Dec 30, 2014

Ayurveda: are they fooling you?

This post is on ayurveda and not yoga. I thought, let me try to remove some misgivings about this great ancient system of medicine. This one is focused only on ayurvedic medicine and not the healing philosophy behind ayurveda.

Ayurveda is an ancient science of medicine that originated in India and is recognised by the WHO and many governments as one of the alternative and potent branches of medicine.

Ayurveda means the veda (=holy scripture) of life. It contains research by sages over centuries, passed on in the form of treatise and compilations.

Ayurvedic medicine: what's that?

Medicines made according to ayurvedic formulae are called ayurvedic medicines. In Indian parlance, all types of herbal medicine - a traditional practice among joint families - is often called 'ayurvedic' which it is not. 

Ayurvedic medicines are very efficacious against acute as well as chronic ailments. Some of these also have preventive and curative properties for long-term health, e.g. increasing immunity, improving digestion, controlling metabolic processes, and so on.

What's making ayurvedic medicines popular?

Many companies in India (the big ones include Dabur, Baidyanath, Patanjali, Zhandu) have given a big boost to such medicines and added modern research as well as procedures into making of ayurvedic formulations. 

Due to smart marketing on one hand and unethical and exaggerated promotion of some formulations, ayurvedic medicines have become popular the world over. It has been seen that people not finding relief from allopathic treatment often go for alternative medicines and are lured by claims made by manufacturers and sellers of such medicines.

Is there a scientific basis for ayurveda or is it a fad?

Ayurveda is a time-tested system of medicine and has its own tenets of what constitutes well being. That is beyond this post, and we'd discuss only ayurvedic medicine here. 

Most ayurvedic medicines are made from herbs, naturally available therapeutic substances such as gums and honey, and chemicals found in rocks etc. A number of such herbs have now been found to have chemicals with therapeutic properties and there have been many attempts to patent them (something that the Ayurveda department of Indian government has been trying to stop). 

More than that, ayurveda in its true spirit calls for using herbs from specific locations (e.g. some herbs from only shaded sides of hills so that their aromatic oils remain intact, some growing in a particular type of soil), using plant parts of specific age, using plants that are grown naturally, getting plant extracts through specified processes, and administering medicines at specific times of the day (e.g. after or before dinner), with specific substances (e.g. with hot or cold water, honey or milk) and keeping in mind the patients' health, digestion, etc. In fact, many of these must apply to modern allopathic medicines too, but doctors are seen administering medicine keeping just the doze in mind. 

Ayurveda is one more step ahead of allopathy in that experiments were made by expert sages, and the wisdom was carried by the next generation of sages and modified according to their own observations. This is supposed to have happened over many centuries (before it fell into the hands of semi-literate practitioners and touts, and all research and evolution stopped).

Are the medicines being sold in the US or the UK or Germany or Canada good?

formulations being sold in India as well as other countries may or may not produce the claimed results. That depends on many factors, and one of them definitely is how well the formulation has been prepared. Major brands named above are supposed to be producing quality formulations.

The problem with mass-produced ayurvedic medicines is that these do not imbibe the true spirit of ayurveda (discussed above). In some cases, these formulations are universal while a learned ayurvedic doctor might administer the same medicine for the same type of ailment differently to different persons. 

Another problem with some formulations seems to arise from the fact that ayurveda arose in an era when there was not much air / soil / water pollution, and people had active lives. So, the formulations meant for people of those times must undergo modifications to suit modern lifestyles, something that is not happening due to poor research support for ayurveda.

It has also been reported that some unscrupulous persons have been misusing the reputation of ayurveda. For example, it was reported that a self-proclaimed ayurveda expert claiming that his ayurvedic medicine could alleviate pain like no allopathic drug did was in fact selling steroids mixed with some plant concoctions.

You mean, all genuine ayurvedic medicines safe?

No, not all will be safe. The simple reason is that they all contain chemicals, however benevolent, natural and herbal they might be. Logically, a heart medicine that has lots of sugar or honey in it, might have bad effect on diabetes. A salty medicine, similarly, might not suit people with high BP.

Do ayurvedic medicines contain heavy metals and inedible matter such as bone powder?

Rarely. In some ayurvedic medicines, instead of extract of plant part, they use its ashes, perhaps to get the useful metal found naturally in that plant. At times, some metals' oxides (e.g. gold) are used; these have now been found to be useful to humans. In very rare medicines, some natural substances such as sea shells and arsenic are used too, but that is extremely rare, and is not required in modern ayurvedic medicine since synthetic and more acceptable substitutes are available. 

There are reports that some of the ayurvedic drugs sold in the US have been found to have toxic levels of arsenice, mercury and lead. This is not unexpected; one, because the formulations might not have been tempered to suit present day standards of toxicity; two, the toxic levels might have arisen due to modern methods of processing as the traditional methods would leach such toxins away; three, high metal levels can also develop when plants growing in polluted soil or water are used.