priest has to bless the doctor’s treatment before it can occur, and its effectiveness (be it successful or not) is rooted in “God’s will.”7,8
Medicine women acting as folk healers (known as wise women, midwives, herbalists, and some nurses) who were practicing outside of church-sanctioned healings were called witches, which gave way to the burning and drowning of many women in the witch hunts during the middle ages. [8, 9]. When the medical school became more formalized, women and people of color were banned from admission, another exercise of power from the white male elite, keeping healthcare a tight-knit club, and a way to exercise oppression.
In more modern times, the world of mainstream medicine and healthcare remains largely a battle of power and greed. The system is full of corruption: from self-funded pseudo-scientific studies to support for-profit drugs and the implementation of harmful or wreckless medical interventions to the kickbacks medical doctors are receiving from pharmaceutical companies—mainstream medicine is fraught with lies and deceit.10-13
Eastern vs. Western Medicine: Bridging the Gap
Despite the narrative that mainstream medicine mainly treats symptoms while eastern medicine addresses the root cause: it should not be reduced to one modality as good and the other as bad. Both modalities help paint a bigger picture of what it means to be healthy and human.
Science and mainstream medicine have made incredible advancements in human health, particularly in injury treatment and surgical healthcare. When it comes to accidents, there is no doubt that a western approach to emergency care is unparalleled for survival.
It can be useful to see the benefits that eastern medicine can have to unwind illness that you have been building up towards for a long time and value western medicine for its incredible contribution to emergency care. If you have been making imbalanced (poor) health choices for a long time, eastern principles can help bring back your body into homeostasis. However, if you get in a bad car accident or need a heart transplant: there is nothing quite like conventional medicine.
Bridging the gap between both modalities also empowers you, as the owner of your own body, to take back your power as the ultimate decision-maker and veto power when it comes to your health. You make the final decisions, and all these practitioners (be it conventional or alternative therapies) are but tools in your tool belt. This is why it is so important to investigate, ask questions, research, and get a second (third, fourth, and even fifth) opinion before pursuing any specific path to healthcare.
Understanding how mainstream medicine came to be can help dispel some of the absolute hierarchy it has taken in modern society. We have, as a collective, been brainwashed into seeing a white coat as a sign of truth and power. Although there is a time and place for western medicine, nobody should have complete authority over your health. Nobody knows your body better than you do.
At the end of the day, you have been given the power of intuition: which is innate and inexplicable knowing when it comes to your body. Lean on practitioners’ wisdom of all kinds, but cultivate the practice of trusting your heart and gut when it comes to health. There is no denying that, in the end, you (your mind and body) are doing the healing.
- Tseui, J J. “Eastern and western approaches to medicine.” The Western journal of medicine vol. 128,6 (1978): 551-7.
- Muchnick, Bruce G. “Identify the ocular side effects of systemic medications: dozens of mainstream systemic drugs produce a broad range of ocular side effects. Here is a review of numerous systemic medications and the associated side effects you should be aware of.” Review of Optometry, vol. 145, no. 1, 15 Jan. 2008, p. 60+. Accessed 3 Sept. 2020.
- Coghlan, Megan L et al. “Combined DNA, toxicological and heavy metal analyses provides an auditing toolkit to improve pharmacovigilance of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).” Scientific reports vol. 5 17475. 10 Dec. 2015, doi:10.1038/srep17475
- Wang, Zhenguo, et al. History and Development of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Science Press, 1999.
- Glazier, Anne. “A Landmark in the History of Ayurveda.” The Lancet, vol. 356, no. 9235, 2000, p. 1119., doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(05)74569-4.
- Aird, W. C. “Discovery of the Cardiovascular System: from Galen to William Harvey.” Journal of Thrombosis and Haemostasis, vol. 9, 2011, pp. 118–129., doi:10.1111/j.1538-7836.2011.04312.x.
- Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: a History of Women Healers. The Feminist Press, 2010.
- Aquilina, Mike. The Healing Imperative: the Early Church and the Invention of Medicine as We Know It. Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017.
- Casey, Abigail. “Magic and Medicine in a Man’s World: The Medieval Woman as Both Healer and Witch.” National Conference On Undergraduate Research , 2016, www.ncurproceedings.org/ojs/index.php/NCUR2016/article/view/1937/1039.
- Martin L. Hirsch, Side Effects of Corporate Greed: Pharmaceutical Companies Need a Dose of Corporate Social Responsibility, 9 MINN. J.L. SCI. & TECH. 607 (2008).
- Kshirsagar , Rijul, and Priscilla Vu. “The Pharmaceutical Industry’s Role in U.S. Medical Education.” In Training, 6 Apr. 2016, in-training.org/drugged-greed-pharmaceutical-industrys-role-us-medical-education-10639.
- Kohler, Jillian, et al. “Corruption in the Pharmaceutical Sector: Diagnosing the Challenges.” Transparency.Org, June 2016, www.transparency.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdf/publications/29-06-2016-Corruption_In_The_Pharmaceutical_Sector_Web-2.pdf.
- Chattopdhyay, Subrata. “Corruption in Healthcare and Medicine: Why Should Physicians and Bioethicists Care and What Should They Do?” Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, no. 3, 2013, doi:10.20529/ijme.2013.049.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based on the opinions of The Cell Health team. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended to share knowledge and information from the research and experience of the Cell Health team. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD, for the accuracy of the information provided. Still, we encourage you to make your own healthcare decisions based on your research and in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.