A Philosophical Comparison: Ayurvedic & Western Herbal Medicine
Posted on 12 October 2016 by Leonie Satori
An animal, living in its natural habitat, unharmed by man instinctively knows which plants to eat when they feel unwell. Placed in this same situation, does man know how to select his medicine from nature’s garden? Or are his instincts lost by the plight of commercial television, synthetic clothing, mobile phones and Range Rovers that never venture further than the local café strip?
When considering medicine today, most people refer to the 15 minute quick consult and the expectation of a hurriedly written prescription from the local general practitioner, who uses his instincts in a fashion that have evolved through many years of study of synthetic and scientifically proven medications.However, in all traditional healing systems the plant kingdom has been a favourite source of medicines, Neanderthal man learned that the earth could provide him with natural prescriptions of plants and herbs for all his ailments.
As the time passed, each country and community built its own materia medica based on the local trees, shrubs and flowering plants and each developed their own methods for treating illnesses and administering herbal preparations. Even the detailed but important information concerning the time of harvesting was passed down from generation to generation, the concept of The Doctrine of Signatures – the theory that the appearance of a particular plant indicated its usefulness to man, was apparent in many different cultures.
Intriguingly, without the easy access communication and information available today, or the scientific methods and know how of the world’s top scientists, there are marked similarities between cultures with respect to the philosophies and methods of Herbal Medicine. The following discussion identifies such connections between Western Herbal Medicine and Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine.
Samuel Thompson was born in 1769, sickly and crippled with a club foot. As a child, the style of heroic medicine of the day was unable to treat his illness, so his father sourced the therapy from a local herbal doctor – the Widow Benton. As Thompson’s health improved from these treatments, so grew his interest in Herbal Medicine. It was many years later, following the birth of his first child, that he again became disenchanted by the limitations of the medical profession. Where his daughter was considered untreatable by the medical profession, Thompson treated his daughter’s ailments with a combination of intuition and herbal knowledge learned from the Widow Benton.
Thompson was not educated in terms of the science, biology and physiology, but borrowed strongly from the philosophy of Hippocrates:
Hippocrates (468-377BC), a Greek philosopher and physician wrote on what was termed the four ‘humours’ – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, his philosophy had its foundations in the four elements (earth, air, water and fire) and he also classified herbs according to their essential qualities: as hot or cold, dry or damp. At this time, European herbal tradition had already absorbed ideas from Assyria and India, and with it came the philosophy of healing, and herbs such as basil and ginger.
After long observation and practical results Thompson devised a theory of disease and therapy; he theorised that all diseases are brought about by a decrease or a derangement of the vital fluids by the loss of animal warmth, therefore concluding that diseases may be removed by a restoration of the vital energy, and removing the obstructions that cause the disease.
His specific therapy consisted of a trio of lobelia to induce vomiting, cayenne to increase the body heat and a vapour bath to induce sweating. His methods of therapy and use of herbs inspired by the widow Benton were supposedly indirectly derived from Native American Indian Medicine (sweating, lobelia, massive doses of emetics, root, barks, fruit and leaves).
Unlike pure folk medicine, Thompson sought to treat an underlying fundamental cause of illness. He perceived symptoms as an expression of the human organism’s defence efforts, implying that the treatment of symptoms and illnesses per se, might actually hinder the healing process. Practices were based upon the concept that health and disease were a manifestation of hot and cold energies respectively and his approach was to restore heat to the body via: vapour baths, emetics, purgatives and enemas.
Thompson’s methods were scorned by those of the highly educated medical profession but were embraced by those of the labouring classes. He devised a plan to spread his technique and patented a system of botanic practice of medicine; he trained several agents in cities throughout the United States that carried with them the legacy of the Thompsonian philosophy and treatment principles. Thompson himself became a popular figure in early American medicine and Thompsonianism went on to become a potent influence on the development of two major streams of thought within American Herbalism - Eclecticism and Physiomedicalism.
Wooster Beach, the founder of Eclecticism, was a man who questioned the validity of the Heroic system, the regular medicine of the day. He was also aware of the bitter antagonism that Thompson had invoked in the regular medical practitioners and was determined to reform medical practice generally, but not to alienate the profession by attacks on the practice from without, as Thompson had done previously.
