What Is Ayurveda? Ayurvedic Medicine Benefits, Doshas, Treatment & More
People living in India have relied on traditional Ayurvedic medicine practices to help heal everything from infertility to digestive issues for centuries. Luckily, in recent years — as complementary and alternative health practices have become more popular across the world — Ayurveda has been enjoying a major worldwide resurgence.
What is the aim of Ayurvedic treatment? The main goal of Ayurvedic medicine is to help people live long, healthy and balanced lives without the need for prescription drugs, complicated surgeries or suffering through painful diseases.
In fact, the very word Ayurveda means something in Sanskrit similar to “life span build on knowledge” or “science of life.”
What Is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that’s truly stood the test of time. First originating in the Vedic culture of India, it’s actually considered by many to be the oldest healing science there is.
What is meant by “Ayurvedic medicine”? This system is based on the premise that there are three doshas:
Another core belief of Ayurveda is that disease and illness originate from an imbalance in the three energies and a disconnect from nature.
What is your Ayurvedic body type? It depends on things like your body composition, metabolism, digestion and other factors.
According to a report published by University of Maryland Medical Center, Ayurvedic medicine and an appropriate Ayurvedic diet can help treat inflammatory, hormonal, digestive and autoimmune problems, including:
- Anxiety or depression
- Certain types of cancer
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- Dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation)
- High blood pressure or cholesterol
- Parkinson’s disease
- Perimenopausal problems
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and cramps
Ayurvedic herbs, practices and recommendations have also been shown to be helpful in:
- treating acne
- relieving chronic constipation or irritable bowel syndrome
- fighting chronic fatigue syndrome
- reducing pain
- lowering obesity risk
How Does Ayurvedic Medicine Work?
One of the core principles of Ayurveda, and what makes it stand apart from Western medicine, is that it takes into account “bio-individuality” and a patient’s entire body-mind-spirit connection.
Rather than treating symptoms with drugs and ignoring the underlying problems, this system aims to look at the root causes of diseases and how they are related to a person’s thoughts, beliefs and lifestyle — in other words, a person’s “vital energy.”
What’s especially of interest to researchers studying traditional healing symptoms like Ayurveda is the power of the mind and its connection to the body. Since various studies have acknowledged that beliefs surely have the ability to change someone’s health, even after controlling for placebos, new health models are beginning to focus more on including the mind and its interaction with the body as a primary lever of curing diseases.
Better controlling stress seems to be one of the primary benefits of Ayurveda, according to a Western medical viewpoint. We know that chronic stress can ruin your quality of life, and lower stress levels are correlated with better health, longevity, weight management and overall happiness.
Other things that play a role in healing with Ayurvedic medicine include:
- natural herbs
- better sleep
Ayurvedic practitioners use a well-balanced diet, lifestyle changes, stress relief and various herbal remedies to heal all sorts of conditions by helping bring the body back into balance.
The overall belief is that disease and suffering result from an imbalance in the three doshas, which are ways of categorizing the body’s three basic energy types: Vata, Pitta and Kapha.
According to Ayurvedic medicine, everyone is unique in terms of his or her individual balance between these three energy (or personality) types. Everyone has some Vata, Pitta and Kapha to her or his personality, but usually one or two of the doshas are more dominant in a particular person — and this ultimately governs body type, appetite, energy levels, moods and tendencies.
Unlike the one-size-fits-all approach to Western medical treatment that fails to address the huge diversity among patients, Ayurveda takes into account individuality when prescribing holistic treatments.
As the Center for Rheumatic Diseases located in Prune, India, describes it:
Every creation inclusive of a human being is a model of the universe. In this model, the basic matter and the dynamic forces (Dosha) of the nature determine health and disease, and the medicinal value of any substance (plant and mineral). The Ayurvedic practices (chiefly that of diet, lifestyle and the Panchkarama) aim to maintain the Dosha equilibrium … therapy is customized to the individual’s constitution (known as Prakruti).
What are the three Ayurvedic body types?
- Vata — Vata energy is often said to be like the wind. It’s primarily in charge of mobility, motion, circulation, breathing and other essential body functions. Vata types are known to be creative and energetic when they’re in balance but fearful, stressed and “scatter-brained” when they’re not. Physically, Vata types are usually on the thin side, have smaller bones and tend not to put on weight easily. They also might be cold a lot of the time, have delicate digestive systems and have dry, sensitive skin.
- Pitta — Pitta is the energy force that governs most metabolic activity, including digestion, absorption of nutrients, body temperature and energy expenditure. Pitta types tend to be smart, hard-working and driven (even competitive) when in balance but can be overly angry and aggressive when they’re not. They tend to have a medium build, be athletic, and are versatile in terms of putting on weight or muscle.
- Kapha — Kapha controls growth in the body and is considered the nourishing dosha. It supplies moisturize to the cells and organs and helps keep a strong immune system. Kaphas are known for being grounded, supportive, loving and forgiving when in balance — almost like a motherly type. However, they can also be lazy, insecure, envious and sad when they’re not in balance.
