Why Traditional Medicine Matters

This post is part of our forum on David H. Freedman's July/August story, "The Triumph of New Age Medicine." Follow the debate here.

Every medical system has its limitations. Acupuncture, naturopathy, chiropractics, and Ayurveda--these are wonderful alternative medical systems and they, too, have their own limitations. Modern allopathic medicine is no exception. Nothing can compare to modern medicine during an acute emergency. When it comes to certain heart attacks, stroke paralysis, fracture, or acute appendicitis, modern medicine has achieved great success. Additionally, these treatments rely on a very profound, scientifically developed method of research--double-blind studies that show the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of a drug.

But, modern medicine, like every other system of medicine, has its challenges. Medical treatment, or even diagnostic examination, can cause adverse effects in a patient. These effects are known as iatrogenic disease, and they can be relatively minor--or they can be complex and life threatening, claiming more than 50,000 lives each year. Plus, when it comes to preventing disease and treating chronic illnesses, modern medicine continues to fall short.

Many of the practitioners of modern allopathic medicine realize the limitations of their own science, and for that reason, they are turning to other systems of medicine that have stood the test of time. Ayurveda is one such system. Although it came to prominence in the western world during the last two decades, this ancient medical system has been in practice for more than 5,000 years. This system is based not upon disease alone but upon the concept of perfect health. According to Ayurveda, every individual is a unique expression of consciousness with a unique prakruti, or psycho-physiological type. That concept is missing in modern medicine.

Even modern medicine recognizes that every individual is unique and separate. Its treatments are based on statistical observations--standards of normality that look at common traits in large groups of people. These methods work to some extent, but they do not always work because every individual has a unique constitution. A good example of this is antihypertensive drugs. The same drug will not be suitable for everyone, so there are many different antihypertensive drugs on the market, indicating that modern medicine has come to the understanding that every individual is distinct.

Ayurveda is a safe alternative approach, a medical system that focuses on preventing disease and treating its root causes. Ayurveda provides specific advice on proper diet and lifestyle, as well as cleansing and detoxification programs. And unlike modern allopathic drugs, Ayurvedic treatments are tailored to the specific constitution (prakruti) and imbalances (vikruti) of each individual person. Following these guidelines can help prevent future heart attacks, stroke paralysis, or even cancer. It is also useful for chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and sciatica, improving quality of life in a way that modern medicine has not managed to do.

As the Atlantic article points out, modern medicine relies on clinical trials to test the effectiveness of a drug. The Ayurvedic approach is a bit different. In addition to a history of developing and testing new substances, Ayurveda relies on its own pharmacological "database," recorded in ancient texts such as the Charaka Samhita. Every herb we use has logic behind it, based upon the qualities of the herb and its effects as it passes through the digestive tract. This action is not placebo; it is based upon a centuries-old understanding of how an individual's constitution interacts with a specific substance.

For example, a patient might come to us with a rash. An allopathic doctor might prescribe an antihistamine drug or a steroidal, topical cream to treat the symptoms of the rash. This will suppress the symptoms but does not address the root cause. But we examine the patient and look for the underlying cause. If we determine that the rash is the result of a pitta imbalance--pitta being the constitutional quality that is hot, sharp, and penetrating--we prescribe specific sweet, cooling herbs that have been time-tested to reduce pitta. Once the underlying balance is restored, the rash will diminish and disappear.

This is a simple example of these principles. More complex protocols provide treatments specific to the pathogenesis, the particular tissue involved, and the constitutional energy that is out of balance. Ayurvedic medicine is a practical, clinical alternative medicine and not merely a placebo.

There is active and ongoing research into Ayurveda, particularly in India. Past research may not meet western standards, but today's research aims to follow modern scientific protocol. In the meantime, many M.D.s are already working together with Ayurvedic physicians to heal patients. Allopathic medicine remains irreplaceable in situations of dire emergency. But, once the emergency is over, the Ayurvedic physician can help.
The debate continues here.