Amrit: An Edge in the Fight Against Free Radicals

An insightful interview with Dr. Charles Elder

Charles Elder, M.D., M.P.H. completed his undergraduate and medical school training at Boston University, and his internal medicine residency at the University of Michigan. Dr. Elder has received additional training in Maharishi Ayurveda and over the past decade has progressively integrated the practice of ayurveda into his primary care internal medicine practice. Dr. Elder is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, and is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.

In this special newsletter, we interview Dr. Charles Elder, who has been practicing internal medicine in Portland, Oregon for over a decade. Dr. Elder has received training in Maharishi Ayurveda and has incorporated it into his practice since the early 90s.

Q: Welcome to our special series of interviews on Amrit, Dr. Elder. Can you begin by telling our readers a little about your background?

Dr. Elder: I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, in northeast Ohio. I received my medical degree as well as a master's degree in public health from Boston University in the late 1980s. After that, I did my internship and residency in internal medicine at the University of Michigan. I completed my residency training in 1990. And I have been practicing now for about 12 years.

Q: When did you first learn about Maharishi Ayurveda?

Dr. Elder: I've been interested in natural medicine since early on in my training. One of the things that I learned during the time I was in medical training was the Transcendental Meditation® program. I found this technique to be a very useful stress management tool when I was going through my studies. And it was at some meditation courses I attended that I first learned about Maharishi Ayurveda. I realized through my early exposure to meditation and ayurveda that the allopathic model of healthcare itself was fundamentally incomplete. And throughout my training I had a desire to integrate a more holistic and natural approach into my practice of medicine, and to use tools that I knew could benefit my patients but weren't available through conventional care. I've had that desire throughout my training. And it has only grown stronger with more training in ayurveda and more experience in allopathic medicine. As my experience and practice has grown, I've found ways over time to integrate the ayurvedic practice into the conventional practice.

Q: And what has the experience been like? How have your patients responded?

Dr. Elder: I think it's something that my patients really appreciate, because just as we as physicians often feel this frustration with the limited scope of the allopathic model, especially in primary care, patients feel that same thing and have a strong desire to integrate the best of conventional Western care with more holistic and natural tools. And so patients are very appreciative and receptive, for the most part, when offered that type of care as a supplement or as a complement to conventional medicine.

Q: And personally, do you find it more satisfying and fulfilling that you're doing this integration for your patients?

Dr. Elder: Absolutely. I think that among conventional care practitioners and primary care physicians, there's a degree of frustration with our modern medicine model. An under-recognized root cause of the frustration is the discrepancy between the tools that the conventional physician has and the problems with which the physician is actually presented. I think that the ayurvedic tools enable me as a physician to more directly address, and more meaningfully address, many of the problems that my patients have, and this of course is much more satisfying.

Q: Can you elaborate a little on the discrepancy that you're talking about? Can you explain with an example here?

Dr. Elder: Yes. The tools that we have from allopathic medicine are very powerful for the patients who are extremely sick. But in adult primary care, most of the patients whom we see in our clinics are not extremely sick, but are rather what we call "the worried well" or the chronically-ill patients who have long-term medical problems or constellations of symptoms that don't necessarily fit neatly into an allopathic diagnosis. So, then, for many of these patients, taking a look at their problems through a different lens — through the lens of ayurvedic medicine — taking a fresh approach to their problems can often provide a more cogent explanation and treatment course for them.

Q: Does your belief in the ayurvedic approach interfere at all with your practice of modern medicine?

Dr. Elder: That hasn't been an issue at all. Definitely not. Rather, I think the two complement each other, providing a synergy. The greatest use for ayurvedic medicine, when integrating it with allopathic medicine, is that we can take patients who come in with complex multi-symptom complaints and treat them in a meaningful way. So in the allopathic model, the patient may come in with constipation and headaches and heartburn, and as an allopathic physician these would be three separate diagnoses with three separate approaches and three separate treatment plans. But using ayurveda, we're often able to tie the different seemingly unrelated complaints together with a single underlying explanation and treatment plan.

Q: And what about your colleagues — how do they respond to your interest in ayurveda?

