Ayurveda is an ancient healing system that originated in India at least 5,000 years ago. Considered by some to be the oldest medical system in the world, Ayurveda is a form of holistic medicine that encompasses a broad range of therapies to restore balance in your body in order to prevent illness and promote wellness.
Though still considered an “alternative” treatment in the United States, Ayurveda is catching on and being embraced among Americans looking for a healing system that addresses the whole person and seeks to treat disease by identifying and addressing the underlying, foundational causes of illness.
More than 200,000 Americans used Ayurvedic medicine in the previous year, according to a 2007 National Health Interview Survey. For comparison, nearly 80 percent of people in India use Ayurveda either exclusively or combined with Western medicine.1
What Makes Ayurveda Different From Allopathic Medicine?
Think of your body as a sunflower that is losing its petals prematurely. In allopathic medicine, the solution would be to provide drugs or a surgical procedure to keep the petals in place. In Ayurvedic medicine, attention is given to the environment in which the plant is growing, the nutrients in the soil, the water quality and other potential stresses to determine why the flower is losing its petals.
Various therapies are then used to help address the underlying causes of the problem. Many of these techniques are so old that they pre-date written records and were only “recorded” by word of mouth passed down through the generations.
The term itself, Ayurveda, is a combination of the Sanscrit words ayur (life) and veda (knowledge or science), which means “the science or knowledge of life.” As reported by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the main texts of Ayurvedic medicine were written more than 2,000 years ago and include eight areas of treatment:2
- 1. Internal medicine
- 2. Surgery
- 3. Treatment of head and neck disease
- 4. Gynecology, obstetrics, and pediatrics
- 5. Toxicology
- 6. Psychiatry
- 7. Care of the elderly and rejuvenation
- 8. Sexual vitality
Ayurvedic Principles: Your Body is Interconnected With the Universe and Your Mind
In Ayurveda, your body is viewed as an individual with a unique pattern of energy, but one that is heavily influenced and interconnected with its environment. The elements of the universe all exist in your body and it’s thought that disease occurs when you are not interacting with the universe in a natural, harmonious way (the way other animals and plants do).
Likewise, your body and your mind are very much intertwined, and if your mind and body are not in harmony, disease can also result.
Other factors that influence your propensity for health or disease are your:
- Prakriti (constitution): Your prakriti is your body’s ability to function and carry out important processes like digestion and waste removal. It encompasses both physical and psychological characteristics and remains steady throughout your life.
- Doshas (life forces): Your body has three energy types, or doshas, which make up part of your prakriti. Each dosha helps control certain body functions and is influenced by physical and emotional traits as well as lifestyle factors.
Balancing Your Doshas
An important part of Ayurveda is learning how to balance your doshas, as it’s believed an imbalance can lead to disease. While everyone has three doshas (each of which is based on basic elements), one or two are usually dominant:
- Vata (air and wind): Controls basic and important body functions like breathing, heartbeat, and blood circulation. Fear and anxiety can result when vata is out of balance, creativity results when in harmony. A dominant vata is thought to make you susceptible to certain conditions, including heart disease, anxiety, insomnia, and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Pitta (fire and sun): Controls metabolic systems such as digestion as well as hormones. When dominant, pitta can lead to anger and heartburn, and may predispose you to high blood pressure and infectious disease. When balanced, pitta contributes to intelligence and feelings of contentment.
- Kapha (water and earth): Controls growth, strength and immunity, which can be upset by eating too many sweets, overeating, and negative emotions, such as greed. When dominant, kapha can lead to feelings of insecurity and envy, and may predispose you to diabetes, cancer, obesity and asthma. When balanced, kapha contributes to love and forgiveness.
Ayurvedic medicine takes into account your constitution as well as your doshas and seeks to first identify your primary dosha, then bring them back into balance.
What Types of Treatments Does Ayurveda Use?
Many Ayurvedic treatments are lifestyle based, often relating to diet, stress, family relationships and toxin exposures. The treatment will not only help you to reduce symptoms and prevent disease, but will also involve detoxification and eliminating impurities from your body.
Many treatment programs involve a variety of the following methods:
- Breathing exercises
- Mantras (repeated phrases or words that may help with emotional or spiritual health) and/or meditation
- Dietary changes
- Massage (often in combination with herbal oils)
- Supplements and herbal medicines or tonics
The use of herbs and other plants is an important part of Ayurveda. As NCCAM notes, “Currently, more than 600 herbal formulas and 250 single plant drugs are included in the “pharmacy” of Ayurvedic treatments.” For instance:
- Turmeric: The active compound in turmeric, curcumin, has powerful antioxidant properties and promotes healthy cellular division, particularly in your GI tract. It also supports liver detoxification, healthy immune response and promotes joint flexibility.
- Ashwaganda (aka Indian Ginseng and Winter Cherry): May help relieve stress, support restful sleep and build vitality and sexual energy.
- Brahmi: Supports brain and nervous system health, and may help relieve mental fatigue and enhance memory
It’s important to be careful when using herbal Ayurvedic treatments and only purchase high quality suppplements, as heavy metals including lead, mercury and arsenic have been found in many supplements. You should discuss any herbal remedies you’re taking with your physician as well, as some may interact with other medications or supplements you’re taking.
What Does the Research Say?
Modern research into Ayurveda is limited, but certain studies do appear promising.
One study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found Ayurvedic medicine may be useful for managing obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Researchers stated:
“The theoretical background and comprehensive set of strategies Ayurveda utilizes to treat Prameha [a set of complex clinical disorders characterized by frequent abnormal urination] may be valuable in managing obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes mellitus in an efficacious and cost-effective manner.”3
Separate research that examined the effects of Ayurvedic medicine, the drug methotrexate, or a combination of the two for rheumatoid arthritis found that Ayurvedic worked just as well as drug treatment, with significantly fewer adverse events.4 And yet another study revealed numerous potential benefits of Ayurvedic medicine for inflammatory conditions, noting:
“We found that Ayurveda, a science of long life, almost 6,000 years old, can serve as a “goldmine” for novel anti-inflammatory agents used for centuries to treat chronic diseases.”5
If you are interested in Ayurvedic medicine, look for a practitioner who has undergone extensive training. In India, this training can take five years or more, and some of these practitioners choose to practice in the United States. There is no national standard for Ayurvedic training within the United States, although certain states do have Ayurvedic schools. So when choosing a practitioner, ask about their educational background and, if possible, get references.
You can also seek practitioners who meet the standards of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, a national organization representing the Ayurvedic profession in the United States.
1, 2. .National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Ayurvedic Medicine
3. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Jun;17(6):549-52.
4. J Clin Rheumatol. 2011 Jun;17(4):185-92.
5. Curr Drug Targets. 2011 May 11.