Slow Medicine

When fast food first became a feature of our society it was hailed as a step forward: cheap, quick, tasty; what more could anyone want? When we talk about fast food now however, it has negative connotations and we associate it with poor quality. It is bad for our health and it is part of a disposable culture, which we no longer accept without question.

But fast medicine? Surely that’s what everyone wants: to get better as quickly as possible! Yes, but at what price? Does speed really have a price?

I have a headache, so I reach for the Nurofen. It kills my headache, problem sorted and I can get on with my busy, stressful life. So what’s the catch? Well, firstly, we now know from scientific studies that the more often you take painkillers for headaches, and the longer you continue to do so, the worse your headaches will get. It’s as if no matter what you do, sooner or later the pain will catch up with you and force you to grind to a halt.

Is this pain sent only to disrupt my life? Or does it have some purpose of its own? What if, instead of trying to get rid of the sensation, I decide to do the opposite? What if I turn to face the pain and listen to what it might have to tell me? Is it telling me that I need to slow down, that I need to find space in my busy life for rest and rejuvenation? Or perhaps that something doesn’t suit me and needs to change: my job, my diet, a relationship?

We can look at the pain or symptom as a problem that needs to be fixed, or we can approach it as a messenger with something useful to tell us. To do this requires a complete paradigm shift. Are you ready for this? What will it take for you to be ready? Burnout? A life-threatening illness? Don’t leave it too late!

There are many forms of slow medicine and the range of different alternative therapies on offer is growing almost daily. I am going to draw on the one that I am most familiar with, Ayurveda, to provide some simple examples.

Firstly, if I have a tendency to get headaches, there may well be something in my diet which is a trigger and in this case the latest thinking from the NHS and the 5,000 year old tradition of Ayurveda are broadly in agreement that I could start by eliminating the following: red wine, orange juice, pickles and spicy food. The difference between the two is that Ayurveda is more specific: the advice above will be helpful for one type of headache (in the temples or central part of the head with shooting, burning, piercing pain), whereas for other types of headache it may be more appropriate to give up dairy products or coffee.* Of course diet may not be the only contributing factor, and an Ayurvedic Practitioner would spend time looking at the whole context i.e your life up to the present, before making recommendations.

Eczema is the second example I’d like to consider. Conventionally it is treated with topical applications. Some of the creams prescribed contain steroids, which provide relief in the short term but are known to cause damage to the skin in the long term. There is also a causal link between eczema and asthma: Evidence suggests that eczema, treated conventionally, can progress to asthma, a much more serious disease. Ayurveda will see the manifestation of eczema as part of a much broader picture and will connect it with other possible symptoms such as a feeling of heat in the body, irritability or acid indigestion. Likewise the remedy and diet advice for this condition will act on the whole picture and so the patient will find relief of other minor symptoms as well as an improvement to their main complaint.

However, be aware that just because something is labelled ‘alternative’, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is operating on ‘slow’ principles. In fact, most therapies can be used either way. To give an example let’s suppose I have a young child with a temperature. Instead of reaching for the Kalpol (paracetomol), I can use an Ayurvedic herb to bring down the temperature. But why would I want to do that? Hippocrates said “Give me a fever and I can cure the disease.” We know that fever is the response of a healthy immune system and that it enables the body to burn up toxins and eliminate the infection much more efficiently. So unless the temperature is dangerously high, it will in fact be quicker to let it run its course, allowing the fever to do its work and eliminate the infection. The instant relief offered by the Kalpol may be tempting, but if I watch and wait, monitor the situation and trust in the power of the child’s immune system, which I can see is working well by the fever it has produced, it will be better for the child in the long term.

Paradoxically in this example, the ‘slow’ approach is quicker to provide full recovery and isn’t it full recovery that we really want? Although there may be exceptions, it is often the case that ‘fast’ medicine can offer quick relief but may compromise the body’s ability to recover fully. This can even be the case with antibiotics: an infection may be cleared up after a course of treatment only to return again one or two weeks later. It is as if the body expresses a state of imbalance through the illness and when we deny it that expression by stopping up the crack it bursts out again at the next opportunity.

Slow medicine is much deeper acting. Instead of putting a patch over the crack and bringing temporary relief, it works to eliminate the cause. Of course this may take some time, but on the positive side I may discover at the end of my journey from illness to health that I have not only eliminated a symptom, I have also transformed my life.

Julie Ulbricht is an Ayurvedic Practitioner and Family Constellations facilitator, working in London & Sussex: www.simpleayurveda.co.uk

* This article is not intended as a self-help reference guide and the recommendations for headaches and eczema have been simplified. An Ayurvedic Practitioner can prescribe herbal supplements as well as giving dietary advice. The Ayurvedic Professionals Association (apa.co.uk) has lists of qualified practitioners.

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