Pills and potions

It’s a miracle! Take physics and bin it!
Water has memory!
And while its memory of a long-lost drop of onion juice is infinite
It somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it (‘Storm’, Tim Minchin)

Saw palmetto and dilutions, De-qi and adjustments. Do they work? Is there evidence? Do you believe?
The family are believers. Alternative therapies, in particular herbal medicine and manipulation, yoga and deep breathing are an integral part of the Indian culture, and entwined in the daily rhythm of my family’s lives. They have engaged in all manner of activities designed to prevent the catastrophic, to cure the ailing, to enhance the mind and body: five almonds a day to improve the memory; a spoonful of turmeric dissolved in warm water before breakfast each morning to keep colds away; clove oil swabs for dental pain.

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As an adventurous but clumsy child I had not the purple of iodine but the bright yellow of turmeric pressed into my frequent wounds, and, believe it or not, I never had a wound infection- not even when the soles of my feet were peppered with punctures from sea urchin spines. When diagnosed with diabetes, Ba promptly started to drink the juice of karela, one of the most bitter-tasting vegetables known to man. Her willpower is enviable, as are her blood sugar levels. The entire family swear by the life-improving benefits of Pranayama, a form of yoga in which deep-breathing exercises are said to improve blood pressure, lower respiratory rate and reduce stress. All of these effects have been replicated in studies, although many other claims regarding Pranayama remain unproven. I can’t help but thinking that something must be keeping the olds bounding out of bed every morning.

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I think the most fascinating experience of alternative medicine in our family concerns Indira, whose asthma was poorly controlled despite regular steroid tablets. I remember her sitting forward, arms against the tabletop for support, wheezing and breathless. She had read somewhere that donkey’s milk could relieve the symptoms of asthma. To the donkey farm we went, and for several months she drank the sweet-tasting milk. I loved the weekly journeys to see the brown-eyed, docile beasts, but the effect on my aunt’s asthma was inconclusive at best. She then read about Bathini fish medicine, touted as a cure for asthma. In short, a medicine composed of secret ingredients (the recipe passed down over 160 years within the same family) is stuffed into the mouth of a live murrel fish, which is then swallowed and wriggles its way through the throat and down to the stomach. Thousands flock to receive the therapy, which is only administered on one day every year. It is said that to be cured of asthma a patient needs three consecutive years of treatment. Indira travelled three times to Hyderabad, and although she still has asthma, she was able to stop steroid tablets shortly after receiving the Bathini fish medicine. Whether it was because she swallowed the live fish and the secret medicine or that she had also increased her use of inhalers, which she had previously been loath to use, she is better.

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Old wives tales, titbits handed down from generation to generation, from neighbours and friends, the family have tried them all, but one thing which has remained constant is that all of this has been as an addition (albeit a very important one) to conventional medicine – a bonus boost for health and wellbeing.

I have dipped the tip of a toe in the murky pools of complementary and alternative medicine, and found that sometimes the water remembers nothing at all, but that sometimes the water’s just fine. In other words, Mr Minchin, if something seems to be working I don’t care if we can prove that it works: the treatment might be effective or it may simply be a placebo effect. Even if it is placebo, it can certainly work surprisingly well, and who cares if it is a deception? My advice is this: be sensible. Don’t swap aspirin for crystals; if it doesn’t work then stop: take your hand out of your pocket, move away from your wallet. That is all.

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