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Ayurveda: Mumbo jumbo or science?

Ayurveda has a long way to go before it joins the rank of credible medical science. — Dr. Jaya Kakkar


As the Covid-19 spread in India the sale of natural products across personal care categories grew at nearly twice the rate of regular consumables during July 20-June 21. There was an increased consumer interest, awareness and demand know for ayurvedic brands. The consumers are increasingly preferring herbal, natural and ayurvedic offerings. Likewise demand for ayurvedic stress busters surged amid second wave of covid-19. On one hand there has been an increased awareness of herbs such as Ashwagandha, and on the other continuous impetus to such products by the Ayush Minister has added to the demand. Companies like Dabur, Himalaya, Zandu, etc. gained immensely. 

Indians are taking responsibility for their well being relying on home remedies and holistic medicines to boost immunity. Trust in ayurveda is higher than in allopathy in terms of efficacy against Covid. In a survey over half the survey’s respondents said that day relied on home remedies since increasingly people believed that traditional immunity boosters were more effective. The demand for Ayurvedic products can help Ayurveda to become $15 billion industry by 2023. Companies have also increased their R&D spends and are ensuring that innovations are targeted and quick to market. Clinical trials are being conducted and prophylaxis studies are being undertaken on Ayurvedic and herbal products. This has enabled the marketers to generate data to back the efficacy and effectiveness of these Ayurvedic remedies on curing many diseases. No wonder consumer are shifting away from chemical based products. Natural immunity booster products such as chyawanprash, honey, herbal tea, etc. saw 38% year on year growth in 2020-21.

Ayurveda is a fine spun of science and the art of healthy living. It focuses on prevention and treatment of illnesses through life-style practices such as in massage, meditation, yoga, and dietary changes with the use of herbal remedies. The treatment here is holistic, which considers the body and mind together. People trust in ayurvedic products due to their low toxity levels, heightened concentration levels, and fewer side effects even over prolonged periods. In Ayurveda, the primary qualities that govern the body are called ‘doshas’. The human body is supposed to be made up of three primary doshas-vata, pitta, and kapha. When these doshas are perfectly balanced, the body enjoys perfect health.

Select Products performance
(year ended June 21)
Category             % contribution of Naturals    Naturals growth    Category growth
Hair wash                          12%                                15%                       7%
Tooth paste                       41%                                16%                     10%
Skin creams                     15%                                 30%                     12%
Baby talcum                     58%                                 32%                     21%
Baby Skin cream              58%                                 46%                     44%

Even in America, approximately one third adult population uses some form of complementary and alternative therapies. But the Western World, and even India, is trying to ascertain whether the experienced effects are truly due to the herbs at play, or due to individual genetics, or is it merely a placebo effect? Is the mind curing the body out of anticipation of cure? In ancient cultures knowledge of traditional medicine, such as Ayurveda, was passed down for generations either through oral traditions or written texts. Ayurveda recommends natural herbs as medicines for specific ailments. These medicines have been practiced in India for over 5000 years. Ancient texts that describe these medicines date back to 1500 BCE. In today’s world these are being prescribed solo or in combination with western medicines.

Over the years, scientists have been curious to understand the mechanistics behind Ayurveda and how these herbs interact with the body and exhibit a particular effect. Is there some validity for the science behind such knowledge? What if we can unravel the mysteries behind why and how these traditional medicines work? In recent years, scientists have studies herbs like turmeric, ashwagandha, garlic, etc. for their medicinal properties suggested in the ancient texts. For example, Ashwagandha is primarily known for applications in neurological disorders. Scientific studies have suggested that the herb may prevent oxidative damage. Likewise, turmeric has also been extensively studied for its anti inflammatory properties. The results endorse this belief. Garlic is known to have compounds that exhibit strong antioxidant, anti-bacterial, antifungal, anticancer, and antimicrobial properties. Recent studies by Indian scientists suggest that garlic essential oil is valuable natural antivirus source, which contributes to preventing the invasion of coronavirus into the human body.

A full investigation of any medicinal product requires its qualitative compositional analysis and its biological activity both in vitro (meaning out of the organism) and in vivo (meaning inside a living organism). The disappointment with the product could be due to launch, or claims, without sufficient research. What is also possible is that the quality and potency of herbal product may be subpar due to poor quality, contamination, and fillers.Without quality products, we may not experience the desired long term effects.

To this day we try to understand the complexities of chemical compounds found in herbs, how they interact with our bodies, and how we, in turn, are genetically predisposed to react to them. Ayurveda definitely has some science backing it up. However, it is only recently that we have begun to align modern science with ancient traditional medicine. As of now, Ayurveda is largely a science of belief. When we elaborate belief system with clinical trial validation and then follow GMP (good manufacturing practice) for their natural ingredient formulations, and have well documented diagnostic algorithm followed by specified prescription protocols, together all these will elevate Ayurveda to the status of science. The belief should be backed by statistical and scientifically validated conclusions. Alas, at present there is a flood of pseudo information, thanks to internet which has created a completely unregulated market for information, which is nothing but a heap of garbage. In any case Ayurveda should not be treated as an alternative to mainstream, at least not as of now; rather, the new generation of health and wellbeing is about combining ancient and modern wisdom for the best all round effect.

Ayurveda has been at loggerheads with allopathy, but it took an ugly turn during the pandemic when there was a war of words between IMA and Ramdev. In India allopathic practioners refuse to engage with alternative medical systems, including Ayurveda. And proponents of ayurvedic treatments often market their own proprietary drugs even when their manufacturing process could be abandoning key ayurvedic pharmacological principles. Yet, when it comes to fighting covid19, more people trust ayurveda over allopathy now. The lack of a definitive allopathic treatment for the disease has meant that the focus has shifted to boosting immunity, which is turn enhanced the appeal of traditional medicinal systems that emphasize immunity boosters.

To conclude, while we cannot dismiss Ayurveda as devoid of any merit, surely lot of scientific enquiry is needed before it gains legitimacy as a modern day science.

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