What Is Unani?

Looking for inspiration in your never-ending pursuit to find mental and physical balance? Let’s take a look at how our early ancestors approached such a daunting task – specifically, Unani, an ancient Greco-Arabic system of medicine. The word “Unani” comes from “Ionian,” the name of a Greek tribe. The Unani system of medicine is based on concepts taught by Hippocrates and Galen. It was then developed by various Persian and Arab physicians such as Al Razi and Ibn Nafis. Unani has since been influenced by traditional systems of medicine from countries like India, Egypt, Syria, China, Persia, and Iraq, and is still widely practiced in South Asia.

The Unani Framework

According to Hippocrates, the human body has four humors or fluids: blood, bile, black bile, and phlegm. Balance between these humors is essential for health, while an imbalance in their quality and quantity will lead to disease.1 The living body also has four qualities – cold, moist, dry, and hot – and these are associated with the four elements: earth, water, fire, and air. According to Unani, six factors are essential to maintaining health: air, food and drink, mental activity and rest, bodily activity and rest, evacuation of waste, and sleep and wakefulness.2


Treatment of Diseases

Unani treats diseases through pharmacotherapy, regimental therapy, dietotherapy, and surgery.3

Pharmacotherapy: With pharmacotherapy, medicines derived from plants, animals, or minerals are used either individually or in compound form. For instance, the flower buds of the Damask rose (R. damascena) are considered astringent and are used for treating cardiac problems. The powdered roots of the early purple orchid (O. mascula) are boiled with milk and taken to help dysentery, diarrhea, and diabetes. And the juice of the leaves of the plant dog mustard (C. icosandra) is prescribed for toothaches. Though all the properties credited to medicinal herbs and plants in Unani have not yet been scientifically validated, some of these are undoubtedly beneficial. For example, research has shown that plants like dog mustard and Damask rose have antioxidant properties and can help stop the damage done by free radicals, which have been associated with cancer and cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases.4


Regimental therapy: Regimental therapy uses interventions like massage, Turkish baths, exercise, and leeching to manage diseases. Leeching – perhaps the one thing here that’ll make you most squeamish – involves removing blood from the body through the use of medicinal leeches. It’s been used to treat gynecological disorders, musculoskeletal diseases, chronic skin diseases, and varicose veins. The saliva of a leech contains about 100 active biological substances (vasodilators, antibacterial, anesthetics, etc). When the leech sucks out blood, these substances can enter the body and provide anti-inflammatory, anesthetic, and analgesic effects.5

Dietotherapy: In dietotherapy, diseases are managed by altering the quality and quantity of the diet. Unani also uses the temperament of the individual to identify risk factors and recommend dietary and lifestyle practices. For example, a phlegmatic person (whose phlegm humor dominates) is free to consume meat and spicy foods, but advised to avoid milk, dairy, sugar, and glutinous products; strenuous exercise is also recommended. In contrast, a person with a sanguine temperament (whose blood humor dominates) is advised to practice light exercise and drink cold water, while avoiding strenuous activities and excess sugar and meat.6 Interestingly, in a study conducted at the University of the Western Cape, it was found that 86% of participants with hypertension had a dominant or subdominant sanguine temperament and 84% of participants with phlegm-related bronchial asthma had a dominant or subdominant phlegmatic temperament.7


Unani And Other Traditional Systems Of Medicine

Unani has conceptual similarities with other traditional systems of medicine, like Ayurveda – though the modes of treatment may differ. Ayurveda, the ancient system of medicine that originated in India, is also based on bodily humors: vata (associated with the tendency to flow), pitta (tendency to transform), and kapha (tendency to collect or accumulate). Disease is considered to be the result of an imbalance between these.8

While medical science has evolved immensely since systems like Unani and Ayurveda were first conceived, these ancient practices still offer valuable wisdom – particularly when it comes to their central idea of balance and how essential it is to our overall health and well-being.