For the first six years of my life, my Indian grandmother force-fed me a home remedy of steamed milk with turmeric at the first sign of an upper respiratory infection. More often than not, my symptoms would resolve with her decoction of haldi doodh. In refractory cases, she’d shuttle me into the hands of a pediatrician for medication. I should mention that my grandmother was a physician legitimately trained in the Allopathic tradition (that’s the tradition that gave us Penicillin, Prozac, and Viagra).
As an adult, I continued the family tradition of force-feeding that decoction, this time to my under-the-weather colleagues during our medical training. My overworked and sleep-deprived colleagues and I fell ill pretty regularly.
Contrary to what you may believe, there’s nothing glamorous about becoming a doctor. No McDreamy or Dr. Ross to bat your eyelashes at, and most definitely no sex in the call room.
When my colleagues felt a cold coming on, they begrudgingly slurped up the Indian yellow milk. More often than not, that nasty cold stopped dead in its tracks. Indian yellow milk’s street cred was official: It worked! Trying to make modern sense of this ancient medical marvel, I did a little digging in the medical literature on turmeric’s benefits and discovered that it contained curcumin, a potent anti-inflammatory compound. So now we had a scientific explanation for feeling better.
One colleague moved to the Midwest (Indiana to be specific) to finish her training. She sent me a note saying she used Indian yellow milk as an integral part of her proverbial doctor’s bag of tricks. This Indian(a) story was just one example of unconventional medicine making its way into the heart of the American psyche. We had gotten a whiff of something brewing on the horizon: an intercultural stew of hearty medical goodness. We identified with this new brand of doctoring, and tongue-in-cheek, called ourselves equal-opportunity physicians.
With starched white coats, cutting-edge immunomodulators and high-tech hospital gadgets, it’s easy to believe that this is always how we Americans have done things. The field of medicine as we know it began with the teachings of Hippocrates, who is credited with being “the father of modern medicine.” But many Eastern medical traditions, such as acupuncture and ayurveda, were the well-established norm long before Hippocrates was in diapers, or for that matter, long before Hippocrates’ parents were in diapers. But Hippocrates promoted his schtick and over time, physicians traded in their practice of analyzing their patients’ chakras and chi for analyzing their patients’ blood tests and DNA.
This system has served us very well. For acute life-threatening conditions, our Western ways can’t be beat.
If I’ve got sepsis, I want IV fluids, vasopressors, and antibiotics … not reiki. But for chronic, persistent problems such as low back pain or osteoarthritis, I’d prefer to turn to the East, rather than use an anti-inflammatory drug that could tear up my stomach lining into lil’ shards of nothin’. We’re living in an era of a global consciousness. Foods have blended into new dishes (wasabi pizza anyone?). Clothing has fused into street couture (Tory Burch chappals?!). Why shouldn’t medicine join in on the multicultural fun?
With each new yoga studio and holistic spa sprouting up in your neighborhood, it may seem like we have only recently embraced complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). But this trend has been steadily gaining steam for quite some time. Back in 1990, a group of Harvard researchers did a study that jolted the sleeping giant of Western medicine from its long and deep slumber. These researchers found that Americans made more visits to providers of “unconventional therapies” than to their primary care physicians, and almost 75 percent of these expenses were paid out of pocket. Fast forward to 1997, and a similar group of Harvard researchers showed an almost 50 percent increase in the total visits to alternative medical practitioners from 1990, most of which were due to a greater proportion of people climbing on board the holistic train, rather than more visits per patient. These numbers continued to grow and by 2002, 72 million Americans had used CAM in that year alone.
Now, like its counterparts in other areas of medicine, CAM can be clinically studied using the same rigorous scientific methods as the newest hypertension medication. This is a huge step for something that just 20 years ago was seen as Eastern mysticism and quackery.
As unconventional medicine makes its way into the fabric of American medicine, the terminology is following suit. The term CAM is slowly losing favor amongst the medical community. The buzzword du jour is integrative medicine. While CAM implies a distinct departure from established medical practice, integrative medicine encourages us to integrate unconventional therapies with established medical protocol. The new term befits the kinder, gentler, and more inclusive paradigm that the American medical community is attempting to foster. Through our slow yet steady paradigm shift, we’re learning that the path to health isn’t just found at the doctor’s office. It’s available to you on the acupuncture table, in nature, on the yoga mat, at your farmer’s market, or on your spice rack. The choice to live well is finally yours.
Aditi Nerurkar is an integrative medicine physician at Harvard and still drinks Indian yellow milk.