Field of Science

NIH and Ayurveda, part 2

Another in my continuing series on some astonishingly stupid research funded by NCCAM, the NIH center for sham medicine (oops, I meant "alternative" medicine). This post looks at grant R21AT001969, to Cathryn Booth-Laforce at the University of Washington in Seattle, titled "Ayurvedic Center for Collaborative Research."

If you thought I'd picked out a couple of oddities in my previous posts on the pseudoscience funded by NCCAM, I'm afraid - sadly - that you're mistaken. There are plenty more examples, of which this project is just one. This project will spend thousands of your hard-earned tax dollars to set up a center for collaboration between the PI's university and a place called The Ayurvedic Trust in India, supposedly to conduct research projects. However, this nice-sounding goal ignores the fact that Ayurvedic is little more than a set of ancient superstitions, founded on ignorance and magical thinking, with no scientific merit to any of them. I recommend the article on Ayurvedic mumbo-jumbo at quackwatch.com for those who are interested.

A quick primer: in Ayurveda, all of the body's functions, including health, sickness, and so on, are regulated by three "doshas", which are really quite meaningless from a scientific point of view. For example, the dosha called vata "governs all bodily functions concerning movement" and accumulates during cold, dry, windy weather. Is there any basis for this? No. What's worse is that Ayurveda "medicines" (I have to put that word in quotes here) contain well-known toxins such as mercury, arsenic, and lead. In fact, a scientific study in the Journal of the America Medical Association (Saper et al., JAMA (2004)292:2868-2873) found:
One of 5 Ayurvedic HMPs [herbal medicine products] produced in South Asia and available in Boston South Asian grocery stores contains potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic. Users of Ayurvedic medicine may be at risk for heavy metal toxicity, and testing of Ayurvedic HMPs for toxic heavy metals should be mandatory.
What is a bit unusual about this grant is that the PI, Dr. Booth-LaForce, is a professor of nursing at a highly regarded university. Her bio reveals the source of her interest in Ayurveda: "she is studying yoga and Ayurveda-based meditation as possible therapies for menopausal symptoms." Well, I'm not exactly sure what Ayurveda-based meditation is, but I'm pretty certain it isn't science.

Ayurveda isn't medicine, and it isn't "complementary" to medicine either. NIH shouldn't fund it, no matter who the PI is. Research dollars are too precious to waste, and NCCAM should be shut down.

18 comments:

  1. Ayurveda has more than 5000 years of history and is a science which is studied in India. Pls. do more reading on this topic instead of making a passing comment. Sorry if I my comments seem too harsh...

    ReplyDelete
  2. You sound like O'Reilly, with nothing to do but rant. How do you think modern medicine evolved? Do you really think humanity has survived and progressed for this long without having discovered some effective remedies?

    Few legitimate practitioners of alternative medicine systems will claim that they have the same efficacy or power as allopathic medicine, but therapies that absorb some of the harmful effects of harsh treatments (like chemotherapy) provide something lacking in the Western system.

    It is only unintelligent people who will dismiss and even fight against something based on its terminology. Are the five elements nonsense to you? Do you recognize only the elements on the periodic table? Good luck recognizing those in your body and making sense of your life with them. You seem to have seen the word "dosha" and immediately dismissed the validity of anything related to the system; remember, there are languages other than English, and they relate to cultures whose people are far hardier than lazy, dependent Americans.

    As for the lead, mercury, and arsenic, these substances have been used (as well as gold) in medicines not only in Ayurveda but in many ancient systems of medicine. Perhaps you should stop typing articles and make an effort to see what kind of purification processes are used; or better yet, find some proof of legitimate Ayurveda practitioners whose medicines have hurt people.

    There's really too much bigotry to respond to in your article, but I felt compelled to reply. As a medical anthropologist, have seen far too many instances where technology and vanity have coincided to make a productive universal medicine a more distant goal than it was back in the days when only systems like Ayurveda existed.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It's worth pointing out the emphasis in Ayurveda is on preventing disease and promoting health, more than the curative aspect. Given the structure of the health system, the interests of the pharmaceutical companies, and so forth, the idea that we can be (at least somewhat) responsible for our own health without depending on the expertise of professionals can be threatening to the modern Western mind. Why is it that the language of modern medicine is so paranoid, and that every discovery seems to make it a more exclusive system?

