Imagine consulting a physician who chooses to cast aside more than two centuries of medical progress in favor of the “science” of ancient Greece and Rome. No modern diagnostic techniques (X-rays, MRIs, blood tests, CAT scans, etc.), no well-researched medications and therapies, this practitioner instead studies your “humors,” the life forces alleged to be at the core of human physiology in the pre-scientific age (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood), and ends up suggesting you consume a herbal concoction and chant a mantra to treat your ills. This is how Ayurvedic practitioners treat millions of patients worldwide.
illustration by Pat Linse
Illustration by Pat Linse
Revealed to the Hindu deity Brahma1, Ayurveda—which roughly translates as “life knowledge”—is an ancient vitalist system similar to the archaic European theory of humors,2 which was supplanted by evidence-based science in the 19th century. Thus, the three Ayurvedic vital forces3—or doshas—are (1) vata, the impulse working the nervous system; (2) pitta, bile for digestion and other metabolic processes; and (3) kapha, supplying nutrition to the arterial system. Each dosha is composed of one or two of the five basic elements: space, air, fire, water and earth. Ayurvedic medicine teaches that good health is achieved when these forces are in perfect balance. But the doshas are unrelated to any known physicochemical process. You cannot see them. You cannot touch them. They cannot be measured or quantified in any manner. They are essentially the product of a rich, albeit unscientific imagination.
Ayurvedic practitioners nonetheless claim to have therapies for treating cancer, epilepsy, schizophrenia, psoriasis, peptic ulcers, bronchial asthma, malaria and many other diseases.4 Indeed, nothing appears to be outside the realm of Ayurvedic care. Some Ayurvedic doctors also claim that in the absence of any clinical symptoms they can accurately diagnose diabetes, cancer, musculoskeletal disease and asthma simply by taking a patient’s pulse,5 but remain incapable of providing evidence of a valid physiological mechanism for this amazing capability.
Are Ayurvedic doctors truly initiated into an ancient knowledge system, unknown to evidence-based science? Did erudite Indian mystics stumble on curative wisdom overlooked by modern researchers? More importantly, does Ayurveda work?
Credible scientific research answers in the negative, on all counts. Ayurvedic documentation nonetheless carries endless lists of testimonials written by patients who swear by the ancient Indian health care system.6 But does this anecdotal evidence prove the value of Ayurvedic therapy? Many medical conditions are self-limiting and will clear up in time—an untreated common cold will last an average of seven days; but with treatment (say, an Ayurvedic mantra or an over-the-counter cough syrup), the same common cold will last about a week. And, as repeatedly demonstrated with other CAMs (complementary and alternative medicines), simple faith in a therapy can trigger an impressive but temporary placebo effect.7
Also, pain—an extremely subjective assessment, at best—can often come and go in predictable and measurable patterns: an acute attack will cause a sufferer to consult a practitioner—Ayurvedic or otherwise—and, as the pain enters a cycle of remission, the relief is often wrongly attributed to the therapy. This is a classic example of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, an erroneous inference of causality: After Ayurvedic therapy, therefore because of Ayurvedic therapy