Beach, who was originally apprenticed to an old German non-Thompsonian Herbalist, was disillusioned by Thompson’s arrogance in thinking that no further learning could enhance the practice of Herbal Medicine. He carried a strong interest in chemistry, physiology, pathology and botany and eventually went on to study ‘regular’ medicine with the ideal that this qualification would earn him greater respect and put him in a better position to reform the medical practice. Owing to this combination of therapies that were considered new at the time, with the older conventional methods, the Eclectic philosophy was born.
Beach realised that the new scientific discoveries of the time could play a valuable role in botanical medicine and in 1829 went on to create his own school of ‘Reformed Medicine’. The school began to produce monographs on individual herbs that included the plant’s chemistry, toxicology, physiology and therapeutic action.
The Eclectics became interested in obtaining preparations which represented the entire chemistry of the original plant as closely as possible. Their research supported and developed the fundamental position of the value of using whole plant constituents rather than isolated extracts of a particular plant.
Beach also went on to realise the importance of the blood and circulatory system in maintaining health and furthermore developed several methods for equalising the circulation. It is said that several valuable techniques used in the modern herbal treatment of fevers are directly attributable to Beach’s work. A later physician, W. H. Cook expanded this work and found correlations of the functions of the nervous and circulatory systems; he developed a concept which relates illness to deviations in trophic and or functional tone. Accordingly, diseases consisted of excessive or diminished tone in organs or in the functions of those organs and corresponding herbal treatments were aimed at rectifying this.
The Eclectics also placed clinical emphasis on treating a group or pattern of symptoms, usually with small doses of a specific remedy and as the pattern of symptoms changed with the progress of the disease, a new and more appropriate remedy would be indicated.
Physiomedicalism arose directly out of the Thomponianism movement, although not as heavily influenced by the developing sciences as Eclectism. Like Beach, the originator Alva Curtis, believed that Thompson’s resistance to development and the expansion of knowledge was a mistake.
Physiomedicalism represents an evolutionary synthesis of Thompson’s simple and pragmatic approach to healing with scientific ideas like the circulation of the blood and autonomic nervous system function. Curtis translated Thompson’s hot and cold notion into scientific terms – with the idea that living tissues respond to stimulation through a state of contraction or relaxation. W. H. Cook also found that cellular functioning and structure could be influenced by a relative excess or deficiency of blood and tissue fluid, another physician named J. M. Thurson further refined some of these ideas and described a model comprising of 6 tissue states.
Treatment remained a matter of supporting the efforts of the Vital Force and of eliminating the toxic encumbrances which hindered those efforts. Physiomedicalism recognised that some symptoms represented positive, eliminative and reconstructive efforts of the Vital Force, while others resulted from physical impediments to those efforts. It was also realised that the organism was capable of establishing a compensatory equilibrium in which toxic encumbrance would be tolerated to a degree in order to maintain a relative functional integrity.
By the 19th century, Physiomedicalism was described as a system which emphasised the role of herbal remedies in supporting the Vital Force, balancing the circulation to various tissues, modifying and enhancing body functions, restoring optimal trophic or structural conditions and eliminating toxic encumbrances (using thermotaxis and hydration). Eventually the two systems of Thomponianism and Physiomedicalism were integrated into the one system of professional Medical Herbalism, regulated by law and taught in the UK.
Ayurveda is considered to be the medicine of the Gods; one story suggests that the evolution of Ayurveda was during the Great Churning of the Milk Ocean by the Demons and the Gods. During this churning, Lord Vishnu arose from the ocean holding the jar of nectar and the Science of Life (Ayurveda), he is also known as Dhanwantari and is accepted as the Preceptor of Ayurveda. However, Ayurveda is an all embracing system of medical teachings which includes a number of different historical layers and interpretations, thus making it hard to pick one simple set of ideas and call them the ‘foundations of Ayurveda’.
The meaning of the word Ayurveda is the science of life, it is named as such because it tells us which substances, qualities and actions are life-enhancing and which are not. Ayurveda was first recorded in the Vedas, which are known to be the world’s oldest existing literature; it is a healing system that has been practiced in daily life in India for more than 5000 years.
