Ayurveda and the myth of “natural” medicine


There are a lot of ideas circulating in our society some of which don’t have a scientific basis. More often than not they are propagated through word of mouth, anecdotal evidence peddled by people who stand to gain from it’s spread, passed from one generation to the next as ancient “wisdom”, hypocritical media etc..

Besides, people really don’t have the time or the inclination to check the veracity of each and every thing they hear anyway. Sometimes, we got to trust what people say. This makes our perspective of things as shaped by society susceptible to statistical bias and misinformation.

India is a free-for-all country where practically anything goes. The judges decide where Ram was born 6000 years ago, we have the govt. standing by while religious organizations deliberately spread lies for the purpose of attracting poor desperate pilgrims and milking them for their money, where national parties oppose projects of national importance on the grounds that it might damage ancient bridges which were supposedly, as described in a fairy tale, built by “monkey men”, where Homeopathy is a recognized system of medicine requiring qualified doctors etc..

The govt., probably in it’s eagerness to appear tolerant and to avoid trouble with anyone has placed the onus of separating the crap from the real deal on the common man. And people have far more pressing needs than to settle such questions by conducting personal research especially in a country where starvation and desperate poverty are so widespread. People are forced to make choices only when they are in trouble. I am not saying that such things don’t happen in other countries. I just think that we are not being as strict as we need to be.

I had once written about Homeopathy and how it has managed to stage a come-back and is now in full force in our country in this Information-Age when every body of scientific literature worth it’s salt has thoroughly debunked it.

Ayurveda

Aurveda in India comes under the Department of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yunani, Siddha and Homeopathy). It is said that one’s company is reflective of one’s character. Well, then, that doesn’t make ayurveda look too good, does it?

Ayurveda is a 5,000 yr old system of medicine having it’s roots in the Vedas. Many people take the fact that it is such an ancient system of medicine based on an equally ancient text to mean that it has withstood the test of time. But, that is not really logical.

It is more or less obvious that the ancient people had very little understanding of the biochemistry of the human body and that they were limited by contemporary technology(if at all there was any) from achieving any deeper insight into the complexities of the physical processes behind life. This is in evidence in the writings which involve demons and simplistic theories of disease.

Any average person today has access to several orders of magnitude more information than a guy who roamed around 5,000 yrs ago. They were humans like us, puzzled by the same questions and same mysteries that any child would be puzzled by. They came up with some plausible explanations that seemed to make sense to them. They described their thoughts in their literary works and millenia later, these works have come to be regarded as textbooks containing unassailable facts.

Instead of applying rigorous tests to the material subsequent generations came to regard it as sacred truth. Now, Ayurvedic practitioners don’t feel the need for empirical proof for their system of medicine. They just “intuitively” know that it is right and that is all that matters. After all, if you feel it’s right what else is required?

When some system is based upon gratuitous BS that has been shown to be clearly wrong or at least too simplistic, then the chances of it being effective are pretty low. If someone came and told you,

Hey, I am a computer repair man! I have a theory of computers. Every computer is a perfect divine balance of the Pancha Dhathus. They are sand, metal, plastic, wood and soul(some unholistic, unmystic, useless-stic people call it software!).

An imbalance involving the above things manifests itself in the computer being unhappy and acting like a POS(Piece-of-S**t). Based on this I have compiled thousands of pages containing big words which describe a new holistic healing method that can be used to set right misbehaving computers.

Also, it must be said that different computers have different natures. A calculator is less “soul-y” than say… a Mac which is mostly just soul. So, they have to be handled differently. You of course wouldn’t be able to do it as you require a sharply honed intuition to do it.

Do you think you would want to entrust such a guy  with your computer? Obviously, it is highly unlikely that he has a way to solve any problem. But, it is quite possible that in all that stuff he has written up, by chance, there might be something which might be mildly helpful. If you get some time you might want to go through it. But, wouldn’t depend upon him to run your enterprise systems.

No Side-Effects!