Dr. Elder: That also is not a problem. I think that most primary care physicians nowadays realize that there is a place for holistic and natural remedies. And most of my colleagues appreciate the effort I make in integrating the two streams of healing. A growing number of physicians are coming to understand that at the root of the perpetual health care crisis is the fact that the allopathic model itself is too narrow, and that we as physicians need to broaden the scope of our practice. Ayurvedic medicine serves as an excellent complement to conventional care, for a number of reasons. The main reason is that ayurvedic medicine is very focused on prevention, and this is an area where conventional care does not always do as well.

Q: What is the one major difference in the approaches that you see?

Dr. Elder: The most striking difference is that in ayurveda the emphasis is on wholeness and on prevention — looking at the patient as a whole, and looking at his or her condition as an imbalance, but something that is connected to the whole.

Q: We often hear people say that they appreciate the sense of control a system like ayurveda gives them over their own health and well-being.

Dr. Elder: Many of my patients have told me, when I've given them ayurvedic consultations or advice, that the tools and the perspective of ayurveda give them a greater sense of control over their condition. One of the reasons, I believe, is that in ayurveda so much emphasis is placed on diet and daily routine and behavior. When the patients understand the concepts, they often come to see the link between their own lifestyle, for example, and their condition. Allopathic medicine also does, to some degree, but with ayurvedic medicine it's much stronger, because in ayurveda the dietary prescriptions and the behavioral prescriptions are much more sophisticated.

Q: You obviously were taught to read the pulse of the patient in medical school, and then much later you also learned how to read the pulse the ayurvedic way.

Dr. Elder: That's correct.

Q: What kind of difference do you see between the two methods?

Dr. Elder: There's a big difference. In the conventional approach, when we take the pulse we are feeling for how fast the pulse is and whether it's regular or irregular. And that's pretty much all the information we get. The scope of the information that we get from the ayurvedic pulse technique is much more sophisticated. It is taken with three fingers and gives us much deeper insight into the patient's physiologic status.

Q: What do your patients think about herbs as a means to heal?

Dr. Elder: Many of my patients appreciate the opportunity to use a more natural approach. They are frequently suspicious of, or frightened by, the potential toxicities of allopathic drugs. And while the use of the allopathic drugs can often effectively treat symptoms and thus relieve suffering, we are not always able to cure the condition or get at the root cause of the patient's condition. Whereas, when we use a multi-modality holistic approach that frequently includes herbs, we're able to address the underlying imbalance and actually work towards correcting or treating the problem.

Q: Talking of herbs, do you think they possess an inner intelligence?

Dr. Elder: Yes, I think that that's true. And that's why we think of herbs much differently than we do of pharmaceuticals. When we treat patients with herbs, we do so on the premise that the patient is imbalanced or has an illness because there is basically a lack of intelligence in the physiology. Herbs that represent that piece of nature's intelligence, which the patient's physiology has "forgotten," help restore balance and good health. Herbal supplements prepared in traditional ways with a long history of use are often safer and are much less likely to be incompatible with the patient than some of our modern drugs.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about Amrit?

Dr. Elder: Amrit is a multi-ingredient formula based upon ancient ayurvedic texts. It is used as an overall tonic for the maintenance and promotion of health. From the standpoint of modern science, a considerable amount of research has been done on Amrit showing that in vitro this supplement is a very potent antioxidant as well as a potent anti-cancer agent.

Q: Can you talk to our readers about free radicals and Amrit's role as an antioxidant?

Dr. Elder: Simply put, free radicals are molecular toxins or irritants that wear away at the physiology and the physical structure of the body. Some free radical production in the body is inevitable, but the body has mechanisms for defending itself or cleaning the free radicals up. But sometimes if there are a lot of toxins, or if there is a lot of stress in the physiology, the body can fall behind in this cleaning-up process. The free radicals can get the upper edge, leading to physiologic damage and disease. But the role of a free radical scavenger or antioxidant, such as the Amrit paste and tablets, is to give the body an edge — to help to protect the body from these toxins. Amrit helps put the physiology a step ahead of the game in its ongoing battle against the buildup of free radicals.