Ayurveda views disease in holistic terms, it takes into consideration the inherent relationship between the individual and the cosmic spirit, individual and cosmic consciousness, energy and matter. The purpose of the practice of the Ayurvedic lifestyle is for the individual to achieve longevity, rejuvenation and self realisation. The purpose and action of Ayurveda is to bring the body back to balance by eliminating the cause of the disease, not just by treating the symptoms of illness. Ayurveda does this by supporting the body in its natural process of balancing the internal and external environments through: meditation, yoga, oils & body work, pranayama (breath control), diet, panchakarma (purification practices) and herbs.
One of the most important concepts in the Ayurvedic tradition is that which relates together the humours (dosha), body tissues (dhatu) and waste products (mala). The five great elements; earth, water, fire, air and space are converted by agni (digestive fire) into the three humours (doshas): vata (air & space), pitta (fire & water) and kapha (earth & water), these humours interact with the seven basic constituents of the body (dhatus): plasma, blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow, and semen. Ayurveda also classifies 16 channels of the body (18 in females) that are responsible for the transportation of food, dhatus (tissues), malas (waste products) and doshas (humours) to the various tissues of the body. These channels are called srothas, and blockage of the srothas may lead to disease.
Disease in Ayurveda reflects the predominant dosha that produces them. In saying this, one can understand the nature of a disease according to the doshic attributes that it presents and therefore prescribe the treatment appropriate for that dosha involved.
In Ayurveda, herbs and foods are classified according to their taste (rasa), quality (guna), potency (virya), and dominant quality (vipaka) and each of these characteristics is determined by the relative predominance of the five great elements in the respective substances. Knowledge of this enables one to determine exactly how a food or herb can be utilized to bring the body back to balance.
At the heart of the system of Ayurveda are the three primal forces: the first is prana – the energy of life; the second is jyoti - the spirit of light; and the third is prema - a manifestation of harmony, cohesiveness and love. These three principles are one – life is light, which in turn is also love.
With the sizable timeframe between the development of Ayurveda and modern Western Herbal Medicine (Thompsonianism etc.), it seems remarkable such similarities appear in the concepts and philosophies of these modalities.
Based on the understanding that Thompson viewed Hippocrates in such high regard, it seems hard to deny the linking between each of the philosophies. Thompson resurrected Hippocrates’ theories with his own interpretation and presented them as such. Again these ideas of Thompson’s were further developed by Cook with the physiomedical philosophy of supporting vital force, balancing circulation and enhancing body function and eliminating toxins.
With the current resurgence of Ayurvedic Medicine, the similarities between Eastern and Western Herbal Medicine are becoming more apparent. Each philosophy aims at achieving well being through the holistic treatment of the causes of illness rather than the symptoms; each uses cleansing or eliminating techniques to remove toxins from the body and aims to enhance the overall body function. Both Western and Eastern Herbalism have incorporated within their philosophies a concept of a body of bio-energetic fields, for Ayurveda it is prana, for Physiomedicalism it is called Vital Force. Both emphasise the need to balance and maintain this prana or vital force and utilise herbs to achieve this.
In addition to these similarities, we can speculate that Cook’s theories of stimulation, relaxation and contraction relate to the Ayurvedic doshas: vata, pitta and kapha, and also Thurson’s theory of the 6 tissues can be likened to the 7 dhatus of Ayurveda.
The main difference between the Western and Eastern Herbalism lies in the depth of the philosophies. Ayurveda has been a way of living for many generations, the complexities of the philosophy being well beyond the scope of this document, Western Herbalism today is influenced greatly by the concepts of Physiomedicalism, and although not having such a great history and depth as Ayurveda, it combines a good framework of an energetic and vitalistic approach to healing.
About the Author
Leonie is a Naturopath & Medical Herbalist with a passion for good food, healthy living and of course, herbal medicine. When she is not consulting in her wellness clinic in Lismore or blogging about nutrition, Ayurvedic Medicine or natural health, she is studying yoga, growing her own herbs and vegetables or quietly walking in the natural bush land in Northern Rivers NSW.
Contact our health centre in Lismore to book an appointment with Leonie in our naturopathic clinic.
The content of this website and any provided materials, research, or communications are for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your qualified health practitioner with any questions you may have regarding your health condition.