Desperately Seeking an Alternative to Alternative Medicine by Dr. Scott Gerson
My small Ayurvedic office pharmacy is stocked with jars, bottles, and bins filled with herbal medicines from home and abroad. We could compare these plant-based medicines to distinguished ambassadors from around the world gathered together to work for world peace and harmony. The world, in this analogy, consists of my patient population. Each and every jar tells a story. In some cases these are sad stories of disappearing plants, dying ecosystems, and of some species gone forever. I hand-picked the small supply of kutki root (Piccrorhiza kurroa) currently in my pharmacy on my last trip to Himachal Pradesh in northern India out of the edge of a hillside meadow surrounded by distant snow-capped Himalayan peaks. The guggulu resin (Commiphora mukul) we now have came from an arid, rugged hilly area in Khandesh in central India. As I write this page I am drying the flowers and roots of Echinacea purpurea found growing in an empty public lot behind the local Motor Vehicles Dept. building in Brewster, New York (USDA Hardiness Zone 6).
I am privileged to have the opportunity to observe plants in their native places and to continue to discover and study their medicinal uses. But for those of us not fortunate enough to trudge through prickly dense underbrush in 100°F heat, powders and tinctured herbal preparations purchased in a local store may be the best link back to this sort of natural healing.
Like so much in our infomercial society, it is easy to miss the connections between a bottle on a shelf in some store and a living, growing plant out in the world somewhere. It can be hard to know if the plant in that bottle grows a mile away or on another continent. There is much to be said for reconnecting, for educating ourselves about the herbs we use and growing and gathering our own medicine when we can. That's how we will be able to build a whole new system of healing and one that can support our movement away from 21st century corporate medicine. And it will reestablish our connection to the real medicine that is Nature (Prakriti) and Consciousness (Purusha).
An Alternative to "Alternative Medicine"
Have you paged through any of the “alternative medicine,” natural health, or yoga magazines lately? The sort of herbal medicine being promoted and heavily advertised on every other page these days is not even close to a new paradigm of healing. The plants, reduced to capsule form or, worse, to their "active ingredients" which are “standardized”, are just the newest tools working within the exact same old body-centered conventional medicine framework. These herbal products are no different than pharmaceutical drugs or a scalpel blade: something to pierce the body-machine and use to alter some isolated parts. The caveat is that these herbal pills and capsules are often not even effective, because (1) the herbs have been processed into something structurally and chemically unnatural (2) they are devoid of their original pranic energy and (3) they are being prescribed in doses far less than what is effective.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to "alternative medicine". Living with a simple awareness that we are intimately connected to a healing Earth, cultivating and participating in a true community of friends and family, eating real food--local when possible and seasonally rotated--and using natural, correctly harvested plant medicines when necessary will prove to be a better medicine than anything you will find in a hospital or health food store.
We need another way of looking at human life and the plants we use as food and medicines. Seeing the two as interconnected and in balance is foreign to our egoisticanthropocentric way of thinking, but in reality it is the most ancient tenet of healing on earth. We knew it before we were people. Our animal ancestors know how to use plants to heal themselves. Their examples are numerous and quite well-known: dogs eat grass to induce vomiting; chimpanzees ingest the leaves of Bitter Leaf (Vernonia amygdalina) to treat parasitic infections. Probably the best known example of zoopharmacognosy (how animals use plants) in Ayurvedic circles are the normally above-ground grazing female water buffalo who will dig up the roots of Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) to increase milk production for their young.
Every ancient human society has had some way of explaining the relationship between plants and humans. I have no doubt that the template for all medicines useful for human health exists in the natural world and is awaiting discovery.
One thing all Ayurvedic physicians and other wise beings know–chimps and water buffalo included–is that a health problem is best treated before it begins. In more primitive cultures where people listen to their own bodies, it is easy to recognize an imbalance before it manifests into an acute disease state. This is where herbs are most effective. They work at the purvarupa (i.e. pre-clinical) level of "imbalances" and "deficiency" and "excess" and therefore are invisible to the biochemical and molecular tests of conventional medicine.
This true alternative healing system is subtle and requires knowledge of the Self, or at least self-awareness. It uses intuition as a diagnostic tool. Emotion, spirituality, elements and environment become medicines. The spirit and environment of the plants we gather affects their healing properties, and our relationship with those plants becomes very intimate.