A lot of people have been taken in by this promise of “natural/herbal” treatment that is completely without side-effects and that are in-tune with the body. They delay or withhold treatment sometimes for conditions that can be controlled or treated easily using modern medicine. They keep putting up with the pain and convince themselves that their body is regaining the “balance” and eventually the disease just goes away on it’s own. But, not always! Sometimes, it horribly maims or even kills them. I have seen how people with Arthritis, Cancer, infectious diseases and other such illnesses stick to Ayurveda and end up with irreversible complications and sometimes even reduced chances of survival because of lack of timely medical intervention.

Medicine is not something that healthy people take. It is something that temporarily does something to the body to try and help it to recover. Thus, it has an effect. Now, medicines vary widely in their specificity and some might have other unwanted effects. Doctors prescribe a drug when they think that the benefits outweigh the side-effects. Most of the ayurvedic medicines don’t have side-effects because they don’t have effects. And the ones that do have effects generally tend to be toxic simply because they have been chosen based on bad science.

The dead people never walk around bad-mouthing ayurveda. But, if a single guy finds that his sickness goes away after he started taking ayurvedic medicines, he will talk about it to everyone.

When something claims that diseases can arise due to demonic possession then it should trigger your internal “crap-sense”. When it uses heavy metals and other demonstrably toxic materials in it’s concoctions you should be even more alarmed. When it gets banned in the EU and the US you should be scared of it.

Ayurveda selects medicines based on some assumptions regarding the functioning of the human body. These assumptions are in clear disagreement with science. Thus, the selections are likely to be wrong and ineffective and possibly, even harmful. These kinds of assumptions are used by a lot of other Alternative Systems like Chinese Herbal Medicine which is notorious for using animal parts that have resulted in hunting down of endangered species, acupuncture, Faith Healing, Osteopathy, etc.. All of them have been shown to be hollow and ineffective when properly tested in blinded, controlled studies using statistically sound techniques.

What one needs to realize is that intuition really doesn’t work as a means of arriving at the truth when it comes to stuff that are beyond the realm of everyday experience. This is simply because intuition is not something magical. It is something that is shaped by our experiences and a trait that helps us to take quick decisions in our day to day life. You can use it to come up with new ideas. But, not to test for it’s validity.

You could figure out how to use a computer application using your intuition because it was designed by human beings for use by human beings. Thus, you can easily make educated guesses and quickly figure it out. But, the human body was not designed by anyone and it does not accomplish things in an optimum fashion. A lot of the responses are irrational and inexplicable if you were to assume that it is perfect.

Ayurveda is rightly categorised as a “complementary” system of medicine and no one should rely on it as a primary treatment option. People should also be careful about taking herbal remedies as they might contain dangerous substances. There really is nothing called “natural” medicine. Everything ultimately comes from nature itself and there is no guarantee that everything natural is safe. To figure out what to take, it is best that we rely on the most rigorously tested and accepted bodies of knowledge.

There might be some remedies and rare herbs that have been found to work through trial and error. These herbs must be studied, their active ingredients identified, tested and then they should incorporated into modern medicine. There is really no justification for maintaining separate systems with different standards.

There is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work.

Richard Dawkins

Lastly, there is this idea that people in the olden times did not suffer from illnesses and that it was probably because of traditional medicine.  The average life expectancy has been consistently increasing and when people live longer they just tend to get more diseases. Modern medicine has not been adequately appreciated at least in some circles for the improvement in the quality of life that it has brought about.

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14 thoughts on “Ayurveda and the myth of “natural” medicine

  1. Pingback: Ayurveda and the myth of “natural” medicine | RamBlings Of a … | Solve It Naturally

  2. i have seen a people with cancer,arthritis being cured by ayurveda. at the same time i have seen my friend’s mother die due to chemo.

  3. To validate a system of medicine properly blinded and controlled studies need to be undertaken. If you know of any such studies published in reputed peer reviewed journal please post them here. Your friend’s mother died because of cancer. Don’t say that chemotherapy killed her.

    I am not a big fan of anecdotal evidence. But, here goes. A few of my relatives have arthritis. They have to date spent huge amounts of money on Ayurveda and a lot of other “alternative medicines” and had to put up with endless pain and fluctuating intensity. Finally, they saw a rheumatologist and were put on a low dose Methotrexate course and all of them are doing well and able to lead a normal active life without the need for elaborate treatments. Some of them might have to get their knee joints replaced because they delayed getting proper treatment by sticking to ayurveda.
    You are not looking at the big picture and using a few cases that you have heard of to judge a system of medicine. For a more detailed explanation I would like to recommend http://www.quackwatch.org to you.
    Thanks for the comment!

