Ayurvedic medicine is one of the world’s oldest systems of healing and is still widely practiced today. Here we do a thorough introduction to the practice of Ayurveda.
·November 8th, 2021
Ayurveda is an ancient medical system dating back thousands of years, focused on finding balance among mind, body, spirit, and the surrounding environment.
Many more modern studies have identified a positive impact of ayurvedic treatment on a range of conditions, but all ayurvedic care is customized to the individual.
Ayurvedic theory focuses on three biological forces called doshas that relate to the elements. Everyone has all doshas, but their relative levels of each vary.
Ayurvedic treatment plans may include dietary modification, mindfulness, exercises, botanical medicines, and lifestyle modifications.
Originating in India, the practice of Ayurveda has a rich history said to span over 5,000 years. Ayurvedic medicine is widely considered to be one of the oldest–if not the oldest–comprehensive systems of medicine existing today, and remains the most prevalent form of healthcare in India and throughout other regions of Asia.
Meaning “knowledge of life” in Sanskrit, Ayurveda is rooted in the concept of universal interconnection and the necessity of balance. With the objective of restoring harmony to a person’s mind, body, spirit, and surrounding environment, this traditional therapy takes a natural and holistic approach to physical and mental healthcare.
Ayurveda places great emphasis on preventative care and maintenance of wellness. Most who practice Ayurvedic medicine consider it to be much more than a form of medicine–it’s a way of life.
What conditions can Ayurveda benefit?
Though Ayurveda is often used as a form of preventive care, it has proven quite effective in the treatment of a wide range of health conditions. These include:
Who should try Ayurveda? What happens at an appointment?
Because the practice of Ayurveda is rooted in the prevention of disease and imbalance, everyone stands to benefit from a consultation with a trained specialist. In fact, scheduling an assessment before you get sick is ideal in order to maintain optimal health.
But what should you expect? Your first appointment with an Ayurvedic medicine provider will be quite different from a visit with your general doctor. Since universal balance is the main objective of Ayurvedic approach, it is important to gather a well rounded understanding of all aspects of your life, along with a thorough understanding of your medical history.
Your practitioner will first take your pulse and examine your tongue. They will note details of your physical attributes, including skin, hair, eyes, and nails; as well as make observations about your movements, energy levels, and speech patterns.
Following your physical examination, you will discuss details about your personal life, including home, work, relationships, diet, exercise, and mental health. Each of these facets provides your practitioner with important insight to identify the cause(s) of current imbalances, susceptibility to particular conditions, and the most appropriate course of care for you.
How is an Ayurvedic medicine diagnosis made?
As a holistic healing system, Ayurveda considers every person as a whole organism–rather than a subset of symptoms. Unlike most modern doctors, an Ayurvedic provider forms a diagnosis and treatment plan based upon each distinctive quality of a patient–in addition to considering symptoms.
One singular part or mechanism cannot be separated from the others because they are all connected, and thus, they all have an effect on one another. As a result, two patients with identical symptoms will likely not receive identical care. In order to understand diagnosis and treatment, it is essential to understand a key foundational concept of Ayurveda: the tridosha theory.
According to Ayurveda, everyone and everything in the universe is made of energy. This energy is composed of five elements–earth, air, water, fire, and space–which combine to form three fundamental, biological forces called doshas. Each human being embodies a different ratio of doshas–Vata, Pitta, and Kapha–typically having one that is more dominant than the others.
A person’s intrinsic balance of these energies gives form to a unique identity and constitution, or prakriti, which remains constant throughout life. These components are responsible for determining the structural anatomy and physiological functionality of your body; and they reveal a lot about you, including physical strengths and weaknesses, personality traits, and mental tendencies.
With this information, your practitioner ascertains a clear depiction of you as a complete entity, and is able to discern your vulnerability to specific imbalances. If one dosha is most prominent–which is the case for most people–its related parts and functions are said to be more prone to imbalance. It is also possible for multiple doshas to be out of balance at any given time.
These imbalances, which exist as either excess or deficiency, are believed to result in poor health. This not only provides an understanding of your predisposition to certain illnesses, but also lends itself to the prediction of your response to specific foods, environments, medications, and other stimuli–which is crucial to the preventative aspect of this traditional therapy.
By considering your emerging symptoms with regard to the features of your established prakriti, your practitioner is able to determine your vikruti: your current state of physical and mental health. Because your prakriti and your vikruti are identical under optimal conditions, your practitioner is now able to propose a course of treatment formulated to restore balance and wellness.
How are doshas balanced?
Though all doshas are present throughout the body, each is recognized as having distinctive parts over which it retains the highest jurisdiction; and each is responsible for the performance of separate primary functions.
Vata • Air + Space
Vata–sometimes referred to as “King of the Doshas”–is the governing force of all biological activity, giving motion to Pitta and Kapha. Vata, mainly present in the lower body and limbs, primarily presides over the large intestines, pelvic region, and ears. Its principal functions are movement–including involuntary activity such as respiration, circulation, heart function, and cell division–and communication.
Those who are classified as Vata-dominant tend to have smaller body frames and cool skin. They are often active, enthusiastic, adaptable, creative, and expressive. They move and learn quickly, but often spread themselves too thin and feel fatigued easily.
An imbalance in Vata is believed to result in anxiety, insomnia, mood fluctuations, dry skin, constipation, poor circulation, tinnitus, hypertension, arthritis, emphysema, and nerve disorders.
Pitta • Fire + Water
Pitta, mainly active in the middle of the body, reigns over the small intestines, stomach, sweat glands, blood, and eyes. Pitta controls all processes of conversion and transformation throughout the mind and body, including metabolism, hormones, emotions, and perception.