    Western medicine is a brilliant system that has made the world a healthier and more educated place in scientific terms. But it is pure ignorance to assume that the system is perfect; and an imperfect system cannot be held up as the absolute and only standard by which to measure.

    It's probably not worth going into all the studies that have shown how many medical conditions are stress-related, or due in part to environmental and psychological factors. Part of the problem with doing research on a system like Ayurveda is that there are few "set" therapies; treatments for each patient are developed individually, making "random samples" and the like irrelevant. Studies on the medicinal plants used in Ayurveda are perhaps available under the headings of botany, anthropology, and so forth rather than as direct medical research.

    There is much to say, but I will end with this principle of Ayurveda--there are three effects that dravya (medicine or drugs) can have on the living body: to improve the condition, to have no effect, or to worsen the condition. This goes for every medical system. Ayurvedic therapies aim to improve health over the long term, while Western medicine aims to have immediate effect. There is no reason the two can't be joined to have a better overall effect on a human being, rather than just the disease.

    Please check out this link for information on research that has been done on Ayurvedic medicine:
    http://www.drpelletier.com/TBAM/excerpts/017-Ayurvedic_Medicine.html

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Anonymous", your comments are so distorted and confused that it is difficult to respond - I don't know where to begin! A couple of quick remarks, though:
    1. Calling me names ("O'Reilly") is what is known as an ad hominem attack. This is a common logical fallacy - attacking the person rather than the argument. It's a common strategy used when someone doesn't have a good refutation of the argument.
    2. You asked if I recognize "only the elements in the periodic table". So you're claiming you've discovered some new ones? Sorry, this is the realm of basic physics, and you're flat-out wrong in asserting that there are other "elements" in our bodies.

    Mikaela then raises the common canard that the "Western mind" and "modern medicine" is somehow afraid of, or threatened by, "Eastern" practices such as Ayurveda. Nonsense. Modern medicine examines evidence for all sorts of potential cures, including countless natural products, and if they work, we use them.

    The problems with Ayurveda are numerous - but basically they boil down to (a) it doesn't work and (b) it is sometimes harmful. The burden is on those who claim otherwise to prove that it does work, and they have thus far failed to do so.

    ReplyDelete
  5. As an MD with moderately active rheumatoid arthritis, I find your comments regarding "NIH and Ayurveda, part 2" curious. Do you have a specific expertise which enables you to critically evaluate Ayurveda? I didn't see it in your academic training. Before casting aside the Ayurvedic herbs of ginger, turmeric, boswellia and guggulu for their anti-inflammatory properties, I believe these herbs do deserve more rigorous clinical study in the field of rheumatology.
    Your reference to the mumbo-jumbo article (poorly written, didn't explain why ayurveda was mumbo-jumbo; it just lambasted Chopra) as a basis for your skepticism indicates that you have no factual basis for your bias against Ayurveda. Yes, lead has been present in some Ayurvedic preparations, but that's a matter of quality control. It's ironical that U. of Maryland (i.e. your institution) recently published evidence that meditation (which is part of Ayurveda) helps patients with RA. Try again please.

    ReplyDelete
  6. One reference about the Ayurvedic herb, turmeric, was published in Arthritis & Rheumatism (Funk et al, Vol. 54, No. 11, November 2006, pp 3452-3464). This study looked at the antiarthritic efficacy & mechanism of action of turmeric extract using an animal model of Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). The authors concluded that the positive findings of the study support further clinical evaluation of turmeric supplements in the treatment of RA.
    The purpose for this 2nd comment (1st comment on 6/29/08) is to challenge your reliance on the nonsensical "mumbo-jumbo" article for a bias against Ayurveda.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Michael: first of all, I stand by my recommendation about the article at Quackwatch on "Ayurvedic Mumbo-Jumbo" by Stephen Barrett. It is well-researched and unbiased; it uses numerous quotations from Ayurvedic practitioners, especially Deepak Chopra, to point out how ridiculous some of their claims are. Most Ayurvedic claims are simply magical thinking. I recommend the article to anyone who wants to understand what Ayurveda is claiming.

    Second, the article by Funk et al on turmeric: I read the study, and it seems legitimate, but it is not impressive. The authors studied turmeric extract injected directly into the joints of rats, and found that it appeared to reduce inflammation that they articifially induced in the rats' joints. The effects were small but significant, and more studies will be needed to back this up - in rats.

