Examining Ancient Eastern Medicine

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Fall 2015 of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

Crystal healing, Reiki medicine, homeopathy, massage therapy, hypnosis, pilates, shamanism … the list of alternative medicines appears to be expanding into perpetuity, and the distinctions that separate them grow increasingly abstruse. It’s hard to tell which are just fads with no empirical evidence, and which have merit as a legitimate treatment. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (an arm of the National Institutes of Health) estimates that over 38 percent of American adults utilize at least one type of alternative medicine. Given the popularity of this industry, it is imperative that we evaluate these methods — their efficacy, side effects, and contraindications — using the same degree of scientific rigor applied to all medical treatments. In this article, we will examine two of the most popular alternative therapies: Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine.


Originating in India, Ayurveda is perhaps one of the oldest alternative medicines. It dates back 8,000 years — indeed, “original medicine” might be a more appropriate term than “alternative.” Ayurvedic practitioners believe in three fundamental energies governing our inner and outer environments: movement, transformation, and structure. Known in Sanskrit as Vata (wind), Pitta (fire), and Kapha (earth), these primary forces are responsible for the various characteristics of our mind and body. Each of us has a unique proportion of these three forces whose particular combination shapes our nature. These elements are collectively known as the three doshas. Illness arises when the doshas are thrown out of balance. Recorrection to one’s original state is required to restore health.

Arguably the most well-known components of Ayurveda are yoga and meditation. There are well-established healing and neuroprotective effects associated with these practices. The problem is that no study has closely examined how all of Ayurveda’s practices work as a whole.

Despite this, there are still some potentially promising results one can draw from the tangled morass of research. To begin with, preliminary studies suggest that some of the compounds within certain herbs may be implicated in the treatment of cancer; these include Withaferin A, Sanjeevani, Mangosteen, MAK-4 and -5, and AKBA. According to the organization Cancer Research UK, all of these substances retarded or even halted the growth of some cancerous cells in laboratory studies. Another study conducted by the World Health Organization found that Ayurvedic medicine might be effective in treating rheumatoid arthritis and even Parkinson’s disease.

One Ayurvedic herb in particular stands out above the rest — Withania somnifera, also known as Ashwagandha, which offers a variety of therapeutic effects. A report in the African Journal of Traditional, Complementary, and Alternative Medicines lists the results of a number of animal studies, which found that Ashwagandha may be able to increase stamina, ward off stomach ulcers, treat ovarian and lung cancers, promote memory and the growth of dendrites, lessen anxiety, and improve prognosis in neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. However, it is important to remember that this is all deduced from the available scientific data, and as we have established, the accuracy of such data may leave something to be desired.

Moreover, some treatments prescribed by Ayurvedic practitioners may actually be harmful. The California College of Ayurveda suggests that purification of the body via enema may be useful in treating Parkinson’s disease. Administering enemas for reasons other than its indicated uses can result in dehydration as well as damage to the organs of the lower gastrointestinal tract. Also alarming, according to the University of Washington, is the presence of dangerous heavy metals in unregulated Ayurvedic herbs — 20 percent of tested products contained lead, mercury, or arsenic, or a combination of these heavy metals. Thus, it is unclear if the potential risks of Ayurvedic medicines outweigh the benefits. The gaping deficiencies in research make it difficult to establish the veracity of claims made by Ayurveda’s proponents as well as its critics.


Traditional Chinese medicine is an ancient practice with roots in Taoism. It is associated with a lexicon of esoteric terms; these include qi (the energy in all things), yin and yang (the balance of opposing energies), and meridians (the channels through which energy flows). Practitioners believe that the human body is an integrated whole. Connected to nature, you have an innate natural self-healing ability. There are a number of practices that fall under the umbrella of TCM, but for the purposes of brevity, we will be limiting our discussion to Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture.

As is the case with Ayurveda, it is difficult to conclude anything with certainty based on TCM research alone. The NCCIH states, “In spite of the widespread use of TCM in China and its use in the West, rigorous scientific evidence of its effectiveness is limited.” However, several Chinese herbal compounds do seem capable of producing therapeutic effects. For example, one study published in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience found that an herbal medicine known as Ji-Sui-Kang improved the prognosis of spinal cord injuries in rats.

Notably, there are also several derivatives of Chinese herbs that may be useful in treating the aggressive brain tumors known as gliomas. Yong Lu, of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, found that gallic acid, ursolic acid, polyphyllin D, Spica prunellae, and Paris polyphylla, all had cytotoxic effects on tumor cell lines. However, these compounds were also found to be capable of destroying healthy brain cells (of course, the loss of healthy cells is a side effect in many standard cancer treatments already in use). Other Chinese herbs may be useful in the treatment of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Despite the potential benefits offered by these herbs, there are concerns regarding their safety. A review of alternative medicines in The Scientist details the dangers of the Chinese herbal byproduct, aristolochic acid. It’s used to heal wounds, soothe arthritis, expel the placenta after childbirth, and repel snakes, but it has documented carcinogenic and renotoxic effects.

Stephen Bent, M.D., voices his concerns: “There are thousands and thousands of products being sold through all different kinds of channels and there isn’t the safety framework to capture and monitor how often people are having side effects or problems.”

Conversely, the ancient practice of acupuncture is generally regarded as safe, if not necessarily effective. Data is once again conflicting. This therapy involves inserting micro-needles into the skin at prescribed points along the meridians; a more modern variation known as electroacupuncture applies electrical currents to the acupoints.

The problem in determining the potential value of acupuncture is the “efficacy paradox,” according to The Scientist: “Either acupuncture exerts a powerful but reproducible placebo effect in patients, or inserting needles randomly has the same effect as inserting needles into some 400 acupuncture points that traditional Chinese practitioners believe help unblock one’s qi, or life force.” The other fundamental problem with acupuncture research is due to the fact that “researchers still don’t have a good idea what acupuncture’s mechanism of action might be, which makes it extremely difficult to create an appropriate control.”

If acupuncture does, in fact, offer relief for various ailments, what could explain its success? The Scientist proposes two possible theories. It could be related to the “localized release of adenosine,” or it could have something to do with the relaxing of connective tissues. Cancer Research UK asserts that acupuncture causes the nerves to release endorphins as well as serotonin.

Clearly, there is not enough data to make any definitive statements about acupuncture, or TCM as a whole. Bruce H. Robinson, a biophysical chemist at the University of Washington, puts it best: “There are thus at least 1000 trillion synapses (1,000,000,000,000,000 synapses) in one human nervous system: 1 quadrillion. This is 100 million synapses per cubic millimeter of brain (smaller than a pinhead of brain tissue). Most of these connections simply enable the brain’s neurons to talk to each other, as 99 percent of the neurons in the cortex connect only to one another. The other 1 percent control the rest of the body. All this working together creates waves of energy we don’t really understand.”

The same can be said for Ayurvedic medicine. Though some research suggests these alternative medicines may offer a degree of healing value, their potential is seemingly shrouded in ambiguity — an obscurity that results from the scarce, fragmented, and sometimes fallacious body of evidence in which the subject is currently mired. Then again, these ancient systems are rooted in mystical and metaphysical doctrines, and it seems unlikely that science and spirituality will ever truly see eye to eye. This does not mean we should abandon the pursuit of reconciling the two — or in this case, the pursuit of finding empirical evidence that proves or disproves the efficacy of traditional Eastern medicines. It simply means we should bear in mind the understanding that there are some things we can never discern through reason; there may exist some ancient knowledge that transcends our logical realities.

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Fall 2015 of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)


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