Ayurveda: Myths debunked

By Chenelle Fernando

Sri Lanka is a vibrant nation with vibrant people, and so is its area of medicine. There are three main streams of medicine currently practised in Sri Lanka: Allopathic (western), Ayurvedic (indigenous), and homeopathic. Correspondingly, three medical councils also exist to regulate these types of medical practices: The Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) for allopathic medicine and the Ayurvedic Medical Council along with the Department of Indigenous Medicine for Ayurvedic medicine.

Numerous connotations on Ayurvedic treatment for various ailments have been making the rounds on social media pages, the most recent being of a plant named “Asafoetida” claimed to be used as a treatment for the new coronavirus, which has now been refuted by many medical professionals. This is not the first time such a claim has been made. To get to the bottom of it, The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to Dr. Ruwantha Vithanage, an Ayurvedic doctor engaging in private practice, to gain the lowdown on its basics.

Indigenous medicine can differ from region to region. Despite this, one undisputed similarity is its long-lasting effect. Certain Ayurvedic practices stem from age-old techniques that have been submitted to and triumphed through the test of time. While resorting to blood tests in the event of a fever that stays for a prolonged period of time has taken a common place in most urban settings, in contrast, as Dr. Vithanage indicated, patients in rural areas may resort to paracetamol or paspanguwa (a herbal formula for common ailments) for the condition of slight fever.

The basics

As explained by Dr. Vithanage, the technique of Ayurvedic medicine is grouped into three categories: Vata roga, kapha roga, and pitta roga. Patients are first examined to identify the applicable category. Depending on the individual, one, two, or a combination of all three categories might become applicable in one single sitting. “This is a successful method and sometimes we treat illnesses much faster than allopathic medicine,” he said, whilst refuting a common misconception amongst many that Ayurvedic treatment worsens an illness prior to its cure.

“If the weda mahaththaya (Ayurvedic doctor) examines a patient accurately, the patient may even completely recover then and there”. Interestingly, Ayurvedic doctors may even recommend blood tests for slightly serious conditions and treat the patient based on the identification of differences brought to light through the test.

Ath beheth and kem krama

Numerous advertisements and articles based on natural ingredients tend to stream along the lines of ath beheth and kem krama. These are age-old techniques our grandparents and parents resort to cure ailments even today.

Ath beheth in particular are early methods of relief that have been devised by our ancestors before seeking allopathic medical help, which have proven to be successful. Paspanguwa, for instance, has been administered by parents to their children suffering from a common cold. A concoction prepared using roasted cumin is shown to be beneficial for an upset stomach. Thambun Hodi (a broth similar to rasam prepared using tamarind) administered for indigestion evinces our body’s automatic reaction of craving a strong drink given the ailment and circumstances. “These treatments began in the kitchen; they are all successful but are currently drifting away from society,” Dr. Vithanage stressed.

In terms of kem karma, on the other hand, the most common of these techniques can be observed in the event of the occurrence of a chalazion. A chalazion is a growing lump or cyst found underneath the eyelid. Here, the froth of boiling rice would be applied on the affected area, all while remaining silent. Application for two to three days relieves and subsequently cures the infected area. Also, lime leaves are believed to relieve insect bites.

It is truly remarkable to note how such ancient techniques survived to be ever-present in the modern day and age. “When a mother treats her child using one of these methods and upon its success, the child will administer the same to their children,” he indicated.

These methods have, however, been subjected to controversy by many due to the lack of adequate scientific backing. Commenting on the matter, Dr. Vithanage said: “If you take paspanguwa, the five elements of ginger, coriander seeds, pathpadagam (diamond flower), venivelgeta (yellow vine), and katuwelbatu (wild eggplant), we have not been able to scientifically show a specific person who created it or recognised its value. It comes with experience from generation to generation.”

However, speaking to Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) Secretary Dr. Haritha Aluthge, he indicated that the Ayurvedic Medical Council and the Department of Indigenous Medicine ought to regulate Ayurvedic practice. According to what Dr. Aluthge observes in relation to illegal practitioners, subject to a survey carried out three to four years ago, were Ayurvedic medical practitioners practising western medicine.

“They do not have the capacity to practise western medicine because they were taught and have rights as registered medical practitioners in the Ayurvedic Medical Council – they have rights only to practise Ayurvedic medicine and not western medicine,” he said, adding that advertisements are not recommended by allopathic medicine and is banned. “We cannot promote or advertise products. This should be adapted into the Ayurvedic practice as well, but it is not practically happening.”

What ingredients are actually good for you?

The benefit of natural ingredients may depend upon its value. All Ayurvedic medicine are categorised into “rasa”, “guna”, “veerya”, and “vipaka”. The nutritional value of fruits, for instance, is examined by doctors before and after they ripen. Diabetic patients are able to enjoy fruits before they ripen, but not after as naturally the glucose value is higher in the latter stage than the former. The administration of medicine based on these four types appropriately renders a complete cure for diseases and ailments.