    Fine. But the possible positive effect of turmeric extract on arthritis doesn't justify the numerous - and grandiose - claims of Ayurveda. Those claims include things like "the balance of the doshas" which you can determine by feeling someone's pulse, and which will allow you to diagnose diabetes, cancer, asthma, and more. The list of wild claims is very long. "Mumbo-jumbo" is a fitting description of Ayurveda.

    ReplyDelete
  8. You seem to be contradicting yourself. In your article you stated that ayurveda is "mumbo-jumbo" and "completely useless". However, when faced with an instance where it worked your response was a juvenile downplay of the findings of the trial:-

    "..it is not impressive. The authors studied turmeric extract injected directly into the joints of rats, and found that it appeared to reduce inflammation that they artificially induced in the rats' joints. The effects were small but significant, and more studies will be needed to back this up"

    Also, I believe you are taking the Ayurvedic terms too literally. Anybody with an IQ higher than a red-assed baboon will recognize that the elements-kapha, pita, and vayu-refer not to actual chemical elements but rather the biological state of the body and mental state of the mind.
    If you were a little less narrow-minded, you would recognize that ayurveda is a system which has evolved with the long-term prevention of disease as its goal.
    There are many substances used in Ayurvedic medicine like turmeric, garlic and ginger whose medical properties have been vouched for.
    Your blanket statement, "Ayurveda doesn't work" seems absurd in the light of these validated medical facts.
    The article at quackwatch.com kept saying that ayurveda is recent. I believe a single google will tell you how old it actually is. And its roots were not in the vedas, as the uninformed author has written, but in 2 books called the "charaka samhita" and the "susruta samhita", which were the first such books of their kind in the world. Also, Deepak Chopra is not the sole Ayurvedic practitioner in the world. The practice of attacking an isolated example of an idea and not the idea itself is about as well known as the "ad hominem attack". It is useful when one doesn't have good arguments.
    Your quick dismissal of a five-thousand year old system of medicine is indicative of a bigoted mind.
    I am not saying that Ayurveda is completely without faults, but then neither is any system. One cannot highlight all the negative aspects of a system and then say, "This is complete rubbish." I agree with you, there are a few people who make outlandish claims, but they are exceptions.
    It seems to me that you have attacked ayurveda because you know only its outlandish claims, or its negative attributes. Please find out more before blindly attacking this system.
    P.S. Please don't say that I am using an ad hominem attack. Try to actually write a real reply...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Nigel wrote: "when faced with an instance where it worked your response was a juvenile downplay of the findings of the trial."

    Wrong. "It" is not Ayurveda. "It" is an experiment in which turmeric was injected into the joints of rats. This is not what Ayurveda preaches.

    Nigel then wrote "Anybody with an IQ higher than a red-assed baboon will recognize that the elements-kapha, pita, and vayu-refer not to actual chemical elements but rather the biological state of the body and mental state of the mind."
    Interesting! So you are resorting to an ad hominem attack - calling me names - rather than dealing with the content of my argument. That is a logical fallacy, as my friends over at the Skeptics Guide to the Universe would say.

    Later, Nigel wrote "Your quick dismissal of a five-thousand year old system of medicine is indicative of a bigoted mind." Two logical fallacies in one sentence. First, another ad hominem attack - calling me bigoted. Second, the notion that being an old system somehow gives Ayurveda legitimacy is the "argument from authority." Being old doesn't make it right. Indeed, in the case of medicine, the average life expectancy in ancient times was around 30-40 years, so we know that medicine back then worked quite poorly if at all.

    Finally, Nigel wrote "P.S. Please don't say that I am using an ad hominem attack. Try to actually write a real reply."
    Well, since you attacked me twice, it's hard not to point this out. You failed to present any concrete evidence (published clinical trials, for example), that Ayurveda works. So there's nothing in your message to refute.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I deleted Nigel's response to my comments. He resorted to calling me names, some of them inappropriate, and I will not allow my blog to be abused in this manner.

