Ayurvedic medicine? Are You Kidding?

By Michael Edmonds 12/01/2012

This week the New Zealand Herald is running a series of articles on what they describe as “alternative therapies”. Siouxsie and Alison have already expressed their concerns regarding some of the early articles so I thought I would follow suit and take a look at today’s article on Indian Ayurveda.

The first thing to point out is that the term “alternative therapy or medicine” is typically used to refer to treatments that are proposed (usually with very little reasonable evidence) to treat disease. Yet the reporter undergoing the Ayurvedic massage did not describe any disease, rather she underwent a hot oil massage and came away feeling quite relaxed – something that can be achieved with any variety of massage technique.

The background section on Ayurveda pointed out that it dates back 6000 years. Why is this important?As I have posted elsewhere, old does not mean good. It has been estimated that approximately 6000 years ago the average life span was around 38 years, thanks to diseases such as smallpox, cholera, polio and malaria, as well as malnutrition. These days, where modern medicine is readily accessible, the average life span exceeds 80 years.

The article also claimed that Ayurveda is the “most holistic healing science system.” While I do agree that the consideration of diet and exercise in this system is excellent, unless they have added the use of antibiotics and other modern medicines to their system, I would suggest that their “holistic approach” to health is missing some important components. The use of the word science in this description is also misplaced – science regularly updates itself and discards errant information. A 6000 year old therapy can hardly be considered science, particularly if one looks at its underlying concepts..

Ayurveda is based on the concept that disease results from imbalances in the body. This approach completely ignores the fact that many diseases are caused by microbes, while some others are created by contaminants external to the body. Furthermore, many internal imbalances, for example hormone imbalances are not usually treatable through changes in diet, exercise and the use of a few ancient herbs available 6000 years ago, alone.

If the Herald’s aim was to describe alternative relaxation therapies then they should have described them as such. If the aim was to take a serious look at alternative medicines and therapies then they should have asked some much more critical and probing questions about what the treatments can and cannot do. At the very least, in case of Ayurveda, some evidence for the existance of the five “elements” described as the basis of Ayurveda could have been asked for.

0 Responses to “Ayurvedic medicine? Are You Kidding?”

  • Interesting to see there is another kid on the block.I thought they would be featuring Mr Ajit who has a couple of ‘clinics’ (spa’s) and a regular column in the Ponsonby News (Ask Dr Ajit) that drives me crazy every month. I currently have a complaint in with the ASA regarding his use of Dr. I see they do the same for Priya Punjabi as they did for the leech man on Tuesday. I emailed Lincoln Tan about this discrepancy but haven’t had a reply. I’m assuming in this case Punjabi is in the same case as Ajit, qualified as a doctor in another country but not certified to practise in NZ. My understanding was that they weren’t supposed to use the title in this case as it is misleading.

  • Reply from Lincoln Tan re using the title of Dr:

    “Thanks for your email and concern. I have checked with the Ministry of Health about the title of “doctor”, and I’ve been told that the ministry does not have an issue with practitioners of alternative medicine to identify themselves as doctors – as with academics with doctorate degrees

    It only breaches the rules if they profess to be medical doctors practising western medicine.”

    Very interesting.

  • I believe they use a definition of “science” as something like a self consistent area of study. In which case almost anything could be considered a scince.

    I myself am immersed in the science of Discworldology.

  • The author of this post has what is referred to in social science as “centricity- science centricity, scientific method centricity. There is an ontology of or to science as we know it. This is fairly recent in terms of its way of knowing. It works for sure in many many ways. It doesnt work always, and it isnt bullet proof, measurement proof or opinion proof in all its aspects. Neither is it all encompassing in its explanations of events or processes in the physical world. There are other ways of knowing and ontologies that also work. They dont work always and arent all encompassing nor fully explained or investigated by the ontology of “science”.

  • Riyad,

    You suggest that there are other ways of knowing that work. Would you like to give an example of one perhaps?
    Science pursues knowledge through observation and experiment where possible using approaches like the scientific method to reduce bias. You are quite correct it isn’t bulletproof and most scientists recognize that. What most of us tend to find difficult to accept is when people fill in the gaps of what we don’t know with stuff they make up.
    I look forward to you providing examples of other ways of knowing which work.

  • I read Riyad as saying that there are other ways of knowing that work, except when they don’t.

    What isn’t made clear is how might know when they don’t and whether is is one of those times or not. It seems to me that one way of knowing would be comparing the “extra” way of knowing to science that we know works (that part of science that we recognise as correct, not implying that science is always right in every detail) and seeing if the answers match up.

    If this comparison is made with Ayurveda and it doesn’t correspond to reality as we know it what do we do?
    Most scientists I suspect would say “Discard the failed hypothesis”, but I suspect Riyad would not.

    How should we treat theories that depart from reality as we know it?

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  • Darcy has clarified and inferred as I meant . We could treat theories (in any ontology) which depart from reality at a moment in time with caution and defer addressing such theories without discarding them entirely. Indeed there is no compulsion to assume one or the other that no evidence can ever be found (using the scientific method, say) in the future to validate a theory or to refine it. Honey has been used for centuries (thousands?) as antiseptic antibacterial agent together with other ayurvedic treatments. No explanation or evidence or theory was propounded for centuries to isolate how or why it worked or whether it was a specific set or or single compound in honey that had a specific effect. Perhaps in some cases technology or theory or knowledge or interest may need to catch up to provide evidence that corresponds to the acceptable scientific method based reality.

