Ayurveda is a healing system that treats the whole person – the integration of body, mind, and spirit – rather than simply treating individual symptoms. Ayurvedic medicine uses a variety of products and practices. Ayurvedic products can be made either of herbs only or a combination of herbs, metals, minerals, or other materials in an Ayurvedic practice called rasa shastra.
Source: The Chopra Center
Q: What is Ayurveda?
A: Ayurveda is a system of preventive medicine and health care that developed in India more than 5,000 years ago. The word Ayurveda comes from two Sanskrit root words: Ayus, or “life,” and Veda, meaning “knowledge” or “science.” Ayurveda is therefore usually translated as “the science of life.” However, a more precise translation would be “the knowledge of the lifespan.” Ayurveda offers practical tools, insights, and information for living in balance and health, without interference from illness.
Q: Is Ayurveda a form of holistic medicine?
A: Yes. Ayurveda is a healing system that treats the whole person – the integration of body, mind, and spirit – rather than simply treating individual symptoms. For instance, we know that ongoing stress damages our immune system, and when the immune system is weakened, we are more vulnerable to disease and illness. We also know that when our mind experiences pleasure, our brain releases healing chemicals to our entire body, creating feelings of happiness and well-being as well as promoting health.
Ayurveda takes holistic medicine a step further, treating people not as isolated individuals but as an inextricable part of the whole universe. In India’s ancient Vedic tradition, there is an underlying intelligence that flows through and connects everyone and everything in the universe. Ayurveda sees life as the exchange of energy and information between individuals and their extended body – the environment. If our environment is nourishing, we thrive; if our environment is toxic; we may become sick. Therefore, learning how to eliminate toxicity and surround ourselves with a healing environment is the key to health.
Q: How is Ayurveda different from conventional Western medicine?
A: In contrast with conventional medicine, which has devoted a lot of effort to isolating the differences among various diseases, Ayurveda focuses on the unique qualities of individuals, pointing out that diseases differ mainly because people are so different.
Ayurveda teaches that all health-related measures — whether an exercise program, dietary plan or herbal supplement — must be based on an understanding of an individual’s unique mind-body constitution or dosha. By knowing a patient’s dosha, an Ayurvedic doctor can tell which diet, physical activities, and medical therapies are most likely to help, and which might do no good or even cause harm.
In addition, while Western medicine has tended to treat the symptoms of disease, Ayurveda seeks to eliminate illness by treating the underlying cause. For example, for a patient suffering from depression, an allopathic physician would likely prescribe a standard course of antidepressants and, perhaps, therapy.
An Ayurvedic doctor, on the other hand, would seek to understand the root imbalances contributing to the depression. The doctor would look at the patient as a whole, taking into consideration his or lifestyle, activities, diet, recent stressful events, beliefs, and mind-body constitution. The Ayurvedic practitioner would then recommend a treatment plan taking all of these factors into account.
Ayurveda doesn’t reject the use of antidepressants and other prescription medications – in fact, Ayurveda’s central principle is that we should make use of whatever healing modalities will restore health and balance to the body, including herbal remedies, dietary changes, pharmaceutical medications, meditation, exercise, psychotherapy, and so on…continue reading at The Chopra Center
Ayurvedic Medicine: An Introduction
Ayurvedic medicine (also called Ayurveda) is one of the world’s oldest medical systems. It originated in India more than 3,000 years ago and remains one of the country’s traditional health care systems. Its concepts about health and disease promote the use of herbal compounds, special diets, and other unique health practices. India’s government and other institutes throughout the world support clinical and laboratory research on Ayurvedic medicine, within the context of the Eastern belief system. But Ayurvedic medicine is not widely studied as part of conventional (Western) medicine. This fact sheet provides a general overview of Ayurvedic medicine and suggests sources for additional information.
The term “Ayurveda” combines the Sanskrit words ayur (life) and veda (science or knowledge). Ayurvedic medicine, as practiced in India, is one of the oldest systems of medicine in the world. Many Ayurvedic practices predate written records and were handed down by word of mouth. Three ancient books known as the Great Trilogy were written in Sanskrit more than 2,000 years ago and are considered the main texts on Ayurvedic medicine—Caraka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and Astanga Hridaya.
Key concepts of Ayurvedic medicine include universal interconnectedness (among people, their health, and the universe), the body’s constitution (prakriti), and life forces (dosha), which are often compared to the biologic humors of the ancient Greek system. Using these concepts, Ayurvedic physicians prescribe individualized treatments, including compounds of herbs or proprietary ingredients, and diet, exercise, and lifestyle recommendations.
