Unani medicine and cancer

Christer Sundqvist

Unani medicine and cancer


Unani medicine is an alternative medical system originating in ancient Greece almost 2500 years back. It is now practiced primarily in India. Herbal remedies, dietary practices and alternative therapies characterize Unani medicine. Let us study what it can offer for a cancer patient.


A science of health and healing

Avicenna (980-1037) has defined Unani medicine as a science in which we learn various states of body in health and when not in health and the means by which health is likely to be lost and when lost, is likely to be restored [1].


The Unani  system  of  medicine  is  a  holistic  approach to  cancer  care. This short article is an effort to highlight the main findings of Unani medicine [2].


Prevention of cancer can be achieved by following the sound principles of ”Six Prerequisites of Healthy Living by Unani medicine” [1]:


1.     Air (Fresh and pollution free air for breathing. Avoiding exposure to excessive heat or excessive cold.)

2.     Food and drink (To stop tobacco chewing and smoking. Avoiding junk and smoked foods, preserved foods, alcohol, carbonated drinks, etc. Avoiding excess of non-vegetarian diet. Avoiding black bile producing diets such as red meat, dried and salted meat and fish, etc. Taking soft and easily digestible diets. Consuming  turmeric, tomatoes, garlic, flaxseed, spinach, broccoli, pomegranates, walnuts, etc. Taking diet rich in fibre (20-30 g/day).)

3.     Bodily  movement and repose (Avoiding sedentary lifestyle. Exercising for 30-45 minutes at least five days  a week.)

4.     Psychic movement and repose (Avoiding mental stress and anxiety. Avoiding extreme emotions, e.g. anger, fear, sadness. Lead a spiritual peaceful life.)

5.     Sleep and wakefulness (Sleeping for six to eight hours.)

6.     Retention and evacuation (Avoiding constipation. Ensuring proper evacuation, urination, perspiration and menstruation. Avoiding dehydration and ensure retention of electrolytes and minerals.)

Unani medicine accentuates an early detection of cancer leading to better prognosis. Unani treatment may be used as an adjuvant therapy for cancer patients to restore a healthy lifestyle and to enhance the immunity of the patient. Unani medicine might reduce the complications associated with cancer, it might prevent the side-effects of conventional cancer therapies and is improving the quality of life of the patients.


Some anti-cancerous drugs and herbs are often used. There is a rapidly growing interest into these products and several studies have shown promising results.


For example the herb Artemisia absinthium (Wormwood) shows anti-angiogenic effects in tumor cell lines [3]. In another study Artemisia significantly inhibited cell proliferation and promoted apoptosis in two human breast cancer cell lines [4].


Studies have been conducted to verify the anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer activities of the herb Cuscuta reflexa (Giant dodder) in cell lines [5], Swiss albino mice [6], human red blood cells [7] and human cancer cell lines [8]. Ashwagandha or Indian ginseng Withania somnifera has immunomodulatory and anti-cancer effects [9-14]. Glycyrrhiza glabra (Liquorice) expresses promising antimicrobial, cytotoxic and anti-cancer effects [15, 16]. Also Terminalia bellerica known as Bahera or Beleric has been found to possess anti-cancer effects [17, 18]. The antimutagenic and anti-cancer activity of Tinospora cordifolia (Heart-leaved moonseed) has been found in some studies [19, 20]. The spicy Black cumin Nigella sativa has some potential as an anti-cancer agent [21, 22]. Curcuma longa (Turmeric) is quite well-known as an anti-cancer herb [23-25]. Cinnamomum zeylenicum (Cinnamon bark) is able to induce apoptosis in cancer cell-lines [26, 27]. Bacopa monnieri (Water hyssop) is possessing some cytotoxic effects [28, 29].

Unani medicine, much like Ayurveda, is based on an ancient theory of the presence of the elements in the human body. These elements are present in fluids and their balance (homeostasis) leads to health and their imbalance leads to illness. Thus homeostasis plays an important key role in the optimum functioning of the body.


Unani System of Medicine believes that the real physician is the body’s intrinsic power of healing and maintaining its normal state of health. The physician is not the healer but an assistant to nature, the true healer [30].

Modern research helps us to get a more scientific view of this medical system [31, 32]. Currently there is a lack of research data and lack of adequate accepted research methodology for understanding and evaluation of Unani medicine [33].