Q: What are some of the diseases that you would link to free radicals?

Dr. Elder: That's a very interesting question. I think that cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis may be linked to free radical damage. There are people who think that neuro-degenerative diseases can be linked to free radical damage. The aging process in general can be linked to free radical damage. And broadly speaking, if we consider what we just discussed — that free radicals are always being produced and that the body, with its own natural mechanisms, is constantly waging a battle at a molecular level against free radical damage — it may be fair to say that most chronic illnesses have some component of free radical damage as part of their etiology.

Q: How does the body, on its own, fight the onslaught?

Dr. Elder: The body has natural free radical scavenging systems. There are processes in the cells and in the physiology that naturally remove or neutralize the free radicals.

Q: And what would you say are circumstances where the body's own defense systems are not able to cope?

Dr. Elder: There are many situations where the body's own defense systems get overwhelmed. Particularly in our society, we're subjected to a great deal of stress and a great deal of toxins at many levels. Air pollution, noise pollution, toxins in our foods — ongoing onslaught from these toxins can result in the body's natural defenses getting overwhelmed. And this is a good way for us to understand why using an antioxidant supplement such as Amrit can be useful, simply as a way of protecting the body against toxins. Using a supplement such as Amrit can help to give us the edge in the fight against excess free radicals.

Q: There are quite a few antioxidants and substances, or supplements rather, that act as antioxidants in the market. What makes Amrit the antioxidant of choice?

Dr. Elder: It's true that there are several vitamins and other herbs and even pharmaceuticals which have been shown to have antioxidant potential, and which are actually used by some physicians for that purpose. There's good data, however, showing that Amrit is a more potent antioxidant than many of the vitamins commonly used for that purpose. And in addition, Amrit is a multi-ingredient preparation with synergistic properties such that it can scavenge a broader range of free radicals than many of the single-vitamin preparations.

Q: Amrit, as you know, has been researched to be beneficial for the immune system, the cardiovascular system, the brain and nervous system, for countering the side effects of chemotherapy — how is it that one formulation can be responsible for such a wide range of beneficial effects?

Dr. Elder: I think the best way to understand that, again, is to look at the free radical model. If we look at chronic disease as a function of the body's falling behind or losing the battle against free radical damage, and the Amrit supplements have been shown to effectively protect against a wide range of free radicals, I think we can understand why using this supplement could be useful for such a broad range of patients.

Q: Do you recommend Amrit to your patients, Dr. Elder?

Dr. Elder: Absolutely. I recommend Amrit to many of my patients. There are really three main groups of patients whom I use the formula for. Number one, many patients come in asking me to recommend a tonic or preparation for the maintenance of overall health. Usually Amrit is one of my top choices — I think Amrit is very useful in that context. Number two, I recommend Amrit frequently for my patients with chronic cardiovascular disease, because Amrit is a powerful antioxidant. And number three, many patients are referred to me who have recently had a diagnosis of cancer or treatments for cancer, and they come to me because they want advice regarding a healthy lifestyle and specifically how to prevent cancer recurrence. And in that setting I frequently recommend Amrit Kalash.

Q: And what has been your experience with recommending Amrit to patients?

Dr. Elder: Patients have done well with it, and most patients like it and enjoy taking it. Many patients who take it have reported feeling more energetic and have reported more mental alertness. It is more difficult to gauge the long-term effects. I have some patients who have been taking it for a couple of years but it's still a little too soon to be able to tell. The research studies done by Dr. Sharma and his group at Ohio State have been very convincing. And in the clinical settings that I mentioned-for prevention, as an overall tonic, as an antioxidant, and as an anti-neoplastic cancer prevention agent, it's a very useful natural remedy.

Q: You told us earlier that you recommend Amrit to people with heart disease. Do you recommend Amrit to people with atherosclerosis? How do they come to you? And what makes you decide that they need Amrit?