People with Pitta as their primary dosha are likely to have muscular builds, with strong digestion, balanced hormones, and warm skin. Pitta types often have fiery, ambitious personalities; and are naturally athletic, intellectual, organized, focused. Imbalance leads to anger, jealousy, and inflated ego; which physically manifest as inflammation, digestive problems, acne and skin irritation, migraines, dry or bloodshot eyes, heartburn, and bleeding disorders.
Kapha • Earth + Water
Kapha predominates in the upper body, mainly active in the chest, lungs, and spinal fluid. It facilitates structure, stability, growth, and lubrication; and is responsible for carrying nutrients, providing immunity, and supporting tissues and joints. As the only dosha including the element of earth, Kapha is unifying and grounding of Vata and Pitta.
Those with dominance in this constitution are known to have solid and strong frames, pronounced features, smooth skin, and strong immune systems. They possess great physical and mental strength and endurance; and tend to move, speak, and digest slowly. Kapha types thrive with routine and structure; and are calm, dependable, and compassionate. When out of balance, kapha can cause depression, lethargy, exaggerated emotional responses, sinus congestion, asthma, gallbladder problems, and diabetes.
Though they have varying responsibilities, each dosha contributes respectively to every process in the body. For instance, after eating a meal, Kapha provides moisture and softens the food, breaking it down into smaller particles; Pitta digests and metabolizes; and Vata keeps everything moving through your system and oversees elimination of waste.
What is typically included in an Ayurveda treatment plan?
Ayurvedic treatment plans encompass a variety of lifestyle adjustments in order to attain whole body health. Practitioners typically consider the attributes of a person’s unique prakriti and make recommendations for detoxification regimens, dietary changes, exercises, and botanical medicines – containing qualities opposite of each imbalance.
For instance, someone with an excess in Pitta should avoid the midday sun in order to quell internal heat. Keeping a regular routine is considered necessary to support harmony among oneself and the surrounding environment, and this routine should account for such factors as season and time of day.
Treatment plans include numerous types of therapy, including yoga, which has been associated with improvements to range of motion, inflammation, stress, cholesterol, pulmonary function, weight management, and asthma. Steam treatments and massage techniques with specially formulated oils are often utilized, which promote circulation, improved sleep and digestion, relief from pain and stress, and accelerated recovery in stroke patients. Acupuncture, though more common in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is sometimes prescribed.
All Ayurvedic practitioners typically advise patients to practice forms of meditation and mindfulness exercises–which a multitude of studies have confirmed to be beneficial in the reduction of chronic pain, anxiety and mood disorders, blood pressure, and heart rate; and are linked with diminished risk of heart attack and stroke. Results also show increased levels of energy and blood flow to the brain–which improves cognition and memory.
The rise in popularity of such treatments and therapies clearly demonstrates a societal shift toward the prioritization of whole body health, prevention, and wellness. This highlights the importance of further scientific study–which has already begun to confirm the effectiveness of many Ayurvedic applications–and increased understanding, in order to facilitate integration with contemporary Western medicine.
Scientific evidence for Ayurveda
From a scientific perspective, the medical viability of Ayurveda was once a mystery. However, advancements in modern research capabilities have made way for a growing body of evidence in favor of the tridosha theory.
Similarities in blood chemistry have been established among dosha types, cholesterol levels, red blood cell count, platelet aggregation–which is crucial to the formation of blood clots–and other factors associated with the development of heart disease. Studies also indicate correlations between doshic constitutions and patterns of brain function related to the regulation of executive function, autonomic (involuntary) function, levels of arousal and relaxation, and emotion–which could prove useful in the study of psychology.
Preliminary investigation has shown promise in the linking of prakriti with specific genetic markers. Prominent phenotype differences have been observed in liver function tests and factors related to immune response. Genetic analysis identifies consistencies in inflammatory genes among doshas, allowing for the detection of predispositions for disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Studies also demonstrate correlations between dosha types and metabolism, enabling researchers to more accurately anticipate optimal medication doses for individual patients. These new discoveries signify immense potential for an increased understanding of biomarkers in relation to complex diseases, beginning to bridge the gap between modern medicine and the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda.
The World Health Organization–which formally recognizes Ayurveda as a traditional system of medicine–has recently announced a partnership with India, involving the establishment of a Global Center for Traditional Medicine in order to “strengthen the evidence, research, training and awareness of traditional and complementary medicine.”
Continued findings could facilitate greater integration of the Ayurvedic principles on a global scale, and potentially bring forth the capability to determine one’s prakriti at the time of birth with the use of genetic testing.
This would be revolutionary in the spheres of personalized medicine and preventative healthcare–exhibiting comprehensible guidelines for providing children with the most suitable lifestyle factors for education, growth, and maintenance of health–which is drastically lacking in contemporary Western medicine today.
Are there risks with Ayurvedic treatments?
Though generally considered safe, with few reports of adverse reactions, there are certain cautions that should be taken for your protection. Ayurvedic practitioners are not currently regulated in the US, so it is important that you be sure to choose a qualified professional with the appropriate training and experience.
Herbal medicine and drugs have the potential for side effects when used improperly, and can cause serious interactions when mixed with other medications. Many herbal treatments have not been thoroughly tested on those who are pregnant, and are not regulated by the FDA. In order to ensure proper dosage and purity of ingredients, it is recommended that these medications only be used only when administered and supervised by a qualified professional.
Be sure to inform your practitioner of your full medical history, all other medical treatments you are receiving, and all medications you are taking (including over the counter and supplements).
It’s a good idea to consult with your doctor regarding all complementary treatments or alternative medicines that you receive. Always check with your doctor before making significant changes to your health management, including dietary changes, or if you experience negative reactions to treatment.