The most important aspects of restoring balance of the doshas in Ayurveda are:
- Not letting one type become overly dominant and another to become ignored.
- Tuning in to the natural rhythms of your body.
- Bringing your lifestyle into sync with nature and its cyclical patterns. This includes lining up your activity level, food choices, sleep and so on with the time of day, seasons and for women even their menstrual cycles.
- Restoring a healthy circadian rhythm (aka your “internal clock”), which benefits everything from your hormones to appetite.
What is an Ayurveda test?
In order to help rebalance your doshas, an Ayurvedic practitioner will take your medical history, check your vital signs, like your pulse and reflexes, examine your body, look inside your mouth at your gums and tongue, and speak to you about your sleep and relationships.
All of these factors help the practitioner first determine your primary dosha, then figure out which aspects of the doshas might be out of balance — for example, if you’re overworking, under-sleeping or not consuming enough nutrients.
How effective is Ayurvedic medicine? Does Ayurveda actually work?
1. Helps Lower Stress and Anxiety
Because stress is related to nearly every aspect of overall health, an Ayurvedic medicine practitioner might call for a number of different techniques used to naturally treat anxiety and depression symptoms, lower cortisol levels, and support balance of the body’s hormones or “energy.”
Stress-relieving techniques can include:
- breathing exercises
- herbal treatments
- skin brushing
- repeating inspirational mantras
Studies have found that transcendental meditation, a component of one branch of Ayurveda called Maharishi, helps lower symptoms of anxiety with regular practice. Pranayama, a series of various targeted breathing exercises, also helps calm nerves and results in better energy, restful sleep and improved hormonal function.
While yoga isn’t always necessarily included in someone’s recovery plan, it, too, offers well-documented benefits for reducing stress and anxiety.
Over the past several decades, efforts have been underway to help find non-pharmacologic therapies to relieve stress and anxiety. Ayurveda yoga has been shown to be a simple, low-cost and effective option for many people.
One large-scale review including findings from 25 trials showed significant improvements in signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety. Some researchers believe that Ayurveda may promote neuroadaptability, which is the ability of the nervous system to alter responsiveness over time to reoccurring stressors and stimuli.
Other research shows that regular yoga practice can improve autonomic nervous functions by triggering neuro-hormonal mechanisms and suppressing sympathetic activity, also called the body’s “fight or flight” response. Several reports even suggest that gentle exercise and stretching are beneficial for physical health of cancer patients and can effectively fight free radical damage.
2. Lowers Blood Pressure and Cholesterol
Why is Ayurveda effective for lowering risk factors for heart disease? Studies have shown that an Ayurvedic eating plan and relaxation techniques can lower hypertension, inflammation and help reduce plaque buildup, even reversing the thickening of artery walls known as atherosclerosis in both healthy adults and those with a higher risk for heart disease.
An Ayurveda diet eating plan includes plenty of foods that support heart health, such as vegetables, legumes, herbs and spices.
Atherosclerosis is a slow, complex disease in which cholesterol, fats and other substances build up in the inner lining of an artery, forming plaque, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Thankfully, Ayurvedic techniques lower cholesterol naturally and naturally lower blood pressure.
3. Helps with Recovery from Injuries and Illnesses
Research supports the idea of the Ayurvedic concept of immune modulation and healing. By targeting inflammation, which is the root of most diseases, Ayurvedic medicine can help lower pain and swelling, improve blood flow, and fight inflammatory conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology found that after comparing classic Ayurveda, prescription drug treatment with methotrexate and a combination of the two in a double-blind, randomized trial, all groups were comparable at healing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in adults over a 36-week period. Adverse effects were also fewer in the Ayurveda-only group, which experienced significant improvements and no side effects or drug interactions.
Ayurveda is also especially helpful in detoxing the body using various herbs, teas, healthy foods and plenty of rest. Certain practices also increase circulation and liver function — for example, Abhyanga is the practice of rubbing the skin with herbal or essential oils to increase blood flow and help draw toxins.
Ayurveda practitioners might also prescribe various herbs that help lower cortisol, such as holy basil or ashwagandha.
Additionally, some research suggests that Ayurvedic medicine may support immune function in a way that helps people overcome viruses and infections, potentially even serious illnesses.
4. Promotes a Nutrient-Dense, Antioxidant-Rich Diet
Ayurvedic medicine promotes a mostly plant-based diet filled with a variety of real, whole foods. While each person’s eating plan depends on body type and needs, Ayurvedic diets for the three different dosha types all include various fresh herbs, spices, teas, vegetables, healthy fats, high-antioxidant foods and protein.
General dietary guidelines of Ayurveda emphasize consuming fresh, hot and easy-to-digest foods, while taking into account several variations that depend on someone’s ancestry, customs and traditions. For example, Ayurveda practitioners consider social, geographic and climatic variables when prescribing an eating plan to balance the doshas.
In coastal areas, cooling and detoxifying fermented foods are common. For example, pickled, probiotic-rich foods are prescribed to help with digestion and temperature regulation.