1 Unani – National Health Portal. https://www.nhp.gov.in/unani_mty


2 Fouzia Bashir, Jamal Akhtar, Nighat Anjum et al (5 authors). Concept of Sartān (Cancer) and Anti-cancerous drugs in Unani System of Medicine. International Journal of Current Science and Multidisciplinary Research 3 (6), 2020 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343053706_Concept_of_Sartan_Cancer_and_Anti-cancerous_drugs_in_Unani_System_of_Medicine


3 SA Emami, Nasser Vahdati-Mashhadian, R. Vosough, M.B. Oghazian. The anticancer activity of five species of Artemisia on Hep2 and HepG2 cell lines. Pharmacologyonline 3:327-339, 2009 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287776433_The_anticancer_activity_of_five_species_of_Artemisia_on_Hep2_and_HepG2_cell_lines


4 Gowhar Shafi, Tarique Noorul Hasan, Naveed Syed et al (7 authors). Artemisia absinthium (AA): A novel potential complementary and alternative medicine for breast cancer. Molecular Biology Reports July 2012 DOI: 10.1007/s11033-012-1569-0 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/220009732_Artemisia_absinthium_AA_A_novel_potential_complementary_and_alternative_medicine_for_breast_cancer


5 Vinayak Suresh, V Sruthi, B Padmaja, V V Asha. In vitro anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer activities of Cuscuta reflexa Roxb. Journal of ethnopharmacology 134(3):872-877, 2011 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49811455_In_vitro_anti-inflamatory_and_anti-cancer_activities_of_Cuscuta_reflexa_Roxb


6 Dandopani Chatterjee, Ram Kumar Sahu, Arvind K Jha, Jaya Dwivedi. Evaluation of Antitumor Activity of Cuscuta Reflexa Roxb (Cuscutaceae) Against Ehrlich Ascites Carcinoma in Swiss Albino Mice. Tropical Journal of Pharmaceutical Research 10(4), 2011 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264043975_Evaluation_of_Antitumor_Activity_of_Cuscuta_Reflexa_Roxb_Cuscutaceae_Against_Ehrlich_Ascites_Carcinoma_in_Swiss_Albino_Mice


7 Pavan Bhausaheb Udavant, Satyanarayana V. Suggala, Chandrashekhar Devidas Upasani. Preliminary screening of Cuscuta reflexa stems for Anti inflammatory and cytotoxic activity. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine 2(3):S1303–S1307, 2012 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257746847_Preliminary_screening_of_Cuscuta_reflexa_stems_for_Anti_inflammatory_and_cytotoxic_activity


8 Madhulika Bhagat, Ajit K Saxena. In vitro anti-proliferative, anti-bacterial potential and induction of DNA strand break of partially purified Cuscuta reflexa Roxb. International Journal of Green Pharmacy 5(4):307, 2011 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272659180_In_vitro_anti-proliferative_anti-bacterial_potential_and_induction_of_DNA_strand_break_of_partially_purified_Cuscuta_reflexa_Roxb


9 Muralikrishnan Govindan, Amit K Dinda, Faiyaz Shakeel. Immunomodulatory Effects of Withania Somnifera on Azoxymethane Induced Experimental Colon Cancer in Mice. Immunological Investigations 39(7):688-698, 2010 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/46271850_Immunomodulatory_Effects_of_Withania_Somnifera_on_Azoxymethane_Induced_Experimental_Colon_Cancer_in_Mice


10 Zhen Yang, Anapatricia Garcia, Songli Xu et al (7 authors). Withania somnifera Root Extract Inhibits Mammary Cancer Metastasis and Epithelial to Mesenchymal Transition. PLoS ONE 8(9):e75069, 2013 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257075737_Withania_somnifera_Root_Extract_Inhibits_Mammary_Cancer_Metastasis_and_Epithelial_to_Mesenchymal_Transition


11 Hardeep Kataria, Renu Wadhwa, Sunil Kaul, Gurcharan Kaur. Withania somnifera Water Extract as a Potential Candidate for Differentiation Based Therapy of Human Neuroblastomas. PLoS ONE 8(1):e55316, 2013 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235403072_Withania_somnifera_Water_Extract_as_a_Potential_Candidate_for_Differentiation_Based_Therapy_of_Human_Neuroblastomas


12 Bolleddula Jayaprakasam, Yanjun Zhang, Navindra P Seeram, Muraleedharan Gopalan Nair. Growth inhibition of human tumor cell lines by withanolides from Withania somnifera leaves. Life Sciences 74(1):125-132, 2003 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/231587440_Growth_inhibition_of_human_tumor_cell_lines_by_withanolides_from_Withania_somnifera_leaves