    ReplyDelete
  11. So that's your new strategy? Well I don't think I need to add anything more. But if you were hurt by my comments, I apologize. However I am curious as to why you deleted these links:

    Clinical trials(double blind, placebo-controlled) of ayurvedic formulations in the treatment of acne vulgaris
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T8D-442XPYM-J&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=650599fdbc78121909c6b4007ebe4ad1

    Clinical trials of Ayurvedic immune booster shows potential to fight HIV/AIDS
    http://www.expresshealthcaremgmt.com/200512/research01.shtml

    Traditional Remedy Lowers Cholesterol in Clinical Trials.(Ayurvedic herb gugulipid lowers blood cholesterol)
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb4365/is_200109/ai_n15251744

    Ayurvedic Interventions for Diabetes Mellitus
    http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/epcsums/ayurvsum.htm

    (many more which are unlisted)

    I had asked you in the post that you deleted why you had focused on only the negative attributes of Ayurveda. You said, ""it" is not ayurveda"(turmeric as an anti-inflammatory agent). Turmeric is described in the Ayurveda Materia Medica as an anti-inflammatory agent, analgesic, and antiseptic, but according to you ""It" is not Aurveda". It seems that Ayurveda, according to you, is the tridosha system(which you lambasted without fully understanding) or the antics of Deepak Chopra. In short, your definition of Ayurveda includes its negative attributes, its obscure practitioners, or its features you don't understand. But when something is actually shown to work, "it" is no longer Ayurveda. This is a juvenile argument based on denial.

    I had also asked why you were relying on the quackwatch article which focused on the life and antics of some guy called Deepak Chopra, whose name most of us haven't heard of.

    Also, I had explained the reason I called your opinions biased(this is not name-calling). You said that Ayurveda should not be accepted just because it is old, and I agree with you there. But the fact that an advanced culture used it for nearly 5000 years does make it deserving of some attention. The fact that the book Susruta Samhita(Treatise of Susruta, an anchor of Ayurveda) describes advanced surgeries such as cesarean section and kidney stone removal seems to suggest that the ancient practitioners of Ayurveda knew what they were doing.(At the very least, they cannot be described by the word "mumbo-jumbo") Such attention would be unwarranted only if it were found to not produce results in most cases. This is not true, as the links above show.
    I had also asked you why, instead of analyzing what kinds of attacks I was using, you didn't answer my question: Why had you taken the word "elements" so literally?
    This time, I haven't resorted to an ad hominem attack so:
    1) You shouldn't discuss my strategy
    2) You probably shouldn't delete my post

    Instead, if you truly believe what you are saying, you should have proper replies for each of my questions. Deleting posts and shying away from questions are srategies employed by people who don't have proper replies. It was unexpected from a person with such a distinguished academic background. So to repeat myself, could you actually write a proper reply for once?

    ReplyDelete
  12. Im sorry, the first link was...
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T8D-442XPYM-J&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=650599fdbc78121909c6b4007ebe4ad1

    ReplyDelete
  13. I would request Mr. Salzberg and others to read the recent study report published by Journal of Translational Medicine. All the researchers are associated with Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, India. The research has been funded by Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Government of India. The link: http://www.translational-medicine.com/
    content/6/1/48
    This may be the answer to your doubt about scientific validity of Ayurveda.

    ReplyDelete
  14. anbas: I read the article. It is a very poor study, completely unconvincing. They partitioned individuals into 3 groups by "Ayurvedic" criteria, but they explain in the article that this was just body size and shape. Not surprisingly, thin people (one of the groups) had different lipid profiles from fat people. And there were many other differences too. So what?

    The article does not present a coherent hypothesis, and the results are just cherry-picking various differences between the 3 groups. If anything, the article reveals how far Ayurvedic believers will go to hold onto their unscientific beliefs.

    But wait, you might argue, it's published in a peer-reviewed journal! True enough. Many peer-reviewed articles are, alas, not very good. Some are wrong, others are just uninteresting because they really prove nothing. This one is in the latter category.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Some of the links posted by Nigel do seem to be proper trials in the sense that they follow norms like being placebo-controlled and so on... Whats your take on them?

    ReplyDelete
  16. so some studies show that some FOODS may have some sort of effect on something or other. thats not ayurveda, thats diet and tons of studies show that diet effects the body. wheres the proof of all that dosha nonsense coming back into balance or whatever idiocy theyre claiming.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you might need to check your ileocecal valve, as it seems stuck open to me. You can massage it for 5 seconds in a circular motion [ 2 inch in and 2 inch down from your right hip] and briskly stimulate reflex area right upper arm 10 seconds. Above all, please meditate daily to bring your body, mind and soul[ your consciousness] into unison. Namaste.
      Lenka

      Delete

Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="http://www.fieldofscience.com/">FoS</a> = FoS