I'll begin, as is my tradition, with a quote, from Christopher Wanjek, in his article on Ayurveda (see references) :
"Then along came Western allopathic medicine, the Rodney Dangerfield of the medical world. Its identification of viruses, bacteria and genetic disorders as the underlying cause of disease has nearly doubled human life expectancy in the past 100 years. Still, it gets no respect.
Largely divorced from the knowledge of diseases that plagued our ancestors, Americans are increasingly turning to ancient cures like those found in the ayurvedic system. "
Wisdom of the ages
I'll admit at the outset there are many claims I can't stand, one of which is this: "This has been practised for thousands of years, it is the wisdom of our ancestors. " (And the one sentence left unsaid is: How dare you challenge it?)
I really can't believe how people fall for that statement. Maybe they are more attached to the past and to their country than I am. My mind immediately harks back to Astrology, Ptolemy's Geocentrism, and Aristotles "things fall because it's in their nature to fall" when people talk about thousand-year old wisdom. We have much better facilities now, much better instruments, and a much better method of doing Science. It is a good bet that, as far as probing the natural world is concerned, we are eons ahead of the aged wisdom of our ancestors.
Where were the ayurvedic cures fr the thousands of years that diseases now regarded as curable or preventable: smallpox, T.B., leprosy were plaguing the Indian subcontinent. As Wanjek says, then came along allopathy.
My post on Ayurveda won't be as long or as detailed as my posts on astrology... I haven't researched the subject enough. But still, I venture to propound my humble view on Ayurveda in what follows. (And now I stop writing ayurveda with a capital A. The capitals are reserved, aside from English rules, for "I" (no egoism, just standard practice), and Science.)
Is EVERYTHING ayurvedic?
I look at the little details on the back of my Vicks Vaporub bottle: whoa, "Ayurvedic Medicine". There are ayurvedic soaps, ayurvedic toothpastes, and believe it or not, ayurvedic shampoos. I suspect that the Indian government taxes less if the thing you are marketing is ayurvedic.
There is a buckload of ayurvedic beauty creams, and ayurvedic medicine is a flourishing business in India. Ayurveda is pretty damn big for a medicine system which has little or no high-quality studies backing it.
Can ayurveda treat EVERYTHING?
From the common cold to cancer and even AIDS (huh? I doubt the sages of 1000 B.C. knew of AIDS), ayurveda claims to treat everything, and that too completely. Pretty mean for a medicine system whose theory has very little in common with modern scientific know-how of human diseases and the human body.
Of course, there are those who complain that, hey, it may be based on a flawed theory, but hey, it works. (Astrology deja vu ... )
I have two objections to that:
1) What evidence do you have that it works? Our modern scientific method doesn't admit anecdotal evidence. ("My father/uncle/late grandmother's second cousin's daughter had cancer/TB/cold that doctors had given up on, and he/she tried ayurvedic treatment and it was cured!") It needs clinical trials, double-blind tests, or such. These happen regularly in the case of conventional medicine, and that's how they doctors know which drug works where, when and how. If you uncritically listen to anecdotal tales, or read what is written in 2000 year-old books and take it as the truth, I think our present system would go haywire.
There are few high-quality studies that give a positive result for ayurveda, and this may or may not be because it doesn't work. The main factor is, I think, that the ayurvedic system simply doesn't call for testing.
2) If you have a flawed theory, how would you know how to make a new medicine for a new disease that crops up, say? Or a disease in some other part of the world that the ancient ayurvedic books don't mention? I think (and hope) you'd agree if I said that the flawed deduction leading to a new medicine based on a flawed theory are likely to be flawed themselves?
A few proponents, eager to do a one-up on modern science, try to mention the correspondence between the "chakras" of ayurveda and the endocrine glands of the human body. How can this be co-incidence, they ask.
The first question is, whether they actually do correspond. Answer: they don't, of course. The chakras of ayurveda are just uniformly distributed through the body, at positions people ignorant of most medical knowledge would put them if asked to do so: there's a knowledge chakra in the brain, the sexual and root chakras at the lower abdomen, the expressive chakra at the neck. COME ON! The knowledge chakra, "the focus of intuition, the perception of truth", corresponds to the pituitary glands? And the sexual chakra doesn't even correspond to the testicles. Apparantly, the one that does is the "root chakra", which "other centres of energy" rely upon. I thought the other glands depended upon the pituitary. The correspondence, when you look at it closely enough, vanishes.
