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The Fascinating World of Kanpō: Explore the Wisdom of Traditional Japanese Medicine

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Background:

Since childhood, I have always wanted to visit the incredible country of Japan. Its unique technology and media have always fascinated me, bringing me closer to the culture in general. Moreover, the cuisine of Japan has made me intrigued about the nation’s culture and how it has developed to the modern day. I plan on visiting Japan for the holidays, to explore how Japan's culture differs from mine. One aspect of Japanese culture that I am particularly interested in is its medicine and health care. Japan’s life expectancy is astonishingly high, being 84.62 years as of 2020. One can attribute this long life expectancy to the medicine the country uses, and the lifestyle the people follow in their day-to-day lives.

Regarding the history of traditional medicine in Japan, in ancient Japanese culture, diseases were largely attributed to religious phenomena. Many believed that illnesses were caused by spirits and sent by the Gods; treatments were often accomplished through prayers and cantations. As technology and scientific developments progressed in Japan, the use of drugs and alternative methods of healthcare were increasingly implemented into Japanese civilization. 

In the modern day, Japan has adopted the use of herbal medicines to enhance its medicinal systems; records demonstrate that this dates back to over 1500 years ago. Furthermore, in Japan, over 70,000 plant species are utilized for their therapeutic benefits in traditional medicine. This extensive variety of plant species used in traditional and modern Japanese medicine begs the question of which specific types of plants are utilized for their healthcare perks, and what is the reason for choosing specifically these to implement in drugs or medicinal products. The specific medicine focused on is Kampo medicines, which dates back to the beginning of Japanese herbal medicine production in the 5th to 6th centuries. Originating in China but spreading to Japan over the years, these once-ancient medications still display promising use in modern medicine and have been integrated into present-day healthcare systems throughout the country. The fact that over 70% of pharmacists in Japan recommend using Kampo medicine is a testament to the vast health benefits that the medicine can provide to the people of Japan. 

Kampo, also known as Kanpō in Japan, is a medicinal practice that uses the crude extract of several herbal plants to achieve a complex mixture, that is often fine-tuned to accomplish the most promising health benefits. Since there are multiple combinations and dosages of extract to use in Kampo medicines, there are currently over 210 variations that are used in Japan in the modern day. These different variations yield a large amount of pharmaceutical benefits, which will be gone into thorough detail.

Taking into account the extensive variety of Kampo medicines that are present in Japanese culture, I plan to give an overview of how Kampo medicines have been used in Japan for their health benefits, and the chemistry behind why these health benefits are present in the medicines.


Health Benefits:

Because multiple medicinal plants are incorporated into the hundreds of varieties of Kampo medicine, a full list of clinical studies highlighting the specific diseases that Kampo medicine can treat is provided in Tables 2, 3, and 4. Kampo medicine has shown great ability to maintain control and function of the gastrointestinal tract. There are several gastrointestinal diseases that Kampo medicine is often used to treat, including but not limited to, constipation, perioperative symptoms, conditions in the gut, functional dyspepsia (FD), GERD, and non-erosive reflux disease (NERD). 

There is also evidence that demonstrates the capability of Kampo medicines for treating cardiovascular-related diseases or conditions. In recent years, due to the influx of heart failure patients in Japan, pharmacies have incorporated specific medicinal herbs into their iterations of Kampo medicines, that have shown promising results in terms of treating cardiovascular ailments. 

Last, but not least, the use of Kampo medicine has largely been associated with the capability to treat age-related symptoms that arise in elderly patients. This is related to the previous health benefits mentioned, because of how many diseases that arise in patients are connected to aging. A concept known as Geriatric Syndrome is characterized by diseases or conditions that arise as a result of aging. Kampo medicine is effective in combating these illnesses and is often prescribed for patients in Japan.


Science Behind It:

The reason for Kampo medicine’s affinity to provide ease to bowel ailments is highly related to its ability to ease the production of ghrelin in the body. Ghrelin is an amino acid that exists within the body and functions to regulate food intake regulation and is known for its relation to feelings of hunger. Additionally, ghrelin secretion has been shown to have a relation with gastrointestinal disorders present in the body. Some of these include chronic gastritis, Helicobacter pylori infection, irritable bowel syndrome, functional dyspepsia, and cachexia. The way that Kampo medicines have a role in the inhibition of ghrelin, allows for the alleviation of several of the GI diseases mentioned. One specific example of a Kampo medicine that has proven this is the use of rikkunshito to decrease concentrations of acylated ghrelin in the body, which is just the active form of ghrelin. The facilitation of ghrelin secretion within the body is a major advantage to Kampo medicines, due to the various positive outcomes that arise as a result of the abilities of the Japanese medication in use for traditional medicine. 

Furthermore, Kampo Medicines can alleviate cardiovascular diseases. A specific variation of Kampo medicine that has a high potential to deliver such promising results is the Mokuboito medicine. Mokuboito can remove stagnant fluid in the body that treats disorders caused by heart-related diseases, such as edema and wheezing. Furthermore, studies done on animals have shown that the same variation of Kampo medicine has proven to inhibit coronary spasms, which are tightening of blood arteries that are connected to the heart. This is a significantly useful property for Kampo medicines because of the health benefits it’s able to provide to overall health.


Conclusion:

After doing extensive research on the history of medicine in Japan, I will be sure to indulge in Japanese healthcare during my visit to fill any gaps that I may have missed in my examination of Kampo medicines. I am looking forward to learning more facts about the history of Japanese healthcare, and how it has been able to provide such incredibly noticeable effects on the population of Japan as a whole. For the future of healthcare, I hope for other countries to implement a similar concept of utilizing a variety of dosages and combinations of herbal plants to create traditional medicines that are as, if not more, potent as modern medicines used in Western culture.


Works Cited

“\/.” YouTube, 16 June 2023, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/kampo. Accessed 6 December 2023.

Cheung, Cynthia K., and De Silva. “Role of Ghrelin in the Pathophysiology of Gastrointestinal Disease.” NCBI, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3782663/. Accessed 6 December 2023.

“History of medicine | History & Facts.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/science/history-of-medicine/Japan. Accessed 5 December 2023.

Inoue, Maiko, et al. “Culture, History and Applications of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants in Japan.” IntechOpen, 15 March 2017, https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/53310. Accessed 5 December 2023.

Oka, Takakazu. “Effects of Kampo on functional gastrointestinal disorders.” NCBI, 21 January 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3906900/. Accessed 6 December 2023.

Teragawa, Hiroki. “Japanese Herbal Medicine (Kampo) as a Possible Treatment for Ischemia With Non-obstructive Coronary Artery Disease.” NCBI, 28 April 2023, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10145691/. Accessed 6 December 2023.



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