Ayurveda and traditional healing traditions from around the world are increasingly being dismissed as “pseudo-science”. The justification for this condescension? “Herbs haven’t gone though clinical trials.”
This argument is lazy. You can find medical research literature of herbs like gurjo, hibiscus, and timmur in the Western scientific tradition, archived online. I read these research articles via the US National Library of Medicine at the National Institute of Health. People do not bother to read them, even though they are only a click away.
The Kathmandu Post recently ran an article about Kathmandu traffic police planting Tinospora cordifolia or gurjo at the Tinkune Park. Gurjo is thought to prevent coronavirus. Traffic police officials, among our most vulnerable frontline workers, were grateful to have this healing herb.
This article called it an “untested herb”. There are over 300 scientific research articles about the herb and its usages, including for osteoarthritis to HIV/AIDS on the web, from respectable researchers. The fact the herb has been used by many ethnic groups in Nepal, creating a pool of “pharma testers” who’ve gone through clinical trials of its efficacy for hundreds if not thousands of years, seems lost on Western-educated people flaunting their infallible modern credentials.
I have written articles mentioning the medicinal value of timmur (Sichuan pepper). Trekking in Langtang in 2005, I came down with a severe headache as I was ascending to Kenjin Gompa. My friends suggested I descend. My headache was debilitating. I could see why people died from lack of oxygen to their brain. In Langtang, villages told me of the local remedy for altitude sickness: chewing timmur, and drinking lots of garlic soup. I may have taken a tablet of Western medicine as well. My pounding headache disappeared only the next morning. I was able to go up to the monastery and admire the cheese factory and the yak herders.
As an undergraduate at Brown University, I was hired by Professor Phil Lieberman to analyze speech of air-traffic controllers, looking at audio waveforms on a computer. Lieberman was researching speech, and if it could show how tired people had become and thereby predict aircraft accidents. In 2004, Lieberman sent students to track mountaineers climbing without oxygen. He wanted to see if there was a link between oxygen deprivation, speech impairment, and brain damage. I reported on this story. I knew that oxygen levels were important and could affect the body’s physiological functioning.
When the coronavirus epidemic was a few months old, observers (including me) started to have doubts about the efficacy of ventilators. Publications reported that doctors themselves were baffled. Although their oxygen levels were dropping through the floor, patients were sitting up, speaking, and talking. The doctors concluded that the symptoms were more akin to altitude sickness, and that they should stop using only mechanical indicators to calculate O2 levels, since pumping people full of oxygen could cause more harm than good.
When I wrote about timmur acting as a natural “ventilator” that pumps oxygen into people’s brains, I was bringing the strands of my life and education together. To my Twitter critics accusing me of “pseudo-science,” this ethnographic lived experience may have been lost.
I had never had hibiscus tea before I went to Bali in 2009. There, a wonderful woman called Janet O’Neefe organizes the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, and I was one of the invited speakers. After the festival, I took a cooking class via her Casa Luna Cooking School. A jovial man led the session. The other dishes were usual Asian fare, but hibiscus tea stayed in my mind. With a flourish, the instructor took out the pistil and added bright red petals to boiling water. Then he added a dash of lime, turning purple wilted petals into a pink drink. It looked like a magic trick.
I drank this tea because it was refreshing. Only later did I realize its medicinal properties. When I have debilitating menstrual cramps, I drink hibiscus tea and am operational within half hour. As I researched online, I realized this botanical treasure is an ancient ayurvedic medicine. Rudrapushpam is deeply revered and has many usages. Hibiscus had the highest anti-viral effect on the avian flu virus in a research comparing different teas. People mistakenly think antibiotics will heal coronavirus. But what we need are anti-virals, not antibiotics which kill bacteria.
We already have powerful medicines that are stronger than any dubious Big Pharma drug. People infected with the coronavirus in the West die of blood clots. In Nepal, we eat turmeric daily—turmeric is a blood thinner. Hibiscus tea, chyawanprash, timmur, and other herbs, taken in moderate and in correct dose, don’t harm the kidney or liver. Hibiscus is available for free to all in the Indian subcontinent.
On Twitter, Baburam Bhattarai called for free hospitalization of coronavirus patients. This sounds like a responsible activist call, although Bhattarai was last seen infecting large Tarai crowds in an irresponsible vote-gathering endeavor. If government pays hospitals, there is a big chance people will be given unnecessary treatments that damage their lungs, livers, kidneys, and brains. Americans report a dramatic range of post-hospitalization symptoms, most likely caused by drugs and treatments.
It may be more responsible to fund district-wise ayurvedic, amchi and indigenous medicine production, deliver herbal medicine right to people’s doors, and provide care to those who need help at home.
The views are personal