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Ayurveda

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Updated August 13, 2013

What is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda, also known as Ayurvedic Medicine, is the traditional medicine of India, which originated there over 5,000 years ago. Ayurveda emphasizes re-establishing balance in the body through diet, lifestyle, exercise, and body cleansing, and on the health of the mind, body, and spirit.

In North America, Ayurveda is considered a form of alternative medicine. Like traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda is a whole medical system, meaning that it is based on theories of health and illness and on methods of preventing and treating health conditions.

How popular is Ayurveda in the United States?

In the last decade, Ayurveda has been growing in popularity in North America, partly due to the work of Deepak Chopra, M.D., a physician who combines western medicine with Ayurveda.

In 2004, the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCAAM) released the results of a survey of 31,000 people in the United States. Four-tenths of one percent of the respondents had used Ayurveda in the past. One-tenth of one percent of respondents had used Ayurveda in the last year.

What does a typical Ayurvedic assessment involve?

An initial assessment with an Ayurvedic practitioner may last an hour or longer. The practitioner will ask detailed questions about your health, diet and lifestyle. He or she will listen to your pulse. Unlike mainstream medicine, 12 different pulse points are assessed in Ayurveda.

The Ayurvedic practitioner also examines the tongue; its appearance is believed to provide clues about areas of the body that may be out of balance. The appearance of the skin, lips, nails, and eyes is also observed.

After the assessment, the practitioner will determine an individual's unique balance of doshas, or metabolic types. One dosha is usually predominant and may be imbalanced, usually due to poor diet and unhealthy habits.

The practitioner also determines your prakuti, also called your constitution or essential nature. From there, the practitioner can create an individualized treatment plan, which often includes diet, exercise, herbs, yoga, meditation, and massage. The treatment plan generally focuses on restoring balance to one particular dosha.

What are the doshas?

According to Ayurveda, everything is composed of five elements: air, water, fire, earth, and space. These elements combine to form the three doshas, vata, kapha, and pitta, or metabolic types. In Ayurveda, doshas account for some of our individual differences.

The vata dosha is a combination of space and air. It controls movement and is responsible for basic body processes such as breathing, cell division and circulation. Vata body areas are the large intestine, pelvis, bones, skin, ears, and thighs. People with vata as their main dosha are believed to be quick-thinking, thin, and fast, and are susceptible to anxiety, dry skin, and constipation.

The kapha dosha represents the elements of water and earth. Kapha is believed to be responsible for strength, immunity, and growth. Kapha body areas are the chest, lungs, and spinal fluid. People with kapha as their main dosha are thought to be calm, have a solid body frame, and are susceptible to diabetes, obesity, sinus congestion, and gallbladder problems.

The pitta dosha combines fire and water. It is thought to control hormones and the digestive system. Pitta body areas are the small intestines, stomach, sweat glands, skin, blood, and eyes. People with pitta as their primary dosha are thought to have a fiery personality, oily skin, and are susceptible to heart disease, stomach ulcers, inflammation, heartburn, and arthritis.

An imbalanced dosha is believed to interrupt the natural flow of prana, or vital energy. The disrupted energy flow is then thought to impair digestion and allow the build up of body waste, or ama, which further impairs energy and digestion.

What might an Ayurvedic treatment plan involve?

  • Diet: Recommendations are individualized to a person's dosha and the season. Foods can either balance or cause imbalance to each dosha. See a list of foods thought to balance each dosha.
  • Cleansing and detoxification: This may be done through fasting, enemas, diets, and body treatments.
  • Herbal medicine: Examples of Ayurvedic herbs are triphala, ashwaghanda, gotu kola, guggul, and boswellia.
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Exercise: Individualized to a person's constitution
  • Massage: Medicated herbal oils are often used.

How are Ayurvedic practitioners trained?

In India, there are many undergraduate and postgraduate colleges for Ayurveda, where the training can involve up to five years of study.

Outside of India, some people who have been trained in another health profession (e.g. medical doctor, nurse, naturopathic doctor) study Ayurveda before or after their training. Other practitioners attend Ayurvedic college only.

Currently, there are no national standards for the certification training or licensing Ayurvedic practitioners in the United States or Canada.

Because of its growing popularity, Ayurvedic treatments, particularly at spas and salons, are increasingly being performed by people who have not received formal training in Ayurveda. That's why if you are interested in consulting with an Ayurvedic practitioner, it is important to seek a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner and learn about his training.

Are there any potential concerns with using Ayurvedic medicine?

  • According to NCAAM, in 2004, 14 out of 70 Ayurvedic herbal remedies tested were found to contain lead, mercury, and/or arsenic at potentially harmful levels. All products were manufactured in South Asia.
  • In the same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received 12 reports of lead poisoning linked to the use of Ayurvedic herbal products.
  • A lack of research exists on the effectiveness, safety, side effects, and potential drug interactions of Ayurvedic herbal products. Although some research has been done, there have generally been problems with the design of the studies.
  • In North America, the use of traditional Ayurvedic practices, such as emesis, enemas, and blood cleansing, is considered highly controversial and the safety of such practices is unknown.

What should people do if they are considering or using Ayurveda?

  • Talk with your doctor first if you are considering Ayurveda for a health condition.
  • Ayurveda should complement, not replace, conventional care. If you are experiencing any new symptoms, consult your doctor as a first step.
  • Consult a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner, rather than trying to treat yourself with Ayurvedic products.

  • Be sure the Ayurvedic practitioner knows your full health history and is aware of all medications you are taking.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead poisoning associated with Ayurvedic medications--five states, 2000-2003. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 53.26(2004):582-584.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Lead Toxicity: Physiologic Effects. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Web site. 29 March 2007 <http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HEC/CSEM/lead/physiologic_effects.html>.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, "What is Ayurvedic Medicine?." National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. October 2005. National Institutes of Health. 28 Mar 2007 <http://nccam.nih.gov/health/ayurveda/>.

Saper RB, Kales SN, Paquin J, et al. Heavy metal content of Ayurvedic herbal medicine products. Journal of the American Medical Association. 293.23(2004):2868-2873.

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