I, like many with a chemistry training, have on occasion dismissed the more mystical-seeming strands of non-western medicine. The origins of homeopathy, for instance, relied on literal Bible bashing of glass phials to ensure the infinitely dilute remedies would work. Which of course western medicine says is ludicrous. Herbal medicine on the other hand needed the industrial age to extract its active ingredients and bring us the likes of aspirin from the sap of the cricket bat willow and asthma inhalers from ephedra plants.
One area of non-western science that many western medics and scientists say is nothing more than pseudoscientific claptrap is Ayurvedic medicine. This is a holistic healing system that emerged in ancient India. It talks of the mind-body balance and the kind of “energy” and humours that modern science claims not to exist, yet there may be a grain of truth in some aspects of this system for which modern science has not given due credit.
Consider the western approach to the common problem of anaemia in pregnancy. The treatment of choice, according to western medicine, is simply to ingest iron sulfate. In this form, iron can be readily absorbed by the body, assimilated into new red blood cells, and anaemia solved.
Unfortunately, many pregnant women cannot tolerate iron sulfate and regurgitate it so they don’t get to ingest the iron and the anaemia remains.
Now consider the Ayurvedic approach. The sage assesses the pregnant woman, finds she has an imbalance in her energies, humours, whatever, and prepares a herbal infusion aimed at shifting the balance towards a more healthy state. It works, there’s no vomiting, the morning sickness subsides, and that anaemic look is replaced by the flush of pregnancy once more.
So, what is going on? How can a bunch of herbs cure anaemia so readily?
AP de Silva of the Queen’s University Belfast, whom I recently interviewed for Reactive Reports, was once equally as sceptical of the possibilities of Ayurvedic medicin. He told me that, as a fledgling chemist, he challenged an Ayurvedic practitioner to answer the question of validity. The practitioner, however, was entirely confident of his position and turned the tables on AP suggesting that he take away the herbal infusion and analyse it in his lab, which he did.
The result? A standard elemental analysis revealed the infusion to contain a stabilised concentration of iron(II) ions. Natural chelating agents in one of the herbs provide a suitable chemical environment to maintain iron in the II state, as opposed to its more common (III) state. This allows it to be ingested, absorbed, and to cure the anaemia without the sickness of raw iron sulfate.
This is, of course, circumstantial evidence, and does not provide the support of full double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials. However, the chemical analysis provides one possible rational explanation of the efficacy of this remedy beyond a placebo effect.
Perhaps it is time modern science took a closer look at the multitude of alternative remedies that sit under the Ayurvedic umbrella. Ancient herbal remedies evolved from folk knowledge and a huge proportion of modern drugs are based on such remedies, 40% of them, or thereabouts. Instead of instantly assuming isolation of an active ingredient is the optimal approach, perhaps science should consider the holistic approach to drug discovery with a view to coping with the side effects and improving efficacy overall.