Dr. Elder: I frequently recommend Amrit to patients with atherosclerosis. People will come to me with symptoms of angina or with a history of cardiovascular events, and they're interested in preventing a recurrence of those events. And of course there are a lot of things in conventional medicine that people can do, such as lose weight, take medications to lower their cholesterol, and take aspirin, in order to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events. But sometimes people are referred to me especially because they are interested in natural remedies. And they want something that is natural and holistic to help them prevent cardiovascular disease. And for those patients in particular, I will recommend Amrit as a preventative measure.

Q: Now when they start taking it, what do they come and tell you? And secondly, what kind of changes do you see in them? From a physician's point of view, what do you generally assess that Amrit does for them?

Dr. Elder: Amrit is used as an herbal antioxidant for the long-term prevention of, and protection from, cardiovascular disease. Usually Amrit is used as part of a multi-modality program. So both Vedic medicine, and I as a Maharishi Ayurveda physician, do not just prescribe Amrit for heart disease. Rather, I advise these patients to meditate and to change their diet and a variety of other things. And even in conventional medicine there are a variety of things that such patients are going to be doing. I recommend that my patients do both types of lifestyle changes. Our intent is to prevent future cardiovascular morbidity and, if possible, induce regression of atherosclerotic heart disease.

Q: Do people come to you with general fatigue or general weakness and say they just want to feel better? They're often feeling listless and depressed. Is that one of the conditions where you would recommend Amrit?

Dr. Elder: Often yes, but if a patient's fatigue is due to an ama-related condition, I might be less likely to use the Nectar Paste at first until the ama condition has been treated. Frequently I will give Amrit Kalash to patients complaining of fatigue, with good results. And I've noticed that the tablets — the Amrit Ambrosia tablets seem to be helpful, particularly for people with symptoms of mental fatigue

Q: Can you explain to our readers what ama is?

Dr. Elder: Ama is a sticky substance which can be understood as digestive toxins. If the digestive fire is weak or the food we eat is unwholesome, we may not digest our food properly. The by-product of this improper digestion is a sticky substance called ama, or digestive toxins that accumulate in the physiology and are the ground floor where disease gets into the body.

Q: And if a person has ama in the physiology, then you would not start with Amrit?

Dr. Elder: I would not start with the Nectar Paste. It's a heavy preparation and has ghee in it. I usually treat the patient with an ama-reducing program for a month or two, and frequently will get results with that and then start the patient on the paste.

Q: So it's like preparing the ground floor of that person to be better prepared to receive the benefit and the goodness of the Nectar?

Dr. Elder: That's a good way to look at it.

Q: How does Amrit work with fatigue?

Dr. Elder: Fatigue is a very common complaint. It's a common experience for patients to be low in energy. I generally make some changes, especially in their diet and routine, and suggest some gentle measures to reduce the ama in their system. After that, I place them on the paste. Over a period of two to three months, with that sequence, many patients will get good results.

Q: What are the comments of people in this regard? When they come back to you after a couple of weeks or months of having used Amrit, what are the general comments you hear from people about it?

Dr. Elder: People notice that they have more energy. And people notice more mental alertness and an overall improved sense of well-being. There are two groups of patients: one group which loves taking the paste because they think it's delicious, and a second group which doesn't always like the taste of the paste. Those patients are usually able to get used to it. If they can't, then sometimes we have to reduce the dose. But those are the types of benefits that people will frequently report to me.

Q: Do you personally take Amrit?

Dr. Elder: I do. I take the paste.

Q: And what is the effect you've noticed in yourself?

Dr. Elder: For me it has somewhat of a calming effect. Amrit represents a convenient and practical way to protect ourselves from toxins. And I think that people today understand that we live in a somewhat dangerous world, with a lot of air pollution and toxins and pesticides in our food and water. Amrit is useful in protecting us from such dangers. And of course I like the taste. Pittas who crave the sweet taste find the paste very enjoyable.

Q: Do you recommend Amrit by body type?

Dr. Elder: Generally not. I use the sugar-free substitute for diabetics. And if someone has a lot of ama, I would be hesitant to use the Amrit Nectar because of the ghee at least until some of the ama has been removed.

Q: Is there any parting comment that you would like to make about Amrit?

Dr. Elder: There's good science behind it, and there's a long history of use. It's safe. And I think that its use will continue and even grow.

The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.