What is Ayurvedic medicine?
Ayurveda, meaning knowledge of life in Sanskrit, is an over 3,000 year old system of medicine developed in India. This type of medicine is based on the belief that sickness and disease are caused by imbalances or stress within the mind (Johns Hopkins Medicine). Ayurveda is described as a more holistic approach to medicine because it focuses on treating physical and mental health (NIH). In India, Ayurveda practitioners undergo state-recognized training and certification. Practitioners in the U.S. do not have the same nationally recognized training and licensing, but some schools have received approval as educational institutions (Johns Hopkins Medicine). Conventional Western medicine categorizes this as a type of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) therapy (NIH).
Common Ayurvedic Treatments
- Breathing Exercises
- Dietary Changes
- Herbal Medicine (Healthline)
- Bitter melon
- Gotu kola
- Licorice Root
- Panchakarma: A treatment usually performed on a retreat consisting of five different therapies: Vamana, Virechan, Basti, Nasya, and Rakta Moksha. First, the patient will undergo a pre-purification ritual consisting of an oil massage and sweating. The patient will then undergo emesis therapy (vomiting), purgation therapy (laxatives), enema therapy (using herbal oils), nasal administration of therapeutic oil, and blood purification using herbs, gem therapy, or color water therapy (Ayurveda).
- Sound therapy
Effectiveness of Ayurvedic Medicine
At this time, research on the effectiveness of Ayurvedic medicine is mixed. A small study of 20 women was done to look at the impact of Panchakarma programs. The study found significant improvements in adherence to positive lifestyle practices and self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to achieve certain goals) and a significant decrease in anxiety 3 months after treatment. However, the study did not find evidence that overall quality of life improved as a result of Panchakarma (Conboy et al., 2009).
A study done in 2013 compared celecoxib, an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat arthritis, and Ayurvedic plant extracts containing glucosamine sulfate, a natural product found in cartilage (NIH; Mayo Clinic). The medications were tested on people suffering from knee osteoarthritis and resulted in similar pain reductions. Similar results were seen in a study comparing Ayurvedic treatments to methotrexate in patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Other studies have looked at the impact of turmeric on ulcerative colitis and Ayurvedic herbs on type 2 diabetes, but the limited amount of formal research on these treatment options prevents researchers from making conclusions on the effects.
Currently, the NCCIH is funding research to look at the impact of Ayurvedic medicine on improved quality of life of breast cancer survivors and the mechanism by which Butea monosperma flowers protect against joint destruction in osteoarthritis patients.
Many medical professionals believe that Ayurvedic medicine serves as a beneficial complementary therapy, not a replacement for Western medicine. Always talk to your primary care doctor before starting a new medication or treatment. Certain medications and natural treatments can interact with the body in harmful ways and cause unwanted side effects such as lead, mercury, or arsenic poisoning (NIH).
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—Written by Sabrina Park (MPH Candidate USC). Reviewed by Adriana Bakhoum MPH.