The majority of India’s population uses Ayurvedic medicine exclusively or combined with conventional Western medicine, and it is practiced in varying forms in Southeast Asia.
Safety of Ayurvedic Medicine
Ayurvedic medicine uses a variety of products and practices. Ayurvedic products can be made either of herbs only or a combination of herbs, metals, minerals, or other materials in an Ayurvedic practice called rasa shastra. Some of these products may be harmful if used improperly or without the direction of a trained practitioner.
- Ayurvedic products have the potential to be toxic. Many materials used in them have not been studied for safety in controlled clinical trials. In the United States, Ayurvedic products are regulated as dietary supplements. As such, they are not required to meet the same safety and effectiveness standards as conventional medicines. For more information on dietary supplement regulations, see the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s (NCCAM) fact sheet Using Dietary Supplements Wisely.
- In 2008, an NCCAM-funded study examined the content of 193 Ayurvedic products purchased over the Internet and manufactured in either the United States or India. The researchers found that 21 percent of the products contained levels of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic that exceeded the standards for acceptable daily intake.
Other approaches used in Ayurvedic medicine, such as massage, special diets, and cleansing techniques may have side effects as well. To help ensure coordinated and safe care, it is important to tell all your health care providers about any Ayurvedic products and practices or other complementary health approaches you use.
Use in the United States
According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health practices by Americans, more than 200,000 U.S. adults had used Ayurveda in the previous year.
The Status of Ayurvedic Medicine Research
Most clinical trials of Ayurvedic approaches have been small, had problems with research designs, or lacked appropriate control groups, potentially affecting research results.
- Researchers have studied Ayurvedic approaches for schizophrenia and for diabetes; however, scientific evidence for its effectiveness for these diseases is inconclusive.
- A preliminary clinical trial in 2011, funded in part by NCCAM, found that conventional and Ayurvedic treatments for rheumatoid arthritis had similar effectiveness. The conventional drug tested was methotrexate and the Ayurvedic treatment included 40 herbal compounds.
- Ayurvedic practitioners use turmeric for inflammatory conditions, among other disorders. Evidence from clinical trials show that turmeric may help with certain digestive disorders and arthritis, but the research is limited.
- Varieties of boswellia (Boswellia serrata, Boswellia carterii, also known as frankincense) produce a resin that has shown anti-inflammatory and immune system effects in laboratory studies. A 2011 preliminary clinical trial found that osteoarthritis patients receiving a compound derived from B. serrata gum resin had greater decreases in pain compared to patients receiving a placebo.
No states in the United States license Ayurvedic practitioners, although a few have approved Ayurvedic schools. Many Ayurvedic practitioners are licensed in other health care fields, such as midwifery or massage.
If You Are Thinking About Using Ayurvedic Medicine
- Do not use Ayurvedic medicine to replace conventional care or to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem.
- Women who are pregnant or nursing, or people who are thinking of using Ayurvedic approaches to treat a child, should consult their (or their child’s) health care provider.
Tell all your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help to ensure coordinated and safe care.
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- Barnes PM, Bloom B, Nahin R. Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults and children: United States, 2007. (361KB PDF) CDC National Health Statistics Report #12. 2008.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead poisoning in pregnant women who used Ayurvedic medications from India—New York City, 2011-2012. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2012; 61(33):641–646.
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- Goldblatt E, Snider P, Quinn S, et al. Clinicians’ and Educators’ Desk Reference on the Licensed Complementary and Alternative Healthcare Professions. Seattle, WA: Academic Consortium for Complementary and Alternative Health Care; 2009.
- Saper RB, Kales SN, Paquin J, et al. Lead, mercury, and arsenic in U.S.- and Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic medicines sold via the Internet. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2008;300(8):915–923.
- Shankar K, Liao LP. Traditional systems of medicine. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America. 2004;15(4):725–747.
- Sridharan K, Mohan R, Ramaratnam S, et al. Ayurvedic treatments for diabetes mellitus. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2011;(12):CD008288. Accessed at www.thecochranelibrary.com on July 15, 2013.
NCCAM thanks Wendy Weber, N.D., Ph.D., M.P.H, and John (Jack) Killen, Jr., M.D., NCCAM for their review of the 2013 update of this fact sheet.
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