Ayurveda: The Good, the Bad and the Expensive

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For those who find acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine oh-so 1990s, India might have what you crave: its ancient healing system called ayurveda. The powerhouse of the Asian subcontinent is preparing for a major boom in health tourism.

Hotels spas such as Taj Wellington Mews in Mumbai offer aromatherapy messages, body scrubs and generous showers of flower petals, marketed toward Western clientele. With scented candles and mineral baths, you'll be treated to ayurveda-light, which is a good thing.

Like traditional Chinese medicine, ayurveda is a complex and sometimes insightful regimen for healthy living developed thousands of years ago. But perhaps even more so than its Asian rival, ayurveda can border on the bizarre, for it is deeply rooted in astrology and outdated beliefs.

Light-years ahead of the West

While Europe was a backwater in the immediate centuries after the birth of Jesus, India was developing an advanced civilization. Doctors there knew how to sew wounds, drain fluids, remove kidney stones and perform basic surgery, even nose jobs. This is documented in the Susrutha Samhita, the oldest known surgical text.

Yet the mere fact that ayurveda developed in this brilliant ancient culture doesn't mean it doesn't have its serious flaws. The system is based on the concept of imbalances, much like China's yin and yang and medieval Europe's four humors. With ayurveda there are three forces, or dosha, called vata, pitta, and kapha. Imbalances cause disease, the story goes.

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.

Celebrity-based medicine

Ayurveda beyond the borders of India was made popular by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, famed multi-millionaire guru to the Beatles, and by Deepok Chopra, whose best-selling books and lectures on the subject speak of reversing the aging process, levitating and improving your golf game. They are quite popular with the jet set. Chopra was earning $25,000 per lecture by the end of the 1990s.

At best, ayurveda is a healthy lifestyle that promotes a vegetarian diet and relaxation. As with traditional Chinese medicine, its insight into herbal cures is keen. Some of these herbs are being studied by Indian scientists and turned into reliable medicines. Herbs, after all, are the basis of conventional pharmacology.

At worst, ayurveda is a billion-dollar business of sham cures based on astrology, gem healing, psychic healing, mantras and pop culture, spun through either fraud or naiveté. One concern is the herbal concoction given for treatment. Heavy metals have long been part of the ayurvedic tradition, and a 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the 20 percent of herbal remedies sold around Boston had harmful amounts of lead, mercury or arsenic.

Another concern is the diagnosis, based on unconventional methods of pulse-taking and other bodily signs to determine the levels of vata, pitta, and kapha. The treatment, depending on your healer, will likely take into effect the position of the planets, because Mars is related to blood and the liver, and Venus, you may have guessed, is tied to impotency.

Ayurveda today

Fortunately when you buy ayurvedic soap, you're not really tapping into the most bizarre and potentially harmful aspects of ayurveda; you're just buying soap at twice the price.

At its most basic level, ayurveda's emphasis on a balanced diet with exercise, such as yoga, could help prevent chronic diseases plaguing the United States. That's not too shabby. But caution is needed once you begin treating cancer and serious diseases based on the alignment of the moon in Aquarius.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LIveScience.

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Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.