Ayurvedic medicine — also known as Ayurveda — is one of the world’s oldest holistic (whole-body) healing systems. It was developed thousands of years ago in India.

It is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit. The primary focus of Ayurvedic medicine is to promote good health, rather than fight disease. But treatments may be recommended for specific health problems.In the U.S., Ayurveda is considered a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

Ayurveda Concepts

According to Ayurvedic theory, everything in the universe — living or not — is connected. Good health is achieved when your mind, body, and spirit are in harmony with the universe. A disruption of this harmony can lead to poor health and sickness.

For followers of Ayurveda, anything that affects your physical, spiritual, or emotional well-being can cause you to be out of balance with the universe. Some things that can cause a disruption include:

  • Genetic or birth defects
  • Injuries
  • Climate and seasonal changes
  • Age
  • Emotions

How your body works to keep you healthy and your unique physical and psychological characteristics combine to form your body’s constitution, or prakriti. Your prakriti is believed to stay the same for your entire life. However, how you digest food and eliminate waste can influence it.

Every person is made of a combination of five basic elements found in the universe:

  • Space
  • Air
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Earth

These elements combine in the human body to form three life forces or energies, called doshas. They control how your body works. The three doshas are:

  • Vata dosha (space and air)
  • Pitta dosha (fire and water)
  • Kapha dosha (water and earth)

Everyone inherits a unique mix of the three doshas. One dosha is usually more dominant. Each dosha controls a different body function. It is believed that your chances of getting sick are linked to the balance of your doshas.

Vata Dosha
Vata dosha (space and air) is thought to be the most powerful of all three doshas. It controls very basic body functions, such as how cells divide. It also controls your:
Blood flow
Heart function
Ability to get rid of body waste through the intestines

Things that can disrupt this dosha are:

Eating dry fruit
Eating too soon after a previous meal
Staying up too late

Pitta Dosha

The pitta dosha (fire and water) controls:
Ability to break down foods (metabolism)
Certain hormones linked to appetite

Things that can disrupt this dosha are:
Eating sour foods
Eating spicy foods
Spending too much time in the sun
If pitta dosha is your main life force, you are more likely to develop:
Anger and negative emotions
Crohn’s disease
Heart disease
Heartburn a few hours after eating
High blood pressure
Kapha Dosha
The kapha dosha (water and earth) controls:
Muscle growth
Body strength and stability
Immune system
Things that can disrupt this dosha are:
Daytime sleeping
Eating after your stomach is full
Eating or drinking items that have too much salt or water
Eating too many sweet foods
If kapha dosha is your main life force, you are more likely to develop:
Asthma and other breathing disorders
Nausea after eating
Ayurvedic Treatment
Treatment depends on your unique prakriti, your primary dosha, and the balance between all three of them.A main goal of Ayurvedic medicine is to cleanse your body of undigested food called ama, which can stick to the inside of your body and make you sick. This cleansing process is called panchakarma. It is used to reduce any symptoms and reestablish harmony and balance.

Panchakarma may include:
Blood purification (either by removing blood from the body or with special teas)
Medical oils given through the nose
Methods to make you vomit
Use of enemas, laxatives, or purgatives to cleanse your intestines
Other treatments may also be recommended to:
Restore balance
Improve spiritual healing
Boost your immunity
Reduce symptoms
The treatments may include:
Breathing exercises
Diet changes
Herbs, vitamins, minerals, and metals
Plant-based oils and spices
Lifestyle changes

Studies on Ayurvedic Medicine

Some research has shown that meditation works very well in relieving stress and reducing the risk for heart disease risk factors. Other studies are looking into the ability of Ayurvedic herbs to treat cancer.

Several Ayurvedic herbal treatments have been studied for a variety of medical conditions. An example is ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) that has anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, and, possibly, anti-cancer effects.Recently, scientists have reported that Ayurveda may be a valuable tool in managing obesity and diabetes. However, a Cochrane review found there is insufficient evidence to recommend Ayurveda for the routine treatment of diabetes.

The FDA has warned that one in five Ayurvedic medicines contain toxic metals, including:

  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Arsenic

A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that several Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic products could “result in lead and/or mercury ingestions 100 to 100,000 times greater than acceptable limits.”

Lead, mercury, and arsenic are heavy metals. They can cause life-threatening illness, especially in children.
The FDA does not review or approve Ayurvedic products. But the agency has put an import alert on certain Ayurvedic products since 2007. This prevents the products from entering the country. However, many customers purchase the products over the Internet. Such sales are harder to monitor.

Always tell all your doctors about the medicines you take, including herbs, supplements, minerals, spices, and other products. They can sometimes interact with each other, increasing your risk for serious health problems.