  4. why would you want to base your faith on peer reviewed journals(that too only the reputed ones wjile ignoring the rest) to know about the efficacy of ayurvedic medicines even if there is a statistically significant evidence of its efficacy.
    a few reasons for the scarcity of the evidence of ayurvedic medicines in the international peer reviewed journals are:
    1) the medicines/system of treatment would lie outside the domain of many of these journals and hence would be unfit for publication.
    2) the pharma lobby is very powerful and would like to patent its own versions of many of these formulations. it also wouldn’t like to see stuff published outside the realm of allopathic medicines/system of treatment

    funny that you mention arthritis, because it is one area where ayurvedic system scores over the rest. one can always change the ayurvedic doctor if one isn’t observing beneficial results. also chemo is one of the biggest killers of patients throughout the world. wonder why that it is still in use.

    regarding anecdotal evidence my father was suffering with fungus on his body for the past 6 years and has visited numerous dermatologists. however after undergoing treatment with ayurvedic oils/medicines for about 2 months his fungus vanished.

    regarding peer reviewed papers, even if someone where to present them here, you would say that the evidence is being pushed by the government of india to pursue its own interests or that the efficacy has still not been confirmed. but anyhow here are a few papers and sites

    http://www.ijaronline.com/

    this journal has a number of papers.(but i’m guessing you may not agree to them since they are from GOI). in fact many of the papers listed are actually very interesting.

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/j044088768k48700/
    http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.1517/14728222.10.1.87
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S037887410500228X
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022510X00003294

    here are also some evidences
    http://www.girijasanjeevani.com/casestudies.htm
    http://www.toxicologycentre.com/English/gallery.html
    http://ayurveda-cancer.org/case2.htm

    hope you would look at these evidence with an open mind, even if you believe/don’ty believe in ayurveda.

    thanks bye.

  5. i actually didn’t read the full article when i wrote my previous comments(i just read the title and figured out it would be the similar to the other ramblings that have been floating around on the net). now that i’ve read it there is nothing new in the write up. poorly written and the same rehashing of stuff floating around on the net.

    regarding the stuff about heavy metals, i’ve applied a medicine containing heavy metal(copper sulphate aka tutha) on my eyes(along with the intake of medicine triphalaadi churna), and i have been able to reduce the power in my eyes from -1.0 to -.25 after applying for around 2 months. i may even end up with 20/20 vision after a few months. i’ve also taken a powder(navayasa churna) containing 50% by weight iron filing. i haven’t suffered any sort ailments at all nor have i been blinded by the copper sulphate in the medicine. instead i have been blessed with much improved eyesight.

    ….

  6. Your comments betray a serious lack of reading and lack of effort and time spent on reading up on the mainstream views on the topic. I will just point out some facts which you got wrong and which I think might be dangerous to people and leave it at that. I am going to ignore your comments to the effect that the article is “just a rehashing” as it is somewhat comic coming from such a poisonously ignorant and damaged intellect as yourself.
    You have listed some “evidences” and it would have made me laugh if it weren’t so sad. The only tried and tested treatment for snake-bite is Anti-venom serum treatment administered by competent professionals. The reason for the high mortality from bites in India is treatment by quacks. This is especially true in villages and rural areas. The reason such treatments appear to work is because most of the snakes are not poisonous and even if they are they give only a dry-bite to humans beings most of the time. Please take a moment before sharing such pieces of “insight” as they have the potential to kill people.
    Your scholarly analysis of the problem of heavy metals in ayurvedic preparations was just unbelievable. If you haven’t gone to school or suffered from some other misfortune involving your head, you have my sympathy. When people refer to heavy metal poisoning they usually are not talking about iron which is an essential nutrient(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essential_nutrient) or copper. They are referring mostly to Lead, Mercury and Arsenic and sometimes to Gold and silver, which are all considered to be toxic to varying levels and have not been demonstrated to have any therapeutic effect.
    I am not going to talk about the “evidences” on the cancer site as it is a case study on how to do and propagate bad science and misinformation. You can try addressing your request to get chemo therapy banned to the public and maybe get a scholarly tome by yourself published by someone about how Chemotherapy kills people and why you don’t know why it is used. I am sure it will be entertaining reading.
    On a slightly more serious note, there is this notion that the objection to ayurveda is directed at the medications. This is not correct. The problem lies with the approach and the underlying science. A lot of the modern day medicines that people use like Aspirin(made traditionally from the bark of the cinchona tree), Quinine, Artemisinin(from traditional chinese medicine) etc. where discovered with the help of traditional wisdom. The “pharma lobby” cannot stop anyone from coming out with effective drugs and they don’t really care about where you got the idea from.
    I have a day job as an electrical engineer and I am not a medical expert. So, my opinions are always going to be a “rehashing” of existing opinion. But, I have one piece of advice for you. Please don’t embarrass yourself by posting such patent stupidity tainted with a condescending tone online. I know you went ahead seeing that replies were not forthcoming. If you have any doubts I suggest you post them on threads hosted on suitable forums. Then people will be able to reply more quickly and prevent bad ideas from spreading.

