Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine: Why Should We Care?

            While I am grateful to have been born in the world of modern medicine, there is plenty of merit in looking back at the health practices of our past. Ayurvedic Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine originated in and are based on principles of the distant past, but they somehow survive in today’s culture and among modern medicine. It is important to ask how, and why?

            Before discussing how they are related and how they have persevered, we must define each discipline individually. Ayurveda and TCM have many commonalities. The focus of both the systems is on the patient rather than disease. Both systems fundamentally aim to promote health and enhance the quality of life, with therapeutic strategies for treatment of specific diseases or symptoms in holistic fashion. Almost half of the botanical sources (such as Gotu Kola) used as medicines have similarities; moreover, both systems have similar philosophies geared towards enabling classification of individuals, materials and diseases. TCM considers the human at the center of the universe as an antenna between celestial and earthly elements. Water, earth, metal, wood and fire are the five elements of the material world. The world is a single unit and its movement gives rise to yin and yang, the two main antithetic aspects. The actual meaning of the term yin and yang is ‘opposites’, such as the positive and the negative. However, Chinese believe that yin and yang is not absolute but relative. The four bodily humors (qi, blood, moisture and essence) and internal organ systems (zang fu) play an important role in balancing the yin and yang in human body. When the two energies fall out of harmony, disease develops. The physician takes into account this concept while treating patients. Drugs or herbs are used to correct this imbalance of yin–yang in the human body.

            Ayurveda considers that the universe is made up of combinations of the five elements (pancha mahabhutas). These are akasha (ether), vayu (air), teja (fire), aap (water) and prithvi (earth). The five elements can be seen to exist in the material universe at all scales of life and in both organic and inorganic things. In biological system, such as humans, elements are coded into three forces, which govern all life processes. These three forces (kapha, pitta and vata) are known as the three doshas or simply the tridosha. Each of the doshas is composed of one or two elements. Vata is composed of space and air, Pitta of fire, and kapha of water and earth. Vata dosha has the mobility and quickness of space and air; pitta dosha the metabolic qualities of fire; kapha dosha the stability and solidity of water and earth. The tridosha regulates every physiological and psychological process in the living organism. The interplay among them determines the qualities and conditions of the individual. A harmonious state of the three doshas creates balance and health; an imbalance, which might be an excess (vriddhi) or deficiency (kshaya), manifests as a sign or symptom of disease.

            Ayurveda and TCM remain the most ancient yet living traditions. These are the two ‘great traditions’ with sound philosophical, experiential and experimental basis. Increased side effects, lack of curative treatment for several chronic diseases, high cost of new drugs, microbial resistance and emerging diseases are some reasons for renewed public interest in complementary and alternative medicines. It has been postulated that by 2010 at least two-thirds of the United States population will be using one or more of the alternative therapeutic approaches. Use of indigenous drugs of natural origin forms a major part of such therapies; more than 1500 herbals are sold as dietary supplements or ethnic traditional medicines. Pharmaceutical companies have renewed their strategies in favor of natural product drug development and discovery. There is much we can learn from these traditions and their practitioners that will inform us how to better use modern-day medicine.

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