The term folk medicine refers to healing practices and ideas of body physiology and health preservation known to a limited segment of the population in a culture, transmitted informally as general knowledge, and practiced or applied by anyone in the culture having prior experience.
Folk medicine may also be referred to as Traditional medicine, Alternative medicine, Indigenous medicine, Complementary medicine, Natural medicine. These terms are often considered interchangeable, even though some authors may prefer one or the other because of certain overtones they may be willing to highlight. In fact, out of these terms perhaps only Indigenous medicine and Traditional medicine are the terms well congruent with folk medicine, while others should be understood rather in modern or modernized context.
All cultures and societies have knowledge best described as folk medicine. Although there is large overlap, the denotative and connotative definitions differ. Folk medicine often coexists with formalized, education-based, and institutionalized systems of healing such as Western medicine or Great traditional medicine systems like Ayurvedic, Unani medicine, and Chinese medicine, but is distinguishable from formalized or institutionalized healing systems.
Some examples of strong informal and to some degree institutionalized folk medicine traditions are: Traditional Korean medicine, Arabic indigenous medicine (source of Unani medicine, along with Ancient Greek medicine), Haitian folk medicine, Uyghur traditional medicine, Various African herbal folk remedies, Celtic traditional medicine (in part practiced by the Irish medical families), Japanese Kampō medicine, Traditional Aboriginal Bush medicine, Georgian folk medicine, and other.
Use of folk medicine knowledge is not restricted within the society to those who have served an apprenticeship, undergone some sort of training or testing, or have achieved a specific social status. Theories and practices of folk medicine may influence, or be influenced by, the formalized medicine systems of the same culture.
3000 BC - 18th century Folk medicine has been traced back as early as ancient Egypt in 3000 BC, though much of modern medicine stems from Greece. The Greek documents were later translated to Arabic and medicine had then continued to undergo further study in the Islamic world.
Use in Western culture
At the turn of the century, folk medicine was viewed as a practice used by poverty stricken communities and quacks. However the rejection of synthetic or biomedical products has become a growing trend in Western society and allowed for a rise in the demand for natural medicines. When less developed countries are taken into account it is estimated that over 50% of the world’s population relies on folk medicine practices. The prevalence of folk medicine in certain areas of the world will vary based on cultural norms. Chinese herbology, for instance, has very much taken traction in the NY area. Much of today's modern medicine though is previously based on plants that had been long used in folk medicine. Some researchers point out a significant factor, however, that many of the alternative treatments that they test are "statistically indistinguishable from placebo treatments".
Although over 100 countries have regulations on folk medicines there are still some risks associated with the use of them, especially when they are used without supervision. It is often assumed that because the medicines are herbal or natural, that they are completely safe. One type of folk medicine commonly used along with Ayurvedic medicine is Rasa Shastra and practice involves the use of heavy metals in herbal remedies. When taken without supervision there is a risk of overdosing resulting in mineral toxicity in the body. Many of these herbal medicines are available through online resources and do not require a prescription and run the risk of overdosing. As well there is the possibility of the herbal medicines interfering with prescription medicines that patients may be taking under their doctors orders. It is also true that fraud and unscrupulousness of self declared healers may be a substantial risk factor in resorting to folk medicine remedies, especially in an unregulated environment.
- Traditional medicine
- Home remedy
- Alternative medicine
- folk healer
- Bioprospecting, the commercial exploitation of folk medicinal knowledge
- Acharya, Deepak and Shrivastava Anshu (2008): Indigenous Herbal Medicines: Tribal Formulations and Traditional Herbal Practices, Aavishkar Publishers Distributor, Jaipur- India. ISBN 978-81-7910-252-7. pp 440.
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: What is CAM
- WHO Definitions: Traditional Medicine
- B. G. Barnerjee. Folk Illness and Ethnomedicine. New Delhi: Northern Book Center, 1988. ISBN 81-85119-37-6. pp 19.
- Local History: A brief history of medicine.
- Bakx, K. "The eclipse of folk medicine in western society"
- Gilani, A.H., (2005) Role of Medicinal Plants in Modern Medicine. Malaysian Journal of Science, 24 (1). pp. 1-5. ISSN 13943065"
- The Economist, "Alternative Medicine: Think yourself better", 21 May 2011, pp. 83–84.
- WHO Fact Sheet No134: Traditional Medicine/
- Logan, Patrick. Irish Country Cures. Belfast: The Appletree Press, 1981. ISBN 0-904651-81-9
- Bonnie Thomas-Stevenson: Ozarkian and Haitian Folk Medicine
- Fisher P. Complementary medicine in Europe. BMJ 1994 
- Ramaz Shengelia: Study of the History of Medicine in Georgia