  7. rajata bhasmam, rasasindooram (1st one is made from silver and the 2nd one from mercury) have been used to cure cancer among many other medicines. and mercury and silver(in their native form) are toxic, in fact mercury is very very toxic. lead, silver, mercury, arsenic,copper,zinc,etc are among the many toxic metals used in rasa shastra to make medicines.

    and last i knew, copper sulphate is not an essential nutrient for the eyes(it is extremely toxic if added to the eyes), and yet i have used a medicine containing copper sulphate to cure my myopia.(medicine is called nayanaamrita kuzhampu).

    and no, one cannot ingest iron filings(if they are not treated according to the ayurvedic procedure) as it would be veryvery toxic to do so. by your logic one can ingest copper, magnesium, sodium, potassium or anything one fancies.

    it’s easy talking about chemo when you haven’t had the drug pumped into your veins.

    i have posted numerous journal papers and evidences for the efficacy of ayurvedic medicines. you seem to have a damaged brain incapable of comprehending evidence and your quacking and name calling “poisonously ignorant and damaged intellect as yourself” will do little to alter the reality or give you any credibility.

  8. also medicines like triphalaadi choorna have multiple benefits, such as being good for digestion, good for eyesight, etc, same with other herbs, herbomineral medicines.

    so what exactly is this “active ingredient”??

    on a different note why do you continue to eat normal food. why don’t you switch to a diet of carbohydrate pills(made of carbohydrates of different kinds), protein pills, dietary mineral pills, mineral pills, roughage etc as eating normal food always imbalances the body with either too much of fat, carbo, excess/deficient vitamins, etc

    fool

    • manu, ayurveda and any naturopathic medicines are very much a hit-and-miss affair. On the peer reviewed journal side, there is an admission in the ayurvedic community that there are very significant gaps in the educational system. Tremendous increases in the number and variety of institutions offering degrees in ayurveda, for instance, have resulted in poor standards, poor education, lack of knowledge and technique among graduates.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2876920/

      Many ayurvedic doctors aren’t trained in how to conduct appropriate research, nor in how to work within the peer review system. The ancient practice of “learning from a guru” was considered adequate, after all. But let me ask you, would you rather learn what you could from one guru, both good practices and any errors or bad habits he or she has picked up, or from a college of trained specialists working from documented and proven methods and results?

      That said, many ayurvedic herbs have mild benefits and many have no benefit whatsoever. With the shortage of studies, unfortunately all I can quote are anecdotes- however my wife has researched extensively, studied in Chennai, and so on- and when her thyroid started to fail, she spent months working with a series of ayurvedic “cures” or treatments which were completely ineffective. Once she started the western (albeit natural) treatment, presto. IN this case not even the placebo effect helped, as it had previously on other issues.

      Homeopathy is something else- it’s been proven completely ineffective, and anyone pitching homeopathy as a medical cure should be charged with fraud.

      Please don’t present current ayurvedic medicine as proven science- yes in some cases it might help, but if you get pneumonia, where will you go?

