In August of 2008, Robert Saper of Boston Medical Center and colleagues found that one-fifth of 193 Ayurvedic medicines they tested contained levels of lead, mercury, or arsenic. Since then, Ayurvedic medicines — an ancient art of healing, practiced for 3500 years in India — have struggled to pass European Union inspections and stay afloat within the health industry.
Now, however, a new facility in Bangalore, India aims to join chemists and Ayurvedic practitioners together in order to give scientific backing to the ancient practice. The Institute of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine (IAIM) is part of a new push by India’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for modernizing the ancient healing practices and subjecting Ayurvedic techniques to modern analysis. IAIM cost $10 million to build, and features researchers who study ancient manuscripts for therapeutic recipes, grow rare medicinal plants, and isolate active compounds. Alongside the researchers there are also healers learning how to use modern diagnostics to refine Ayurvedic treatments.
Many feel positively about the new direction India is taking, but realize there are a number of obstacles to overcome before Ayurveda and science find a middle ground. Rajiv Kumar, a chemist at Tata Chemicals Innovation Centre in Pune, places blame on the healers who are “closed and secretive about what and how they practice,” while healers claim that secrecy is necessary to protect their own unique medicinal creations. Another problem is that standard clinical trial procedures are counterintuitive to Ayurvedic medicine, which treats the patient, not the disease, and regards many aspects of life as part of the healing process.
Nonetheless, Ayurveda is progressing in the Western world. A recent Ayurvedic treatment, for example, held up well in a test to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The trial involved 43 patients, both the Ayurvedic preparation and the Western drug methotrexate, and a placebo. While all three treatments worked equally well, the Ayurvedic medicine caused the least amount of adverse effects. Trial leader Daniel Furst of the University of California at Los Angeles believes the results reflect positively on Ayurvedic practices: “This marriage of a traditional medicine system with modern inquiry augurs well and is probably the best way forward.”
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