Wendy Weissner: The Complexity of Complementary Medicine

We live in a culture that values evidence-based medicine—or scientific proof that a medicine works and is safe—and yet the holistic healing therapies that fall under the umbrella of “alternative and complementary medicine” are not capable of being adequately evaluated using existing biomedical research methods.

I came to Goddard in February 2012 frustrated by the oversimplification of science that I had witnessed working in laboratories and research collaborations. I wanted to learn a better way to evaluate (prove?) alternative medicine, specifically those therapies associated with Ayurveda, a 3,000-year-old healing tradition with roots in South Asia.

Weissner 2014At the same time that I was rejecting oversimplication, I was observing the entanglement between methods and results, decolonizing indigenous methodologies, and proposing new ways for managing complexity. My graduate studies culminated in a deeper understanding of the cultural construction of science, illuminating the edges, limits, and boundaries of biomedical scientific methods while simultaneously appreciating the strengths of non-dominant scientific methods.

As a student in the Health Arts and Science MA program at Goddard, I benefited greatly from the faculty and student presentations during the weeklong residency each semester. In particular, the workshops on collective ethnography, embodiment, arts-based inquiry, complementary dualities, and medical anthropology influenced my work in unexpected and important ways. In addition, I was able to draw upon my advisors’ expertise in cultural studies, medical anthropology, herbal medicine, consciousness studies, and yoga, which all shaped my end product. The program’s flexibility and openness provided the space I needed to rigorously investigate “medicine” and to appreciate the entanglement and complexity of medical systems across cultures.

After graduating in 2014, I applied what I had learned by writing a review on anantamul, an Ayurvedic herb that is gaining popularity in the U.S. marketplace. By presenting both Ayurvedic and Western evidence on the safety and efficacy of anantamul, my goal was to honor the herb’s complexity. To that end, I reviewed close to 100 biomedical studies, presented the biomedical evidence alongside Ayurvedic theory and textual evidence, and submitted the article to Ayurveda Journal of Health (accepted and will be published in the Fall 2014 issue).

At present, Ayurveda Journal of Health is not included in the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s journal index (PubMed.gov). This database is arguably one of the most important and comprehensive biomedical databases in the U.S. Diana Lurie, PhD, the Editor-in-Chief for Ayurveda Journal of Health, is beginning the (long) application process required for indexing the journal. Past issues of Ayurveda Journal of Health (previously known as Light on Ayurveda Journal) often contained articles that cited classical Ayurvedic knowledge, and distribution was generally limited to within the Ayurvedic community. By publishing more articles that present biomedical evidence in conjunction with traditional and textual evidence, the journal will receive more credibility in Western biomedicine as a “scientific” journal. As such, it can be listed in this database, which will bring more visibility to the field of Ayurveda, and bring a complementary viewpoint to biomedicine.

Up next—I continue to write and am working on another manuscript—the part of my thesis that describes the globalization/scientization of Ayurveda. Also, I have been exploring opportunities with organization that published herbal monographs to see if there is a way to bring more visibility to Ayurveda there. In this regard, two potential future projects could be (1) assisting with the development of comprehensive, complex reviews on Ayurvedic herbs and (2) establishing a writing/training program that would teach students how to use biomedicine to complement their studies of “alternative” medicine.

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