While most people squirm at the thought of blood sucking leeches, Ayurvedic medicine has had an obsession with these creatures for centuries. Leeches are a critical player in an age old form of Ayurvedic detoxification known as Rakta Moksha i.e. the letting of toxic blood. The technique, drawn from ancient Ayurvedic scriptures such as the Charak Samhita and the Sushrut Samhita has been a stronghold of Indian village medicine for centuries, says Dr. O.P. Singh of Banaras Hindu University, India’s renowned Ayurvedic educational institution.
The practice of rakta moksha using leeches has diminished considerably in Ayurvedic education and practice. Although university level courses are required to teach the theoretical aspects of this therapy, many do not offer practical education. But this is not a method that can be taught via chalk and blackboard; it takes dedicated time and patience to become well versed with species of leeches that not only suck infected blood but also salivate an enzyme called hirudin which has a therapeutic effect on toxic blood clots.
While interning at Vaidya Paranjpe’s clinic in Mumbai, I was trained to care for the leeches as much as for the patient. Identifying the species was a challenge in itself: it took months to learn how to distinguish between low-lying swamp varieties versus the specific medicinal varieties used for therapy. Disinfecting the leeches in in turmeric water was an essential precursor to applying them onto the patient’s infected body part. The application in itself was easier said than done; on one hand I had to deal with the temperament of the patient and on the other hand with the temperament of the leeches. I remember struggling in vain one day to attach a ‘stubborn’ leech to a patient but no amount of coaxing could convince the particular leech to do so!
Once attached, a leech can suck approximately 10 ml of blood in approximately 30 minutes to an hour after which it automatically detaches from the body of the host. The infected body part of the patient is dusted with Mulhathi powder while the blood sucking leech is cleansed in turmeric once again to allow the organism to ‘vomit’ the diseased human blood sucked from host’s body.
Traditional Ayurvedic doctors who practice this form of detox are sometimes difficult to seek out as even today they tend to reside in rural India. The good news is that there is a renaissance in leech therapy is some of the more established Ayurvedic institutions. Banaras Hindu University is using leech therapy to cure diseases associated with aging including paralysis, hair loss and osteo-arthritis. And if that’s not hip enough, then consider the fact that celebrities like Demi Moore are swearing by leech therapy to keep themselves toxin free and youthful.
Now did you ever fathom that blood-sucking worms could meet your style and anti-aging needs?