  9. Most of the concepts of ayurveda are only quacks. I 100% agree with that. It lacks empirical evidence. Ayurveda can be used for minor ailments like cold, cough….Now it is too much of media hype and unwanted attention that media is giving to these quacks

  10. Dear Sabupaul,

    There are some reknown ayurveda centres which has research centres and international publications like Arya Vaidya Sala in Kottakkal, Kerala.

    After much research on the internet by my husband, I do admit there are many centres that claim themselves to be ayurvedic centres however how genuinely effective they are remains a question and they emerge because of the profits to be gained.

    Just because a medicine is evidence based and is peer reviewed does not mean that it is effective ain for the majority as most clinical studies are sponsored by pharmaceutical giants. For example tamoxifen was alledgedly effective in reducing breast cancer however short of saying that it can cause uterine cancer and some patients died of the later instead of the former.

    Mammograms they say can save a woman’s life as it helps to detect breast cancer early. However logically thinking how can radiation and radiation therapy be logical for cancer patients when radiation exposure causes cancer ! Moreover having a mammogram done is excruciatingly painful not to mention in some cases they can even see anything from it though what looked like a cancerous lump has already been detected with ultra sound as in my case. Also squashing of an already cancerous breast may potentially cause cancer to spread. But again why is mammogram so highly advised, do anyone ever wonder despite its harmful effects? It’s of course all about the money. The machine is costly so how can hospitals abandon this procedure which was utterly ridoculous in my case since my doctor already saw the lump via ultrasound and it was extremely frustrating when he told me he cannot see a thing from it after subjecting me to such a painful procedure. Perhaps he is not to blame as it would probably be a policy by the hospital for him to send women with such cases to do so for them to recover back the cost of purchasing that machine. Alternatively monthly manual breast examination and awareness is harmless and helpful but why does not pharmaceutical companies carry out campaigns in educating women in doing so, cause obviously the medical equipments have much to lose.

    I have been taking Rasasindooram made of mercury as what Mr Manu says since March but have no side effects from it. Have I opted for radiation and chemotherapy, I would have lost ‘the crown on my head’ and heaven only knows what other side effects.

    Chemotherapy they say is effective in killing the cancer cells sadly it also kills the healthy cells and most cancer patients die not due to the cancer itself but due to other diseases / illnesses as a result of low immune system.

    Celery has been recently discovered by an American University to potentially help women with breast cancer but sadly it would probably not see the daylight of being extended to human studies since it’s readily available in our wet markets or gardens. My point is how do you know how reliable is so called scientific evidence on western medicines when they are mostly sponsored by big pharmaceutical giants which stands to loose much money should the results not favour them.

    Those patients you mentioned where ayurvedic medicines were ineffective for them, how do you know that they went to a reputable ayurvedic centre or a charitable centre like the above mentioned one which has no profits to gain thus the patients’ best interest are more likely be at their hearts as opposed to private centres or whether they adhered to a strict food regime of which unless you already a strict vegetarian, is not easy to do and even then there are certain vegetables to be avoided whilst being on ayurvedic medicines as I myself find it so hard, more so since I live in a place which is called a food haven. Non compliance of the foodregime makes these medicines less effective.

    Anyway like what my mother always say unless one suffers one will never know what it is like to be treated without having any side effects.

    Having said all that, I do agree that many a time Western medicines give very fast results but I wonder in the longer term at what cost especially to our liver and kidneys. Ayurvedic medicines unfortunately usually do not give instant relieve and it works slowly but usually surely and again logically thinking that should be safer. You and I are not scientists nor medical professionals and we are all at doctors’ mercies and perhaps it is better to do more research before putting up such information which undermines a medical approach which save many.

  11. Well done!

    Finally a reasonable person with capability for critical thinking. However, reading the responses below, I find the army of enemies of reason is ever-growing. My biggest peeve is when some medical doctors prescribe these, which is frankly an insult to themselves.

    The one way to set supernatural panacea (Homeopathy and Ayurveda) straight, is to apply the same rigorous standards for testing as with medicine.

    Hope you have turned at least 1 mind. That would count as a victory!

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