13 Bhuwaneshor Yadav, Amarjeet Bajaj, Mridula Saxena, Anil Kumar Saxena. In Vitro Anticancer Activity of the Root, Stem and Leaves of Withania Somnifera against Various Human Cancer Cell Lines. Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 72(5):659-663, 2010 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51240169_In_Vitro_Anticancer_Activity_of_the_Root_Stem_and_Leaves_of_Withania_Somnifera_against_Various_Human_Cancer_Cell_Lines


14 Rajeev Nema, Salaj Khare, P. Jain, A. Pradhan. Anticancer activity of Withania somnifera (Leaves) flavonoids compound. International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences Review and Research 19(1):103-106, 2013 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287522816_Anticancer_activity_of_Withania_somnifera_Leaves_flavonoids_compound


15 SG Rathi, M Suthar, P Patel et al (5 authors). In-vitro cytotoxic screening of Glycyrrhiza glabra L. (Fabaceae): A natural anticancer drug. Journal of Young Pharmacists 1(3), 2009 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/38109817_In-vitro_cytotoxic_screening_of_Glycyrrhiza_glabra_L_Fabaceae_A_natural_anticancer_drug


16 Sahar Rahman, Sarwat Sultana. Glycyrrhizin exhibits potential chemopreventive activity on 12-O-tetradecanoyl phorbol-13-acetate-induced cutaneous oxidative stress and tumor promotion in Swiss albino mice. Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry 22(3):363-369, 2007 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6164227_Glycyrrhizin_exhibits_potential_chemopreventive_activity_on_12-O-tetradecanoyl_phorbol-13-acetate-induced_cutaneous_oxidative_stress_and_tumor_promotion_in_Swiss_albino_mice


17 Shi Li, Ting Ye, Linjin Liang et al (7 authors). Anti-cancer activity of an ethyl-acetate extract of the fruits of Terminalia bellerica (Gaertn.) Roxb. through an apoptotic signaling pathway in vitro. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences 5(4), 2018 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329444799_Anti-cancer_activity_of_an_ethyl-acetate_extract_of_the_fruits_of_Terminalia_bellerica_Gaertn_Roxb_through_an_apoptotic_signaling_pathway_in_vitro


18 Khosit Pinmai, Sriharut Chunlaratthanabhorn, Ariyaphong Wongnoppavich et al (5 authors). Synergistic growth inhibitory effects of Phyllanthus emblica and Terminalia bellerica extracts with conventional cytotoxic agents: Doxorubicin and cisplatin against human hepatocellular carcinoma and lung cancer cells. World Journal of Gastroenterology 14(10):1491-1497, 2008 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5521179_Synergistic_growth_inhibitory_effects_of_Phyllanthus_emblica_and_Terminalia_bellerica_extracts_with_conventional_cytotoxic_agents_Doxorubicin_and_cisplatin_against_human_hepatocellular_carcinoma_and_l


19 Vandana Mohan, Ashwani Koul. Anticancer potential of Tinospora cordifolia and arabinogalactan against benzo(a)pyrene induced pulmonary tumorigenesis: A study in relevance to various biomarkers. Journal of Herbmed Pharmacology 7(4):225-235, 2018 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329222397_Anticancer_potential_of_Tinospora_cordifolia_and_arabinogalactan_against_benzoapyrene_induced_pulmonary_tumorigenesis_A_study_in_relevance_to_various_biomarkers


20 Rahul Verma, Hotam Singh, R.C. Agrawal. Evaluation of Anticarcinogenic and Antimutagenic effect of tinospora cordifolia in experimental Animals. J Chem Pharm Res 3(6):877-881, 2011 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221842926_Evaluation_of_Anticarcinogenic_and_Antimutagenic_effect_of_tinospora_cordifolia_in_experimental_Animals


21 Sameera Ranganath Samarakoon, Ira Thabrew, B. Prasanna Galhena et al (5 authors). A Comparison of the Cytotoxic potential of standardized aqueous and ethanolic extracts of polyherbal mixture comprised of Nigella sativa (seeds), Hemidesmus indicus (root) and Similax glabra (rhizome). Pharmacognosy Research 2(6):335, 2010 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242654276_A_Comparison_of_the_Cytotoxic_potential_of_standardized_aqueous_and_ethanolic_extracts_of_polyherbal_mixture_comprised_of_Nigella_sativa_seeds_Hemidesmus_indicus_root_and_Similax_glabra_rhizome


