Ayurvedic medicine was practiced for thousands of years before anyone invented the placebo controlled experiment. How has this ancient system held up to modern scientific scrutiny?
Beth writes: "I've been listening to your podcasts for a long time. I enjoy them and find you to be a trustworthy and balanced source. So, I am curious what you think about Ayurveda. Is there any science to back it up? "
Ayurveda is an ancient Hindu system of medicine as well as a general philosophy of health and wellness. It includes advice on diet, exercise, sleep, and hygiene, as well as the use of herbal preparations.
Like most traditional medicine systems, it was developed and refined over thousands of years, using observation and experience—and that’s exactly where science begins. In fact, the Sanskrit word “ayurveda” literally means the “science of life.”
Scientific by Nature
Humans have a few unique attributes that make us predisposed to scientific inquiry and discovery. First, we are excellent at pattern recognition. We are quick to notice that certain things always seem to occur together, while other things never occur together, or that a certain sequence of events usually seems to lead to the same outcome.
We are also predisposed to believe that things happen for a reason, which drives us to come up with explanations for the things we observe. This talent at pattern recognition and our desire to figure out cause and effect give us a little more control (or at least the illusion of control!) over our environment and the ability to anticipate and prepare for future events. And this has given us a powerful survival advantage.
Testing Our Assumptions
Although this is where science begins, it’s not where science ends—because we are also prone to see patterns or cause-and-effect where there actually aren’t any. For a few millennia, for example, we believed that dancing in a certain way made it rain or that sacrificing animals (or virgins) would cause the crops to grow well.
We also sometimes come up with an explanation that seems to fit the available evidence but turns out not to be true. For example, at some point in history, we observed that people tend to be weak after losing a lot of blood and that eating red meat can revitalize them. In other words, we figured out how to treat iron-deficiency anemia long before we knew anything about iron or hemoglobin or red blood cells. But because we always want to have an explanation for things, we reasoned that the spirit and energy of the animal entered the person eating that animal.
The modern scientific era began when we started developing a methodology for testing our hypotheses. We learned to design experiments that minimized variables as well as the unconscious influence of the experimenter, the placebo effect, and so on. And with those tools, we have been able to weed out all kinds of ineffective medical treatments from the effective ones. We’ve been able to replace inaccurate explanations with more accurate ones. And these new more accurate understandings have given rise to even more effective treatments.