Shamans. mystics and doctors

  • 14/02/1996

EVEN as modern medical sciences grow by leaps and bounds and the world awaits a genetic revolution that Could give humans the power to play God, traditional diets and medical systems of Asia are making a special niche for themselves - and that, too, in the Mecca of modern medicine, the US.

Ever since Mahesh Yogi decided to divest yoga of its spirituality and give the Americans a taste of his transcendental meditation, medical interest has grown to a point that a new discipline called Mind Body Medicine has emerged (Down To Earth, Vol 3, No 23), which is more jargonistically called PNI, for psychoneurommunology. Now even the prestigious Harvard Medical School has a Mind/Body Medical Institute. And it recently organised a conference in which 200 medicos rubbed shoulders with a variety of healers from the Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other traditions. Yoga and spiritual healing are placebos no longer. Now, controlled scientific studies have shown that techniques like meditation can help in curing depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, cardiac pain, insomnia, diabetes, ulcers, cold, fever, asthma, arthritis and alcoholism.

And, of course, quick to latch on to prayer, meditation and relaxation techniques are the cost-conscious, new health insurance agencies, called Health Maintenance Organisations (HMOS), which try to keep medical costs down. They are readily pushing patients to these techniques. One clinical study showed that when patients supplemented their high blood pressure drugs with relaxation techniques, they were able to reduce or eliminate their use of drugs while significantly reducing their blood pressure. The HMOs saved US $1,300 per patient over the five-year course of treatment.

And now, that Vatican of medical research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which, with its us $12 billion annual budget, funds almost all medical research in USA, has also spoken in favour of all this erstwhile mumbo-jumbo. One of its independent panels recently concluded: "Integrating behaviour at and relaxation therapies with conventional medical treatment is imperative for successfully managing these conditions." The human touch of the healer, meditation or prayer may not do much to mend broken bones or control infection but, the NIH panel said, they do seem to affect diseases that have a psychological component or those that can be helped by changes in the heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and so on.

The Harvard conference got a modern scientific treat from neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn, who presented PET (Positron Emission Tomography) brain scans of subjects who were asked to close their eyes, as in yoga, and imagine neutral images (like a sofa) or aversive images (like the bruised face of a battered woman). The latter images seemed to activate a region of the brain called insula more than the neutral images. Studies in animals have shown that stimulating the insula can change the heart rate and blood pressure. The insula also has a large network of connections with the limbic area in the brain's centre, which is associated with strong emotions, plus a bundle of connections with the stomach and intestines through the vagus nerves, which is how ulcers may be created and which may also explain how meditation can reduce ulcer pain.

Apart from the brain, good old Asia is also making its way into the minds of US scientists through the stomach. with the growing recognition that the traditional us diet may have been quite a bad thing and could have been one cause of the cancer epidemic in the country, US diet scientists have been eyeing other nations' plates. In t992, the us department of agriculture, which used to construct the US Food Guide Pyramid, heralded in the Mediterranean Diet, emphasising grains, veggies and fruits, with reduced emphasis on dairy products, meats, oil, fats and sugar, but without saying much against meats.

But the same guys - the Harvard University School of Public Health and the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust - joined by the Cornell University, have now come up with the Traditional Healthy Asian Pyramid, with liberal helpings from diets of small Chinese villages and Japanese coastal seaports; traditional Indian diet is still not 'in'. Surveys show that the Asian continent has a lower rate of chronic diseases and heart diseases. And Asian dietary practices emphasise even less meat and dairy products than the latest US recommendations. A nutritional biochemist of Cornell University, who has worked on Asian diets, has predicted that replacement of animal-based food with plant-based food could result in a 80-90 per cent reduction in cancer in the US. A Washington Postarticle concludes: "Move over pasta, here comes rice."

And, lo and behold, the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the US government in early January have put even greater stress on vegetarianism. And simultaneously, the state of Washington has opened the country's first government-subsidised natural health clinic in Seattle where patients can avail the benefits of acupuncture, yoga lessons and garlic pills. After the export of so many doctors to USA, Indian vaids (practitioners of traditional medicine) may jubilate, because this may be their great chance to migrate next- Mahesh Yogi has definitely left a mark.