Unani or ‘Unani Tibb’ is an Arabic term meaning ‘Greek Medicine’. It is a system of medicine which is almost exclusively practised by the Muslim community in the Middle East, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Unani is based on the balancing of the four humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile), with any imbalance between them seen as the cause of disease. Unani methods are similar to other naturopathic therapies – using clean water, pure air and fresh food to prevent disease and seeking a balance between body and mind. It stands out for its abundant use of syrups and electuaries, (a medicinal substance mixed with honey or another sweet substance).
Unani Tibb medicine is thought to be derived from physicians in Ancient Greece with roots in the teachings of Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen and subsequently developed into a comprehensive healthcare system by Arabic physicians, especially Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna). It uses Avicenna’s Canon as its basic text. Galen believed in a vital energy or creative force that he called ‘pneuma’ that is similar in concept to the Chinese concept of ‘qi’ and the Ayurvedic ‘prana’. Like Hippocrates, he accepted the concept of the ‘humours’ which arise out of the liver and form a subtle network throughout the body. He also assigned foods and herbs to each of the four humours that form the basis of ‘Galenical’ dietetics and medicine that was accepted throughout Europe and the Middle East for 1500 years.
Unani Tibb philosophy is largely based on four key axioms:
- The first is Temperament, which reflects the uniqueness of each individual. This is important in both diagnosis and treatment.
- Second, Physis which is the body’s innate power for self-healing. The prime objective of Unani Tibb therapy is to support Physis, initially by lifestyle changes; then by the rational use of natural and herbal medications; and finally by the rational application of specific therapies.
- Third is Qualities, an old concept given a new perspective in Unani Tibb, which takes into account recent developments in clinical science. Disturbance in the person’s qualitative balance is the source of body disharmony and therefore disease.
- Finally, there are the Lifestyle Factors. Unani Tibb strongly believes that lifestyle diseases, for example, cancer, diabetes and heart diseases are often the result of, or aggravated by, imprudent or even self-destructive lifestyles. Sound practical advice is offered on lifestyle – modifying the patient’s diet, improving sleep patterns, encouraging exercise, for example.
Herbs and foods were energetically classified as hot or cold and there are four degrees each of hot and cold, making a total of eight possible categories into which a food may be placed with different effects.
First degree: The substance affects metabolism, but not in any way discerned by overt physical sensation. Water is an example of a first-degree substance.
Second degree: The substance acts upon the body, causing metabolic change, but in the end is overwhelmed by the body. All nutrients belong in this category. Among the actions caused by second-degree substances are opening of pores, initiation of peristaltic action, perspiration and stimulation of digestion. Ginger is an example of a second degree substance.
Third degree: The substance is not acted upon by the body, but acts upon the body. All medicinal substances belong to this category. An example is the use of Senna pods, which overwhelm the eliminative powers of the colon and force evacuation.
Fourth degree: The substance is a poison. It causes cessation of metabolic function. Some herbs are used as medicine from this category, but only in minute strengths and under the direct supervision of a physician. Hemlock and belladonna are examples of fourth degree poisonous substances.
The difference between these degrees in terms of hot and cold value is that a second degree hot substance would speed up metabolism, while a second degree cold substance would slow it down. In the extreme fourth degree the difference would become more apparent when a hot herb would cause an increase of metabolism beyond the limits that support life, while a fourth degree cold substance would slow down metabolism to the point of death.
Unani Tibb diagnostic methods include both traditional techniques such as pulse and tongue diagnosis as well as standard conventional medical tests and pathological measurements. The foundation of Unani Tibb therapy is lifestyle reform. This embraces changing a person’s diet where necessary, encouraging more physical exercise, better breathing methods, improving sleep quality, and more effective detoxification. The value of this, apart from dealing with the immediate clinical disorder, is that it encourages a more prudent lifestyle and thus reduces the probability of the disorder recurring. Unani- Tibb also employs a number of ‘hands-on’ therapies, such as massage, acupressure, aromatherapy and therapeutic cupping. In addition there is an extensive range of natural herbal medicines registered for specific ailments.
The International Association Of Natural Medicine