And of course, where are the bacteria, the viruses, the hormones? They aren't there, of course, because our ancestors didn't know about them. They simply tried to make a theory to explain the human body, to find a cure for the diseases. A lot indicates that the ancient Indians craved for explanations. That doesn't mean they found the right ones.
Something harmful this way comes...
Well, what's the harm, though? Maybe it works on the placebo effect. What's the harm in some people falling prey to a little ignorance?
It isn't a little ignorance, it's a whole lot of ignorance. Ayurveda is tied in with astrology, both being integral aspects of the knowledge of ancient India. It's a whole system, and it's a whole flawed system. And it isn't a few people, it's millions of Indians who are falling prey to the greedy wiles of people like Baba Ramdev, who claim to cure everything with the help of yoga and ayurveda. It's millions of people giving up conventional, rigourously tested medicine for a two-thousand year-old, untested, flawed system. If this isn't harmful, I don't know what is.
And it's certainly bad for our future if we fall prey to such alternative systems of medicine... we don't want our health to be in risk because we had a good system but abandoned it for faulty alternatives. With conventional allopathy, we have hit upon the key to the human body and diseases. It would be ridiculous to now ignore it and try to hit the target with broken, old darts.
Two more things before we part
1) A common misconception I often find in India: are ayurveda and homeopathy closely related? The answer, from what I discern, is no. The two systems differ greatly in both the underlying theory and the method of preparing medicines. Ayurveda is mostly herbal-based, and had the chakra-theory. Here is an overview of homeopathy which describes the underlying theory and the method of medicine-preparation in brief.
2) I have asserted throughout this article that ayurveda is a flawed system, and it has few studies backing it. That doesn't mean some of it's cures won't work, and that herbal based medicines are bound to be silly. Even though the sages of yore didn't conduct clinical trials, they could have chanced upon some medicines that actually do work. I'm saying it's a better bet to stick with allopathy, because it's a growing system, where people are trying to find the root causes and cures for many ailments, and it's a peer-reviewed system. Researchers are trying herbs, chemical, everything for finding a cure for, cancer say, and they have an actual chance to find it, because they know the details of the diseases on the biochemical level.
Maybe it's time to acknowledge that our ancestors were ignorant, and we're in the middle of a revolution in human knowledge about nature.
Some (private and public) responses to my post have spurred me to write a bit more on ayurveda and science, in general.
It is argued that though ayurveda may not have been scientifically tested, it's the product of trial-and-error of the ancient sages. However, the fact remains that ayurvedic have not been tested extensively by modern scientific methods (use of controls, randomisation, double-blinding). And unless so tested, it won't be a credible method of treatment. The modern methods of testing, and there's a whole branch of science dealing with research methodology, tries to cancel as many biases as possible, in a study. And since it's not possible to totally be unbiased, there are systematic reviews of earlier studies. But why should ayurveda even bother about the label "science"? That's because science is not just a name for what scientists do, but it's a method of doing things, the best method to discern what is true and what is false (when testing a system which claims to make repeatable, observable predictions... like General Relativity, or Astrology, or Homeopathy). It's currently the only possible method to get credible evidence to support claims like ayurveda's.
The second note is about side-effects. "Ayurveda has no side-effects" is widely claimed as the basis for the superiority of ayurveda over "western medicine". There are few studies to show that ayurveda even has effects, so I guess there are fewer which conclude that it has no side-effects (that said, it's only a guess, I haven't found this quoted anywhere). Why do side-effects occur in allopathy? They occur because in allopathy, the medicine is usually in chemical form, and often a certain chemical has various roles to play in the body. If the ancient sages had found some miracle cures that (well, at root, all plant medicines are chemicals) know where to go in the body and what to avoid, it's a cinch that modern medicine would have chanced upon it too. And considering the fact that the creators of ayurveda had a faulty theory of the body, it's not very probable that they did find side-effectless cures.
Disclaimer: People are, of course, free to choose whatever medical system they want to subscribe to. But they should know that if they are choosing Ayurveda or Homeopathy, they are choosing something with does not have scientific evidence backing it.
Ayurveda, the Good, the Bad and the Expensive, by Christopher Wanjek, Livescience.
(Focussing on Swami Ramdev and a bit left-leaning) Ayurveda under the scanner, by Meera Nanda, Frontline. Read this article for the details of the practice and influence of Ayurveda in India.
(Focussing on Deepak Chopra) A Few Thoughts on Ayurvedic Mumbo-Jumbo, by Stephen Barrett, M.D., Quackwatch.
Why does my medication give me side-effects? , by Glenn Brynes, M.D.