When you’re a kid, getting sick means staying home from school, getting tucked into bed with extra pillows and blankets, and having mom bring you comfort foods while you watch as much TV as you like. The illness part stinks, but the rest of it is kind of nice! However as we age, falling ill becomes far more of a nuisance. You can’t bunk all your responsibilities and for the most part have to nurture yourself; therefore adulthood is when we start exploring ways to strengthen our immunity. Once we have children, the quest for both immunity boosters and effective remedies becomes a top priority: the frequent colds and fevers, doctor visits, noses rubbed raw from wiping, cranky moods, and the dreaded process of getting them to ingest their meds all motivate us to find ways to heal them quickly, and to ward off future illness.
These days, figuring out how to strengthen immunity and treat common illnesses forces us to identify ourselves as being in one camp or another: modern medicine/whatever the doctor says or “natural” cures/alternative medicine/homeopathy. The world is in the middle of a phase where everyone is questioning allopathy. We scrutinise everything from antibiotics to vaccines, and embrace anything that feels primitive and therefore natural. I for one find it all very confusing! My father is a doctor and I was given antibiotics at the drop of a hat–or in this case, at the burst of a snot bubble–growing up. Years later when I read about how overuse of antibiotics has resulted in new, incurable super-bacteria, I almost felt culpable. It’s true that sometimes I’ve taken them unnecessarily and they made me feel worse than the original ailment. But mostly they are lifesavers, relieving piercing throat pain and hacking coughs with a speed that makes me thank heaven I was born into the time of modern medicine.
Yet when it comes to my children, I worry about jumping the gun to antibiotics right away. I listen to other Chennai moms’ tips on remedies involving tulsi leaves, turmeric, ginger, and various other staples in the Indian kitchen. I’m seduced by the image of a tree-hugging mama, who frolics through the forest collecting roots and herbs to make powerful potions that she serves to her rosy-cheeked children in whatever the Indian equivalent of a Mason jar is—perhaps handmade copper tumblers inherited from great-grandma.
But my reality paints a very different picture. Instead of frolicking and foraging, I drive the 50 metres to the pharmacy, use the tiny plastic cups that come with each medicine bottle (and that must be just behind plastic bags and diapers in top landfill occupiers), and run the gamut from bribery to threats in the attempt to get my kids to drink their dose.
The rejection of modern medicine in favour of natural remedies is a global trend, with everyone from the dangerously evangelical “Food Babe” Vani Hari to the amusingly earnest Gwyneth Paltrow doling out advice that would make my father and his ilk sneer. But what makes India different from the West is that Indians have a trove of these remedies, whether from the ancient science of Ayurveda or family recipes passed down through generations. Americans do have some as well, and I enjoyed reading about them in Little Heathens, Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s memoir about growing up during the Great Depression. Her family used “baking soda, black mud, or earwax” to treat bee stings, and covered scratches or cuts with spiderweb filaments! I’m not sure how many such practices continue in modern American families, but I do know that countless Indians were drinking turmeric milk and using coconut oil long before they became worldwide health and beauty crazes, and probably because their moms told them to.
My point is that for Indians, using herbs and food as medicine has always been part of our culture so it’s even more tempting to forego pills and syrups in favour of things like Kashayam, the Ayurvedic medicine made from herbs and water. And doesn’t it satisfy us on some primal level to concoct our own medicine using leaves plucked from the garden and fragrant spices that we pound by hand? Or like we are channeling the spirit of our matriarch ancestors by mixing the oil blend that they swore by for body and scalp massage, which itself was a health practice said to strengthen bones and release heat from the body? Sure it does, but on the other hand, it is dangerous to dismiss modern medicines, and to needlessly suffer from easily treatable illnesses just because of fear-mongering clickbait articles on Facebook. Our ancestors might have had wellness recipes galore, but they also may have jumped at the chance to swallow a pill and feel better within a fraction of the time the natural stuff takes to work.
Complications arise when members of the same family have strong, opposing opinions on this subject. My husband is a science guy, and thumbs his nose at anything that is not backed by peer reviewed scientific studies and clear evidentiary support, such as homeopathy. I, on the other hand, can be swayed by anecdotal evidence, and I respect that some approaches (like homeopathy) have worked for so many people. Just because the scientific process hasn’t been applied to it yet, does not mean that it should be ruled out. For example, when my younger son was 4 years old, he started experiencing a burning sensation while urinating, but the urine test did not show any signs of infection. My nanny insisted that he simply had too much heat in his body, which she treated by giving him a coconut oil scalp massage. She claimed to feel the heat releasing from his scalp, which I thought was probably just warmth from the friction of the massage. Whatever the case, he was cured! And as long as we kept up the massage during those hot summer months, the problem did not return.
Unfortunately, the science guys and gals in your family are unlikely to be convinced by such cases, so instead of trying to change their mind, just assure them that you are consulting a doctor as well. Inform your doctor about all natural remedies you’ve used, and you may be surprised to learn that they endorse many of them.
So where lies the answer to good health? In the kitchen, or in the pharmacy? As with everything, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I’m happy to adhere to an herbal remedy that really seems to work, but I also love seeing my kids perk up and breathe easier a day after starting medication. What’s for sure is that we must shake off the bias that “natural” is always best. As the brilliant author and philosopher Sam Harris said in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, “We must continually remind ourselves that there is a difference between what is natural and what is good for us. Cancer is perfectly natural, yet its eradication is a primary goal of modern medicine.”
Come to think of it, Indians created Ayurveda but also urge their children to attend medical school more vehemently than any other ethnic group I know of—maybe we have found the right balance after all!