There are, so we are told, two kinds of medicine. One is called ‘Western medicine’. We all know what that means. It’s modern, scientific, clean, founded on endlessly, expensively tested evidence. It’s the ‘truth’, medically speaking. And this is dispensed to us — the grateful patients — by them, the doctors, who are also modern, scientific, clean, and have been endlessly, expensively tested in medical school.
Then there is the other sort: ‘fringe’ medicine, sometimes more politely referred to as ‘alternative’ medicine — smacking of unwashed hippies with unscientific beliefs in flower-power and Eastern mystics. Occasionally it is more respectfully known as ‘natural’ medicine. But that just reminds the unbeliever of those same hippies — a little older and mellower, running overpriced craft shops and drinking herb tea.
Despite the images, there is a growing dissatisfaction with drug-based Western medicine and a curiosity about other options; though not much information —and a good deal of misinformation.
Dr Peter Mansfield, a general practitioner with a particular interest in changing patterns of health care, dispelled one myth for me. Modern medicine, far from being long and hardily established, he explained, is a very recent specimen.
Pharmaceutical companies began massively funding medical research and training around the 1940s. Only then did medicine come to mean drugs to sledgehammer isolated symptoms. ‘Before the Second World War’, says Dr Mansfield, ‘health in Britain was maintained through methods like herbalism and hydrotherapy. Some very respectable medical books of that era would look "radical" today.’
So alternative medicine was not just a scrappy patchwork of old wives’ tales and witches’ spells. It was part of normal, widespread medical practice until as recently as a generation ago. And in the Third World, it is still normal practice throughout the social spectrum — and not, as often imagined, only used by villagers too ignorant or poor to afford the ‘better’ alternative of Western medicine.
In China, for instance, the same doctors who use advanced Western technology in urban hospitals also use herbalism and acupuncture. Beside sparkling sterilised metal instruments stand chests of drawers that open to reveal layer upon layer of leaves. And China’s famous ‘barefoot’ doctors — the paramedics we imagine carrying around a rucksack of Western drugs and dressings — are just as adept at traditional remedies.
In Sri Lanka and India too, Western medicine and Ayurveda, the traditional medical system, are found side by side. In fact there are some 140,000 ‘Western’ doctors, and 160,000 registered Ayurvedic practitioners in India. Ashvin Barot, who lectures on Ayurveda to doctors in the West, told me that in India Ayurvedic hospitals are held in the same esteem as modern hospitals, funded similarly by government, and the staff of both are held in the same regard.
But many people in the West have never even heard of Ayurveda. ‘Ayur’ means
‘life’, and ‘veda’ means ‘science/knowledge’. So Ayurveda — ‘the science of life’ — is far more than a technology. Ayurveda is a complex system that deals with the whole individual in active inter-reaction to that individual’s unique emotional, physical and even spiritual environment. So ten patients coming to an ayurvedic practitioner with ten superficially similar headaches might well leave with ten different remedies — or suggestions as to how they might adjust their relationships or lifestyles. They certainly wouldn’t be palmed off with a mass headache-cure, aspirin across the board.
Ashvin Barot maintains that the wisdom that flowed south from the Himalayan hills over 3,000 years ago and crystallised into Avurvedic medicine among the Hindu and Buddhist populations of India and Sri Lanka also flowed east into China to become the basis of acupuncture and Chinese herbalism, and west into Greece. There it was picked up by Arabic scholars, who developed Unani medicine, the Moslem version of Ayurveda, now widely practised in Pakistan. Actually, the origin of the term Unani is ‘lonian’ — meaning ‘from Greece’. And Greek medicine is, of course, the fountainhead of Western medicine.
‘In the British Museum now there are examples of ancient Indian surgical instruments which look just like modern Western instruments,’ says Ashvin Barot, ‘and descriptions of diseases we think of as modern — like cancer, for instance — are found written in Sanskrit texts three thousand years old.’
Like Ashvin Barot, the World Health Organisation is eager to amalgamate Western technology and traditional wisdom to create a powerful, widely accessible and scientifically proven system. And the idea that traditional systems are unscientific mumbo-jumbo does seem to be breaking down. Research centres across the world are uncovering scientific bases for remedies that have been used for hundreds, or even thousands, of years.
Dr Xavier Lozoya, director of a biomedical research unit in Mexico, has found, for instance, that Western methods of distributing drugs through the bloodstream may be the equivalent of breaking a nut with a sledge-hammer. A little of the effective substance absorbed through the skin near the site of the ailment ‘can achieve a therapeutic effect with much smaller quantities of a given drug.’
‘In the light of these studies,’ says Dr Lozoya; ‘application of poultices, massage with plant-based liniments and essential oils are taking on a new dimension in the medicine of the future.’
Other scientists have been trying to understand the secrets of acupuncture. But the Chinese system, claimed variously to be between 2,000 and 5,000 years old, has yet to yield more than a few intriguing clues. In the mid-70s it was discovered that the body manufactures pain-killing substances (like a natural form of morphine or heroin) known as endorphins. Experiments show that endorphin production goes up when the body is given a weak electrical stimulus — which approximates to the stimulation given by an acupuncture needle.
Finding the scientific basis for ancient remedies is reassuring. But it also carries the danger that disjointed bits of knowledge will be extracted from a complex philosophy and used out of context. The needle, or herb, can’t be left to do all the work. Patients accustomed to passively letting a drug lay waste a symptom without their help may forget the first and most important principle of natural medicine: the patient must participate in the recovery, making active choices about his or her lifestyle in order to achieve a state of wellbeing.
But busy doctors in the West with waiting rooms packed with patients don’t have time to know’ their patients as individuals. Like mechanics on an assembly line fixing faulty car parts, they fix the part showing signs of distress and move on rapidly to the next.
Perhaps things would change if doctors were paid the way Chinese doctors used to be — to keep the patient well. If a patient fell ill, the payments stopped and the doctor had to fork out for medicine out of his own pocket. Prevention rather than cure is emphasised. And how could it be otherwise, when it is your whole way of life — your thoughts, feelings, relationships, spiritual clarity, as well as your diet, work and sleeping habits — that must be balanced and in harmony? Health becomes a long-term affair as long and broad as your whole life.
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