When we use a plant as medicine, we are assimilating into our bodies not only the plant itself but also qualities of the plant's environment. Everything it ate and drank and experienced has formed the medicine you're consuming. Hopefully that plant has lived a natural and healthy life. In Ayurveda and many traditional cultures, when we harvest plants for food or medicine, we promise to protect their family and safeguard the places where they live. Traditional Ayurvedic plant-gatherers often have a prayer or “charm” they recite derived from the Rig or Atharva Veda before they take anything from the wild. Here is one example:
Learn to Understand What Your Mind-Body is Telling You
A society of people who are responsible for their own health and able to gather or grow their own medicines is a happier, more confident and much more productive society. These days we are dependent on the depersonalized machine of corporate health care--that secret society of doctors and pharmaceutical companies, the prescribers and makers of toxic drugs motivated by heartless greed. We leave our doctor’s office and on the way home head directly to the local pharmacy where that prescription is waiting. But we all know this. So why haven’t people revolted against this transparently commercial and in many cases ineffective and dangerous medical system? Why do we keep taking NSAID’s for arthritis, ACE-inhibitors for hypertension, Viagra for impotence, Nexium for ulcers, and antidepressants for mood disorders?? Because there has been conditioned into us afalse security in these doctors with their white coats with the big sophisticated machines, ready to try to kill, suppress, or cut out your diseased part (if you have enough money or insurance). Never mind that the side effects of these “treatments” are in many times cases worse and more permanent than the original condition.
Yet many people fear the idea of returning to what seems an anarchistic, Nature-centered way of life which recognizes emotional and energetic roots of health and disease. What steps can we make now towards creating this new/old system of medicine?
First we all need to learn what we can about our own health and how our minds and bodies work. This can be through training in one or more of the surviving models of traditional healing (Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Unani, etc) in conjunction with self-observation. What do you feel when you're just starting to get a cold? What are the effects of stress in your mind/body? Back pain? Insomnia? Short temper? Gastric discomfort? It’s different for everyone. Do your bowel movements float or sink, change color or shape? If you're a women, how long is your cycle and is the blood clotty? Scant? Thick? Accompanied by cramping? Understanding how our bodies act in times of health can help us recognize the very early stages of disease--when herbs are the most useful.
Another thing to know is that while occasionally a plant from a specific place is indicated, many times local plants are just as effective. For every big-name herb on the market cut from the dwindling rainforest, there is most likely a plant with a similar action growing in your local park. Some of the best Ayurvedic medicines grow in vacant lots in and around most Indian villages and the same can be said for places around the world. When herbal products are marketed as a new "miracle cure", it can mean extinction for the plant. This is especially sad when so many plants go into useless products or are wasted on conditions that they don't treat (e.g. goldenseal, American ginseng, ginkgo, wild yam).
Always remember that herbal medicines act essentially as a catalyst or agent provocateur. It is the mind-body’s response to the stimulation, and not the actual stimulation itself, which promotes healing. In other words, it is the mind-body’s comprehensive material and energetic response to the interaction with the plant that determines the therapeutic effect.
Plants' actions in our bodies are determined by the chemicals they can produce from sunlight, water and soil (material aspect) and by the prana they contain (energetic aspect). The Plant Kingdom in fact can be divided into groups with respect to dominant characteristics which are now known to correlate very well with modern chemical groups. These characteristics are often apparent to taste (rasa), smell (gandha), touch (sparsha) or color (rupa). Thus, polysaccharides taste sweet; gums feel ‘tacky’, mucilages ‘slimy’; tannins and other polyphenols taste sour; flavonoids turn tinctures reddish and taste bittersweet; anthraquinones and glycosides are quite bitter; monoterpenes (menthol, camphor, thujone) and volatile oils have distinctive aromas; resins taste pungent and astringent; saponins taste sweet and foamy, etc.
Life is an endless and inevitable cycle of creation, maintenance and destruction. Reductionism and technology currently reign our world and have affected every aspect of our lives. The pendulum has swung. Medicine is just one part of humanity that has become distorted by this worldview. We have lost sight of our true nature and our connection to the natural universe. We are just now starting to awaken to how much has been lost. While we wait for the societal cycle to swing back from reductionism to holism, we can start that transition with ourselves and perhaps let the timeless wisdom of Ayurveda be our guide.