    In herbal healing, not Ayurvedic, as generally described, but in the Pacific islands and in Chinese traditional medicine, healers regularly, fairly predictably (that is well above 50-50 chances) simply look and touch and listen to people and apply treatments successfully based on a sort of empirical experience accumulated and their own framework of assessment (their way of knowing- a sort of an expert system) without blood tests, xrays and so on. I’m not sure if this can be considered one “other way of knowing” that works.

  • Riyad,

    Thank you for taking the time to clarify your earlier post. Let me try and clarify my way of thinking when it comes to “alternative treatments”
    Ever since humans began to realise that some plants and other substances (for example, honey as you noted) have potentially beneficial effects we have tried to construct models and theories to explain how these substances work, and how they all fit together. The early Greeks came up with the idea that disease comes from an imbalance of the four humours and that various substances were able to rebalance the humours. So the Greeks began trying to correlate their empirical knowledge of what worked with this model of the four humours.
    Unfortunately, what this theory also promoted was methods to remove excess humours using potentially dangerous methods such as bleeding and administration of emetics, laxatives and other substances which “treated” the disease by irritating the gastrointestinal system.
    As we moved into the 19th and 20th centuries an understanding that disease could be caused by a range of things including microbes, hormonal imbalances led to new models for how disease occurred and how it could be treated based on our understanding of biochemistry, anatomy and physiology.
    Using these improved models of disease some of the same empirical treatments (e.g. honey) have been shown to work, but when modern science has revealed the mechanisms by which they work (e.g. honey through dehydration, hydrogen peroxide, pH and MGO in Manuka honeys) then what is the value of holding on to outdated and erroneous models?

    Where empirical knowledge shows a treatment works well, and there is no theory or model to explain how it works, I agree with you we should be careful about dismissing it.

    let’s take another example, homeopathy. The study of homeopathy has revealed the placebo effect, a fascinating mind /body connection, that is worth exploring more. Yet, the continued insistence from homeopaths that their concoction work through some “water memory” effect or some “string theory” related effect, in my opinion, removes an opportunity to better understand the placebo effect in full.

    With regards to, “other ways of knowing” I still can’t see in you post any example of this. When compared to the scientific method, other “ways of knowing” just do not live up to the it’s success.

    So while I completely agree with you on the idea of respecting empirical data, I find it hard to accept models and theories of medicine which are obviously incorrect and are also unsupported by the evidence, including the empirical data.
    There are some medical writers who suggest that the Western worlds deference for the four humours model of medicine over two millenia held us back from progressing in medicine.

  • Michael
    Mans’ ‘allotted span’ of ‘three score years and ten’ stated in the Bible doesn’t sit very well with the historical life expectancy numbers. I wonder where it came from?

  • Kemo sabe,

    A good question. Where did all of the information in the Bible come from and what evidence is there to verify what has been stated?

  • Gentlemen & Ladies,

    The proof of the pudding is in eating it. I have suffered from leg pain/osteoarthiritis, which had very little improvement from some very well known doctors. I have known quite a few others – migraine patients, backbone related ailment patients, etc.

    It ended up that Ayurvedic treatment (from the right ayurvedic doctor of course) helped me immensely.

    Earth history becomes vague beyond 300 years, and absolutely vague beyond 1000 years (anybody who has studies history with earnestness realizes this fast). At 6000 years everything being said is at best speculation. Lets not brush this aside.

  • Caren,
    I have a good friend who works in an analytical lab. Recently they have done several analyses of Ayurvedic medicines which have been purchased overseas. Most have been determined to have dangerously high levels of arsenic and/or lead and other heavy metals.
    If you are using Ayurvedic medicines I suggest you be very careful.

    There are a number of countries around the world where the West exports its toxic waste. I couldn’t help but wonder whether they are getting their own back by just bottling it up as alternative medicines and selling it back to usm for a profit. 🙂

  • Caren,
    If you are suggesting that history older than 300 years is vague this does call into question the usefulness of religious writings such as the bible and the quran.

    I have to disagree with you describing history older than 300 years as vague. The various books written since the invention of the printing press provide a lot of information about human history, as do the more ancient writings such as hieroglyphics. Archeology also gives us some useful information although sometimes there may be different interpretations.
    With regards to natural history a vast range of physical evidence allows us to understand how life evolved on this planet over millions of years, and to fairly accurately determine the age of our planet and the universe.

  • Yes Ayurveda does work. Believing that there is only one form of medicine that works (aka Allopathy) is just like believing that there is no country outside of USA or U.K. I never went to ayurveda for any cure till I suffered something known as gastro Paresis or delayed emptying causing acute acid buildup resulting in Acidosis. Now there is no cure for this in Allopathy but a chance visit to Ayurveda and subsequent improvements made me do further research and the result is that today I am a cured person.
    here is my blog on this:

    • Sunil,

      No-one here is suggesting that “there is only one form of medicine that works.” Doctors help patients by providing them with advice on diet and exercise, recommending physical treatments, proven to work, as well as prescribing a wide range of pharmaceuticals, including supplements where a deficiency is truly present.
      What I would argue against is “therapies” which have no scientific evidence to support them, and where the plausibility of them makes no sense. Ayurveda meets both of these criteria.