In other regions, and during colder parts of the year, healthy fats and hot foods are emphasized more to help warm the body and promote better circulation.
5. Can Help with Weight Loss or Maintenance
While fast weight loss isn’t necessarily the primary goal, Ayurvedic medicine can help someone shed excess weight naturally using stress reduction, inclusion of certain foods and even essential oils for weight loss.
A 2009 study conducted by the NutriHealth Systems Center in New Delhi, India, found that adjusting someone’s healthy diet to take into account individual food preferences and needs helped participants lose weight effectively. This is likely because Ayurveda promotes compliance and believes that a diet should be balanced, practical and easy to follow.
Among the 200 subjects, 27.5 percent were Vatta with lean body types, 41.5 percent were Pitta with medium body types and 31 percent were Kapha-dominant with larger body types. At the beginning, Kapha and Pitta people weighed more than Vatta people.
After the three months of therapy, the Pitta group lost the most weight. The decrease in all measurements was higher in Pitta and Dapha people than in Vatta individuals, and the diets based on Ayurvedic constitution proved to be useful in promoting weight loss for those who needed it.
6. Lowers Inflammation
Ayurvedic medicine rests on the assumption that a combination of a poor food choices, bad digestion, not enough rest or sleep, and insufficient air (vaayu) inhaled cause oxidative stress and inflammation. This results in an imbalance in metabolism — in other words in the three doshas.
The focus of Ayurvedic healing looks at using various ways of reducing inflammation with hopes of regulating the heart and circulatory system, digestive tract, and the means of elimination of wastes. People are prescribed a combination of herbal treatments, antioxidants, exercise that is gentle but boosts metabolism and circulation, and a combination of phytochemicals from natural herbs.
By addressing many factors, including stress, individual food intolerances, overstimulation and a lack of nutrients, many people experience lower levels of inflammation and increased energy and healing. Studies also show that Ayurveda can support metabolic health and lower incidence of type 2 diabetes.
Researchers have found that one benefit of Ayurveda is the belief that one herb or one drug alone cannot cure the imbalance of doshas for everyone. Therefore, in most of the cases, Ayurveda practitioners recommend a combination of herbs and plants or staple foods for different inflammatory treatments.
A good example is the ancient recommendation for an herbal formulation of beneficial turmeric in combination with black pepper.
Studies have found this mixture together increases the bioavailibilty of beneficial compounds, reduces toxicity tied to accumulation of heavy metals and speeds healing.
7. Helps with Hormonal Balance
People have turned to Ayurveda to balance hormones naturally, conceive, and have a healthy, natural pregnancy or menstrual cycle for thousands of years.
Studies have even shown that various therapeutic effects of Ayurveda have been effective in helping to treat sub-fertility due to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a common endocrine disorder in women of reproductive age, resulting from insulin resistance and hormonal imbalances.
One found that using essential oils to balance hormones, herbal treatments and lifestyle changes daily for a six-month period resulted in 85 percent of the female patients successfully overcoming PCOS and 75 percent of the patients being able to naturally conceive.
Ayurveda treatment regimens have also helped women for centuries overcome:
- absent periods (amenorrhea) or infrequent menstruation
- irregular periods
- infrequent or no ovulation
- multiple immature follicles
- increased levels of male hormones
- thinning hair
- excess facial and body hair growth
- various symptoms of PMS, including acne
Is It Safe?
Is Ayurvedic banned in USA? No, it’s considered a complementary and alternative system of medicine.
Considering Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced for thousands of years, it’s generally considered to be very safe. However, there is some concern over the risk of toxicity when using certain Ayurveda formulations and herbs, which are not closely regulated and may possibly contain harmful substances like heavy metals.
It’s important to find a reliable Ayurvedic practitioner who has completed formal training, especially if the practitioner recommends herbs or other natural medicines for you to try. Always purchase preparations from a reputable source.
Keep in mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate Ayurvedic products and states that some may be “potentially harmful” due to contamination, such as with lead and mercury.
To prevent adverse effects, don’t use Ayurvedic medicine to postpone seeing a conventional health care provider. Talk to your doctor about any Ayurvedic products you intend to use if you take medications.
For more information on finding a practitioner who has credentials, see the NCCIH fact sheet for credentialing, licensing and education.
- Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient Indian medical system that is based on natural and holistic approaches to promoting physical and mental health. Today it’s considered a complementary/alternative practice in countries such as the U.S.
- What does Ayurveda practice? It takes into account bio-individuality and a patient’s entire body-mind-spirit connection. According to Ayurvedic medicine, everyone is unique in terms of his or her individual balance between three energy (or personality) types called doshas.
- Ayurvedic practitioners use a well-balanced healthy diet, lifestyle changes, stress relief and various herbal remedies to treat all sorts of conditions by helping bring the body back into balance.
- This system may help treat issues such as arthritis, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, hormonal imbalances, autoimmune conditions, anxiety or depression, allergies, fatigue, and high blood pressure and cholesterol.