The term Unani or more so Yunani means “Greek”, and heralds back to a Perso-Arabic system of medicine that is based on the teachings of the Greek physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen. Arab and Persian elaborations upon the Greek system of medicine by figures like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Razi (Rhazes) influenced the early development of Unani.
The Hellenistic origin of Unani medicine is still visible in its being based on the classical four humours: phlegm (balgham), blood (dam), yellow bile (ṣafrā) and black bile (saudā’), but it has also been influenced by Indian and Chinese traditional systems predominantly via the culture of the great Silk Road.
It is easy to dismiss the influence of Unani medicine along the societies and cultures of the Silk Road by focussing upon the similarities and synchronisation of Traditional Chinese Medicine and its practices. On the outside practices such as cupping, herbal medicine and principles of balancing and observing more than just a patient’s symptoms appear akin to Traditional Chinese Medicine systems, however the catergorisation of illness and imbalance or disharmony around the humours makes it somewhat unique as a system practiced today.
It is interesting to suppose that whilst there has been hundreds of years of cultural dialogue with trade and medicine along the Silk Road we would also expect the value of tea as a medicine to also have traveled too. Certainly the practice of tea has.
Namita et al (2012) suggest that green tea has been incorporated into the materia medica of Unani medicine for a significant period of time.
Chaey or tea is listed as one of the important plants in the pharmacopoeia used in Unani medicine in India today (Kumar 2014)
It is understood that tea increases the body’s “warmness” (Kabir 2002), and anecdotally I have spoken to people of the tribal regions bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, who practice unani, that tea wards off the invasion of “coldness” in the body. It was interesting for me to note that one day, observing children devour ice cream on the streets of Peshawar on a hot dry afternoon, that their seniors warned them not to eat too much as they would get a cold. Within that week two of the children were suffering from sniffles and sneezes, only to swiftly being prescribed steaming hot cups of strong green tea!!
It is possible to understand the tea medicine from a Unani perspective in the diagram above. Coldness causes imbalances of the bile and phlegm which manifests in symptoms of congestion, oedema, poor circulation and lacking in energy or weight gain. There is strong correlation with tea research that tea can combat weight gain (e.g. Snoussi et al 2014) as well as benefits associated with a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk factors and improved circulation (Woodward et al 2018), the dietary flavonoids, such as those present in tea are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
It is no surprise that other systems of traditional medicine, such as Unani, that would have had hundreds of years of contact with tea as a materia medica have incorporated it into their treatment formulas, especially given the modern mass of tea research accumulating.
I think it is useful to appraise not only recent research but a variety of these traditional systems to gain a deeper understanding of tea medicine and its culture.
Kabir H. Introduction to Ilmul advia. Shamsher Publisher and Distributors; 2002.
Kumar N. Some plants used in Ayurvedic and Unani systems of Medicine, Tehsil Joginder Nagar, district mandi, HP, India. International Journal of Food, Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences. 2014;4(1):73-80.
Namita P, Mukesh R, Vijay KJ. Camellia sinensis (green tea): A review. Global journal of pharmacology. 2012;6(2):52-9.
Snoussi C, Ducroc R, Hamdaoui MH, Dhaouadi K, Abaidi H, Cluzeaud F, Nazaret C, Le Gall M, Bado A. Green tea decoction improves glucose tolerance and reduces weight gain of rats fed normal and high-fat diet. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry. 2014 May 1;25(5):557-64.
Woodward KA, Hopkins ND, Draijer R, de Graaf Y, Low DA, Thijssen DH. Acute black tea consumption improves cutaneous vascular function in healthy middle-aged humans. Clinical Nutrition. 2018 Feb 1;37(1):242-9.