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What is Ethnopharmacology?

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  • Written By: Jamey Jones, B.Sc.
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2016
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Ethnopharmacology is the study ethnic groups and their health, how their health relates to their lifestyle and their use of medicines — both traditional and pharmaceutical — whether that medicine is specific to the area in which the group lives, and how long that medicine has been in use by that group. The term ethnopharmacology was first coined in 1967, with the study of hallucinogenic plants. It is grouped under the larger branch of ethnopharmacy, which looks at both perception and use of traditional medicine within a society. Ethnopharmacology involves a wide range of scientists from varying specialties.

A related science to ethopharmacology is ethnobotany, the study of how different cultures use medicinal plants, specifically. In recent years, ethnopharmacology has become increasingly popular as more studies confirm the beneficial effects of plants on human health. The advanced development of pharmacognosy, the study of medicines derived from natural sources, has provided strong scientific backup for further research into the medicinal properties of plants. New drugs are being discovered via the study of ethnopharmacology. Many common drugs used in contemporary society come, at least in part, from natural sources.

Pharmacoepidemiology plays a role in ethnopharmacology, involving the study of medicinal plant use in large ethnic groups. Studying medicinal plants in this way helps estimate beneficial effects of the plant-derived drug and determines the existence of any adverse effects on the studied group of people. These are important studies in natural product drug discovery.

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An important aspect of ethnopharmacology is the pharmacology itself, which involves the study of drug actions, or mechanisms. It looks at how the drug works in a biological system, and how that biological system responds to the drug. Pharmacology studies are performed in laboratories, sometimes using animals. Basically, if a compound is found to have medicinal properties, it is considered pharmaceutical.

Ethnopharmacology also extends to the study of foods as medicine. Aspects of certain foods are known to have medicinal properties; for example, resveratrol derived from red grapes is known to be a powerful antioxidant, and the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from fish have anti-inflammatory properties. Medicinal components of food are often extracted and sold as dietary supplements, a category that is not regulated as a food or a drug. They may also be added back to food products, making the food a “functional food” — a food said to have health benefits beyond the basic nutrition of the food item.

Though people have been using natural substances in healing for centuries, only recently has this science become a well-recognized and accepted healing method. The growth of science in this area is substantiating what traditional cultures have practiced throughout time. This validation has resulted in an increased awareness and trust of natural products in healing.

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