22 N.J. Salomi, Satish Nair, K.K. Jayawardhanan (5 authors). Antitumour principles from Nigella sativa seeds. Cancer Letters 63(1):41-46, 1992 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/21600934_Antitumour_principles_from_Nigella_sativa_seeds


23 Zeinab Khazaei Koohpar, Maliheh Entezari, Abolfazl Movafagh, Mehrdad Hashemi. Anticancer Activity of Curcumin on Human Breast Adenocarcinoma: Role of Mcl-1 Gene. Iranian Journal of Cancer Prevention 8(3), 2015 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281997969_Anticancer_Activity_of_Curcumin_on_Human_Breast_Adenocarcinoma_Role_of_Mcl-1_Gene


24 Shuang En Chuang, AL Cheng, J K Lin, Min-Liang Kuo. Inhibition by curcumin of diethylnitrosamine-induced hepatic hyperplasia, inflammation, cellular gene products and cell-cycle-related proteins in rats. Food and Chemical Toxicology 38(11):991-995, 2000 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12286660_Inhibition_by_curcumin_of_diethylnitrosamine-induced_hepatic_hyperplasia_inflammation_cellular_gene_products_and_cell-cycle-related_proteins_in_rats


25 Zhen-Yu He, Chuan-Bing Shi, Hao Wen et al (6 authors). Upregulation of p53 Expression in Patients with Colorectal Cancer by Administration of Curcumin. Cancer Investigation 29(3):208-213, 2011 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49829524_Upregulation_of_p53_Expression_in_Patients_with_Colorectal_Cancer_by_Administration_of_Curcumin


26 Varalakshmi Badrinarayanan, Vijay Anand, Thirunethiran Karpagam et al (5 authors). In vitro antimicrobial and anticancer activity of Cinnamomum Zeylanicum linn bark extracts. International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences 6:12-18, 2014 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/289056348_In_vitro_antimicrobial_and_anticancer_activity_of_Cinnamomum_Zeylanicum_linn_bark_extracts


27 Soumya Koppikar, Amit Choudhari, Snehal A Suryavanshi et al (6 authors). Aqueous Cinnamon Extract (ACE-c) from the bark of Cinnamomum cassia causes apoptosis in human cervical cancer cell line (SiHa) through loss of mitochondrial membrane potential. BMC Cancer 10(1):210, 2010 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44611575_Aqueous_Cinnamon_Extract_ACE-c_from_the_bark_of_Cinnamomum_cassia_causes_apoptosis_in_human_cervical_cancer_cell_line_SiHa_through_loss_of_mitochondrial_membrane_potential


28 Nasar Mallick, Mohammad Salman Akhtar, Mohd Zeeshan Najm et al (6 authors). Evaluation of anticancer potential of Bacopa monnieri L. against MCF-7 and MDA-MB 231 cell line. Journal of Pharmacy And Bioallied Sciences 7(4):325, 2015 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283436341_Evaluation_of_anticancer_potential_of_Bacopa_monnieri_L_against_MCF-7_and_MDA-MB_231_cell_line


29 Paulina Koczurkiewicz, Maciej Łojewski, Kamil Piska et al (9 authors). Chemopreventive and Anticancer Activities of Bacopa monnieri Extracted from Artificial Digestive Juices. Natural product communications 13(3):337-342, 2017 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315533550_Chemopreventive_and_Anticancer_Activities_of_Bacopa_monnieri_Extracted_from_Artificial_Digestive_Juices


30 Abdul Azeez Rizwana, Hafeel Mohamed, Zar Nigar. Unani Concept of Prevention and Control of Lifestyle Disorders: A Literature Review. American Journal of PharmTech Research 2018. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342877369_Unani_Concept_of_Prevention_and_Control_of_Lifestyle_Disorders_A_Literature_Review


31 Joseph E. Pizzorno, Michael T. Murray. Textbook of Natural Medicine. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2020


32 Arshiya Sultana, Khaleeq Raheman. Essentials of Research Methodology in Unani Medicine. ISBN: 81-89966-81-2, 2020 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338292988_Essentials_of_Research_Methodology_in_Unani_Medicine


33 Mumtaz Rabbani, Betania Kartika Muflih, Khairusy Syakirin. Nature’s Sustainable Aqua Gift – Pearl in Unani medicine. Journal of Halal Industry & Services 3, 2020


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