History of the consumption of medicinal plants

Forests in Malaysia have been viewed as a source of timber for the wood-based industries as well as an important source of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) which act as food for local people, materials for use in medicine, a source of eco-tourism and recreation opportunities and help to maintain favorable environmental conditions. Besides providing subsistence needs for people living near the forest (rural people and aborigines), NTFPs also generate employment, income and materials for industry. One of the most highly demanded NTFPs, besides rattan and bamboo, are medicinal plants.  The harvesting of medicinal plant resources also provides income to the rural people; especially those living near the forest, as full-time or part-time collectors.

Medicinal plants are substitutes for modern medicine and have been widely used by people around the world. Their resources are applied in both traditional and modern preparations. Since the herbal products basically ignore the use of chemical and synthetic drugs, more people have begun to turn to the use of natural products as remedies for treating or preventing diseases. The harvesting of medicinal plant resources also provides income to the rural people; especially those living near the forest, as full-time or part-time collectors. In Malaysia, the utilization of medicinal plants and practices are believed to vary according to race, income, and educational levels, religious and spiritual beliefs.

It is estimated that of about 250,000 flowering plant species in the world (Heywood et al., 1985), 150,000 are distributed in the tropics, about 35,000 in Southeast Asia (Henderson, 1959) and not fewer than 6,000 species are reported to have medicinal properties. This is supported by another estimate that about 6,000 plant species have been used in traditional medical systems in the Indo-Malayan region (Perry, 1980).

The Malaysian rainforest, known as the world’s oldest rainforest, the fourth on the list of biodiversity hotspots in Asia after India, China and Indonesia, has an estimated 12,500 species of seed plants (Bidin & Latiff,1995).  Of these 12,500 species of seed plants and 5,000 species of cryptogams, about 2,000 species have been claimed to have medicinal properties (Latiff, 1994).

However, Soepadmo (1992) stated that only 1,200 species of higher plants in Peninsular Malaysia and 2,000 species in Sabah and Sarawak are reported to have medicinal value and have been used for generations in various traditional health care systems. Many of these medicinal plant species are either found in the wild or cultivated around the house compounds (Latiff, 1989). The number of valuable and unexpected species could be higher with the continuous biodiversity prospecting that searches for commercially useful plants and the ongoing documentation efforts. Various plant species such as those of the Euphorbiaceae, Leguminosae, Graminae, Verbenaceae and others are commonly used to treat various ailments and diseases such as diarrhea, skin problems, and headache.

In general, the practice of using medicinal plants in Malaysia started many years ago. Major utilization of the resources could be classified according to the three main races, namely the Malays, Chinese and Indians. In addition, the aborigines (Orang Asli) and other ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak such as the Kadazan, Dusun, Iban, Bajau and so forth also use medicinal plants. Besides the Chinese and Indians, practitioners from the Malay community, aborigines and ethnic groups in Borneo use medicinal plants mostly gathered from the forest through traditional practices. Malay traditional medicine manufacturers were found to be using materials actively harvested from local sources for commercial purposes

It is assumed that the history of traditional medicine in Malaysia started as early as the Stone Age when people are believed to have been affected by spirits and wild animals. Consequently practices associated with traditional medicines took the form of exorcism and sacrifice. The Indian and Chinese traders and migrants also brought their traditional medicinal practices which complemented, but did not replace, therapy by spiritual rituals. The major changes in Malaysia’s traditional medicine system came after the adoption of Islam brought by the Arabs and Indians who modified the practices and included treatment by recitation of verses from the Holy Koran.

The practices of a variety of traditional medicine types are based commonly on ethnic origins which comprised the Malays, Chinese, Indians and aborigines. In general, the major system of traditional medicines can be categorized into two groups, namely the formalized systems of indigenous medicine and non-formalized systems. The systems of medicine included in the first category were Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and Chinese medicine while for the non-formalized systems, the practices included the traditional healers (bomoh), spiritualists, bonesetters, traditional birth attendants and others practising home remedies.

The traditional Malay medicine practices are believed to have originated from Indonesia and were influenced by Indian and Arabic practices. The medicinal systems have been practised mostly in rural areas and relied exclusively on practical experience and observation which were handed down from generation to generation verbally or in non-documented writing.

The traditional Chinese medicine system began with the coming of the Chinese migrants who brought herbs and also acupuncture treatment. The practitioners of Chinese medicine are known as `sinseh’.

The traditional Indian medicine system comprised three major systems , namely Siddha, Ayurveda and Unani. The Ayurveda and Siddha systems originated from India while Unani medicines were from Greece, Iran and Arabia .Traditional Indian medicine used drugs from mostly vegetable, mineral and animal origins.

One recent development in the Malaysian healthcare system is the existence of complementary medicine such as homeopathy, naturopathy, reflexology, aromatherapy and chiropractic which consist of healing philosophies, approaches and therapies (MOH, 2000).