Medicine goes back to its roots
Nearly two years after the global Covid-19 pandemic began, there has been a revival of traditional Ayurveda medicines that boost the human immune system. While some dismiss herbal treatments as quackery, even allopathic doctors are now prescribing Ayurvedic formulations.
During the pandemic, treatment protocols have shifted from treating the immediate symptoms to preventing multiple infections and better management of post-recovery complications.
Seriously sick patients do need hospitalisation, oxygen or even ventilators, and modern medicine is good at saving lives. However, it is in boosting immunity, preventing infections and whole-body healing that natural herbal medicines serve an important function.
“I do not treat Covid-19, but I do get a lot of patients who have recovered from the disease but continue to experience long-term symptoms,” says Piyush Bajracharya who runs an Ayurveda clinic in Patan. “And there are a lot of people who want to boost their immune system to protect themselves from the virus.”
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Ayurveda has evolved over 3,000-years-old in the Subcontinent, and was recognised by the World Health Organistion at its Alma Ata conference in 1978. The Himalaya, and especially Nepal, is considered a rich repository of medicinal plants – a belief enshrined in the Ramayana where Hanuman rips out an entire mountain when he could not find the exact herb to treat his master, Laxman, who was wounded in battle.
“Modern medicine has its roots in our ancestral knowledge of plants and herbs, passed from one generation to another,” says noted physician Sundar Mani Dixit, adding that the most modern drugs in cardiology and painkillers are derived from the herbs with the Himalaya being the treasure trove of medicinal plants.
Expensive hospital bills and costly medicines with serious side effects in addition to the rise of new infections and lifestyle diseases have meant that patients and doctors are increasingly turning to natural plant-based treatment systems.
There is now a growing body of research that proves the efficacy of various medicinal herbs, the ingredients of Ayurveda, in the treatment of influenza, dengue, arthritis, herpes, inflammatory bowel diseases and coronaviruses. Many more plants and their formulations are proven immune enhancers.
“Over the millennia our ancestors led a population oriented natural research in the laboratory of the world, but now scientific methods have polished and refined the development of these treatments,” adds Dixit.
Despite being a seasoned allopathic practitioner, Dixit himself prescribes to his patients herbal formulations to modulate immune responses. They include Terminalia chebula (Harro), Moringa oleifera, (Nim, Tulsi), Piper longum (Pipli), Picrorhiza kurroa, (Kalmegha), black pepper, turmeric, Chirayita, Black elder, (Ashwagandha), Tinospora cordifolia (Gurjo) and Liquorice root (Jethimadhu).
To be sure, Ayurveda has its limitations. It cannot cure specific conditions quickly as modern drugs do, and is more effective against primary diseases of the respiratory system and digestive tract such as cold and cough, flu, gastritis, indigestion, as well as allergies.
It can also treat initial stages of blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, triglyceride and liver diseases, as well as cancers specific to an organ not belonging to a system such as uterus or breast.
There is also a common misconception that there are no side effects to Ayurveda medicines, but this is not true -- only multi-vitamins or supplements can be taken without consultation.
“If you self-medicate without referring to the doctors on dosage and duration, chances are high that they will harm you, even if they are common kitchen spices, which has often been the case during this pandemic,” explains Piyush Bajracharya.
This week at Singha Durbar Vaidyakhana, the state-run Ayurveda outlet, the sales counter had run out of some of the more popular immune boosters like Chawanpras and Triphala because of an increase in demand for them since the pandemic.
“It is a matter of further research whether traditional medicine directly inhibit Covid-19 infections, but they do increase one’s overall immunity and in case of an infection, people have less severe symptoms,” says Sabari Sah, head of the Singha Durbar Vaidyakhana.
“After all, Ayurveda is a science of healthy living,” he adds. “If people follow the basic rules of a healthy diet, exercises and positive thinking, then more often than not you won’t fall sick.”
Your friendly neighbourhood Baidya
Yogendra Shrestha Baidya is the 23rd generation of traditional healers in his family. His training began at 10, when he started learning to find, grind and mix various herbs and spices in his ancestral home in Patan’s Sundhara neighbourhood.
“We’ve continued the Baidya tradition for centuries, but I can’t see my children following in my footsteps,” says the 59-year-old, whose surname denotes his profession. “The times are changing even as the demand for our medicines has increased.”
Ayurveda seems to be moving from the hands of traditional healers like the Baidya who passed their knowledge from one generation to the next, to trained Ayurveda professionals. It is not restricted to a particular clan anymore.
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During the course of an hour-long conversation at his small shop stocked with his own herbal mixtures, and with the rich aroma of many herbs, Baidya got a call on his mobile from a father worried about his child’s dysentery. Next, a pharmaceutical agent dropped by for 20 bottles of digestive tablets.
Three masked patients with various medical conditions waited on a bench for their Ayurveda mixtures to be prepared. One of them was a 66-years-old patient who had bicycled for one hour from Hatiban to get medicines for his digestive disorder. He also wanted a consultation for his wife who has high blood pressure and diabetes.
“She is tired of taking so many tablets, I thought we could switch to Nepali medicine,” he said. But Yogendra Shrestha Baidya advises him to have his wife continue using allopathic drugs. “Since you have already started on those medicines, it is not advisable to discontinue that.”
The new proliferation of herbal treatments and Ayurveda has also meant malpractice, people with fake credentials claiming to have a cure for chronic diseases have taken to social media to propagate them.
The Nepal government now allows only certified professionals to operate Ayurveda clinics, but this also risks discouraging the Baidya clans where knowledge has been passed down through many generations of traditional healers.
“We need policies to regulate the malpractices but I can’t go back to medical school now,” says Baidya, who is a botanist by education. “Genuine traditional healers should get to practice, I have the practical knowledge and I should be allowed to treat my community.”