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Ancient knowledge could overhaul India’s health system

Tumeric powder

Tumeric is an excellent natural remedy for many ailments. Jon Connell under a Creative Commons Licence

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of medicine, tried and tested over a few thousand years. It’s a way of life that goes beyond addressing ill-health, to encompass a lifestyle conducive to good health: there's a huge difference in this approach.

I was hooked on ayurveda about a decade ago when an ayurvedic healer (vaidyan) suggested that it could help my insulin-dependent, diabetic husband. I was willing to try anything if there was a chance it would work. So we trotted off to the Ayurvedic ashram. I was hopeful, he was cynical.

However the world's most cynical person would have had to agree that bringing down an insulin dosage from 60 units to 30, in exactly two weeks, is a successful treatment. What I hadn't expected was that it would work miraculously for me too, getting rid of decade-long gynaecological problems that I hadn’t expected to resolve. Most Indian women – and I suspect other women from poorer nations – entering their fifties endure all kinds of health issues stoically. They don’t expect much. There's not much help available for older women, it’s considered part of life. And so life goes on. They just live with discomfort and pain for the rest of their lives.

Last week my husband Stan was in excruciating pain. We were relieved to discover that it was 'only' shingles and not something more sinister. After a week of agony, our vaidyan friends suggested special oils and a paste of ground neem and turmeric. Stan says it felt like putting his leg in ice water. The relief was instantaneous.

I write about this because I am constantly amazed at the inexpensive, simple and effective treatments available to us in India. And I feel that these remedies should spread to people around the world. Yet few of us Indians use them. Shingles is painful and neem is not a remedy, yet there is no western medicine cure and treatment includes anti-depressants and anti-inflammatory drugs. The pain returns at night but it’s bearable during the day using the natural herbs from our garden.

Ayurvedic treatment can be expensive and unaffordable. As middle class Indians we hesitate to admit ourselves for a two week treatment because it costs around 40,000 rupees ($650) for the hospitalization. But we're being penny wise, pound foolish. One overnight stay in a Bangalore hospital, with an MRI scan and other tests thrown in, cost over 10,000 rupees ($165). But when we are rushed to an Intensive Care Unit, we don’t crib about the price. We just pay up.

India can completely overhaul its health system if we use our ancient knowledge. A young doctor told me that every Saturday, in a city like Bangalore, the hospital is filled with IT techies getting treatment for computer related neck, back and spinal problems. Middle class Indians suffer from a D-Vitamin deficiency because they are tied to desk jobs and don’t see the sun!! We need to revert to yoga, and traditional health systems, and think about the food that we eat. Diabetes, hypertension, stress and heart disease have reached epic proportions. India has the highest number of diabetics in the world, even though the highest rate of the disease is in the Pacific island nation of Nauru.

We must cure ourselves. Our country needs to tear itself away from a pharmaceutical industry that rips patients off. That’s not to say the ayurvedic medicine industry is as pure as snow. It too is plagued by quacks and unscrupulous crooks who lace ayurvedic medicines with steroids for quick results, to get patients hooked to particular healers. It’s still important to know genuine healers and good ayurvedic centres of excellence, as it is with conventional healthcare.

There are no quick-fix solutions in ayurveda. One needs to persevere and make lifestyle changes that are difficult for people with hectic, erratic schedules. Fast food and rich food goes out the window too, if you take the regimen seriously. But it makes sense to opt for a system which will work towards good health and medicines without myriad side effects.

Our grandparents followed the system and enjoyed better health than us, their modern, multi-tasking, super-achieving, ambitious descendants. Ultimately, I think, they enjoyed life more than the young today. The folks determined to party every weekend to make up for not having a life six days a week!! We need to change, to get back our lives. Will we manage it? Ayurveda seems like a good first step.

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