What Does ‘Natural’ Mean? — The NaturalMedicine Manifesto Part 2

An exploration of an emergent ethos

In this series of posts, we will explain the ground from which emerges the values and ethos that drives and sustains the NaturalMedicine community on Steem. This is the basis on which choices are made for creating and curating #naturalmedicine content. It draws on the models found in natural systems to create and establish creative, thriving, sustainable communities. As a whole, it forms a manifesto that the community draws on for inspiration, discussion, and inter-personal discovery.


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If you haven’t read Part 1 What Is ‘Natural Medicine’ we invite you now to read that first. Otherwise, please continue …

In the previous post, we explained what we mean when we refer to ‘medicine’. In this post, we are going to explore what we mean by ‘natural’, so that we have an understanding of the concept of ‘natural medicine’.

And it’s super easy: it simply means ‘that which comes from nature’.

The natural world we are part of is truly amazing, and we humans have evolved on this planet that is rich and abundant in resources. Over millennia we have learned how to harness all manner of natural resources — mostly for our benefit, but sometimes not! We will definitely be going into the question of resource depletion and exploitation in a [future post]; but for now let’s just understand that we have learned how to use what is available in the natural world (and the universe) to help us live, evolve, and thrive.

In the case of herbal medicine, this is easy to understand. Flowers, leaves, roots, berries, barks, and seeds all contain molecules that have some manner of pharmacological action on the body. For example, willow bark was used for millennia to treat fever, pain, and inflammation. From this herb we discovered the active ingredient which had this effect was salicylic acid, and chemists then were able to synthesise a molecule — acetylsalicylic acid — from which aspirin was developed.

As we mentioned in the previous part, treatments such as acupuncture and massage are considered ‘natural’ — how is that? Human beings are part of the natural world, and our physiologies have a ‘natural’ way they function. Thus appropriate massage of the lymphatic system can aid in the flow in that system and assist immune health; or releasing a trigger point in muscles can stop compression of local nervous and vascular systems; or how acupuncture stimulates endorphin receptors to alleviate pain and stress. Therapies such as these are ‘natural’ in that they harness the body’s natural systems to effect a change.

Remember also that a human being is not just the physical body — it includes our mind and cognitive functions, it includes our emotions and perceptions, and it includes our sense of place in the world and in the wider universe. This idea will be discussed in a future part in greater detail; but all of these systems within us are ‘natural’ by means of being a part of what and who we are.

When is something not natural?

The question can be asked, ‘at what point does something stop being natural?’ In the above example, making a potion from willow bark is considered a ‘natural medicine’. But what about when we isolate the active ingredient salicylic acid, refine it further to obtain sodium salicylate, then combine it with acetyl chloride, thus producing aspirin?

Any chemist will tell you that all molecules and chemicals are ‘natural’, and they are technically correct, because the elements are the raw building blocks of everything that exists in nature. Even for pharmaceutical medicines, the synthesis of organic molecules into compounds requires precursors derived from petrochemicals — fossil fuels, also something found in ‘nature’.

But we all get the sense that there is a difference, and some people like to use the standard of how much humans were involved in a process. Even then however — at what point do we draw the line? Isn’t ripping the bark from a willow tree and boiling it in a pot of water as much a ‘human’ intervention?

The point is, the lines of distinction are not so clear if we take ‘natural’ to signify that something comes from ‘nature’ — because everything that is in existence technically is part of nature.

It seems that a possible way to understand it is to consider how close is a thing to its original, natural form. This is a really important point to consider, and is a major part of understanding what ‘natural’ means in any context, and certainly how it impacts our understanding of what ‘natural medicine’ is.

To consider that idea, the next few parts will look closer at the idea of natural systems, and how it informs our understanding of what is natural?

Other posts in this series:

Part 1 What Is ‘Natural Medicine’
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What is natural can really differ for everyone. The line I like to draw is by asking myself, "is this something I can make at home from original, while ingredients?" If so, then I deem it natural. If not, then I feel that too much interference is happening for it to be entirely natural any more. This is why I no longer see refined sugar as natural.

Thank you for these posts.

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Thank you so much for putting together this manifesto! It is bringing much clarity and awareness to the elements of natural medicine!
Wonderful that we now have a place at naturalmedicine.io that pulls all this material relating to natural medicine together in one spot!