Other common name(s): Ayurvedic medicine
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of medicine. It tries to maintain or reestablish harmony between the mind, body, and forces of nature. This balancing is used for both prevention and treatment of illness. Ayurveda combines a number of approaches, such as changes in lifestyle, Ayurvedic medicines, cleansing or detoxifying, massage, exercise, and meditation. Overall, it aims to strengthen and purify the body and mind and increase spiritual awareness.
Ayurveda is one of several ancient Asian healing systems that have become more popular in the West. The effectiveness of Ayurveda has not been proven in scientific studies, but early research suggests that certain herbs may offer potential therapeutic value. Ayurvedic medicines are mainly composed of herbs, minerals, metals, and/or animal products. Heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury have been found in excess quantities in up to 1 in 5 Ayurvedic medicines, and a number of lead poisoning cases have been reported. Certain Ayurvedic cleansing methods such as enemas, vomiting, bloodletting, or laxatives might cause serious problems for some people.
How is it promoted for use?
A central idea in Ayurveda is that illness results when a person’s physical, emotional, and spiritual forces are out of balance with each other and with the natural environment. Those who practice Ayurveda claim that certain combinations of methods, matched to a patient’s unique physical and emotional needs and personal medical history, increase physical vitality, foster spiritual well-being, bring people into harmony with the world, and even prevent and cure disease.
One of the primary goals of Ayurveda is to restore this balance and invigorate the body’s biological and spiritual forces. Practitioners of Ayurveda promote a combination of therapies to try and restore physical and spiritual harmony by balancing energy forces.
What does it involve?
Practitioners of Ayurveda may combine special diets, Ayurvedic medicines, cleansing, yoga, meditation, massage, breathing exercises, and visual imagery to treat their patients. Ayurvedic medicines often consist of complex mixtures of herbs, minerals, metals, and/or animal products. Ayurvedic cleansing can include special diets, internally and externally applied oils and herbs, massage, nasal washing, sweating, vomiting, laxatives, enemas, and even bloodletting. Gentler cleansing methods may be used for the frail or ill.
To diagnose illness, Ayurveda practitioners closely observe a patient’s tongue, nails, lips, and the body’s 9 “doors”: the eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, genitalia, and anus. They also listen to the lungs and observe the pulse, then take a detailed history of the patient’s life and health. Through these observations, practitioners claim to evaluate a patient’s doshas, or primary life forces. Practitioners say that each person is dominated by one of three doshas, but is influenced to some extent by all three. The dominant dosha describes a person’s physical, emotional, and spiritual characteristics as well as his or her daily habits and lifestyle.
According to Ayurveda practitioners, balancing a person’s doshas not only enables the various organs of the body to work together, it also establishes a person’s connection to the environment and the cosmos.
When planning a course of treatment, Ayurveda practitioners take into account the state of a patient’s doshas and the relationship between the doshas and other factors such as emotions, illness, physical activity, lifestyle, diet, relationships with other people, and even the four seasons, colors, and the time of day. Practitioners strive to harmonize all of these factors so that their patients can attain health and well-being.
What is the history behind it?
Ayurveda is thought to have appeared in India more than 5,000 years ago. It emerged from an ancient body of knowledge called the Vedas. In fact, veda is the Sanskrit word for knowledge. From these Vedas, India developed its moral, religious, cultural, and medical codes. Many of the beliefs and practices of Ayurveda are similar to those of ancient Chinese medicine.
Ayurveda practitioners in India are trained in state-recognized programs. Today, modern medicine is also available to most people in India, especially in urban areas. One study found that 15-20% of people with common ailments preferred Ayurvedic treatment for them. But more than 80% of Indian people said they preferred modern medicine for serious illnesses.
With the interest in Ayurveda from developed countries, practitioners began practicing and teaching Ayurveda in the United States. Today, there are Ayurvedic clinics and a growing number of training programs in North America. The National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) web site lists more than a dozen US training programs for those who want to learn Ayurveda. NAMA started by recommending a minimum of 500 hours of training before starting to practice. As of 2011, NAMA is working to standardize levels of Ayurvedic practice in the US based on the practitioner’s areas of competence.
What is the evidence?
Although Ayurveda has been largely untested by Western researchers, there is a growing interest in integrating some parts of the system into modern medical practice. In fact, a few of the herbs and substances have been purified into drugs that are used (along with other medicines) to treat cancer. Early studies suggest that other parts of Ayurveda may have potential therapeutic value.
Laboratory and clinical studies have suggested that some Ayurvedic herbal preparations may contain substances that have the potential to prevent and treat certain types of cancer. Randomized clinical trials in humans are needed to learn about the possible role of Ayurveda in cancer prevention and treatment. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) funded a series of laboratory studies to evaluate 2 Ayurvedic herbal remedies (called MAK-4 and MAK-5). The studies so far have shown some promise against tumors in rats and cancer cells in lab dishes. To date, there are no reports of tests of these 2 herbal remedies in humans.
In a controlled clinical trial of cancer patients in India, researchers found an Ayurvedic herb mixture worked as well as a standard laxative for relieving constipation caused by pain relieving drugs. In 2 small controlled clinical trials, an herb used in Ayurveda (mucuna pruriens) was found to reduce symptoms in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Many other individual herbs and spices used in Ayurveda are being studied in the laboratory or in animals. Some are already being tested in human clinical trials to find out if they can be used to treat or prevent cancer. These studies use methods of conventional laboratory and clinical research and are intended to find out whether substances used in Ayurveda can be used with conventional cancer treatment. We are not aware of any scientific research addressing the relevance of Ayurvedic concepts, such as cleansing, to cancer treatment. There is no convincing clinical evidence so far to suggest that traditional Ayurvedic treatments can have a substantial impact on the growth and spread of cancer. (For more information, see documents on individual herbs, such as Turmeric, Garlic, Gotu Kola).
Are there any possible problems or complications?
Some aspects of Ayurveda, such as enemas, laxatives, bloodletting, and inducing vomiting, can be harmful and potentially cause serious complications. Many people with cancer already have low blood cell counts as a result of the disease itself, and removing additional blood can worsen fatigue and other symptoms. Inducing vomiting or diarrhea can cause imbalances of electrolytes (salt and minerals) in the blood.
The potential interactions between Ayurvedic herbal preparations and conventional drugs and other herbs should be taken into consideration. Some of these combinations may be dangerous.
There have been reports of lead, mercury, and arsenic in some Ayurvedic herbal preparations sold in US and international markets. Between 1978 and 2009, more than 80 cases of lead poisoning were reported in the medical literature in people using Ayurvedic mixtures. Patients with lead poisoning can suffer nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, miscarriage, and/or anemia. Because these symptoms occur with many other illnesses, it is likely that many people who have lead poisoning are never suspected of having it. Even when cases are found, very few are actually reported in medical journals, so this is but a fraction of the actual number of people affected.
Some people have allergies to certain plants and may react to combinations of Ayurvedic mixtures that contain them. Some people taking Ayurvedic herbal medicines have had serious heart rhythm problems and low blood pressure from taking too much of the herb aconitum or aconite.
Enemas also have some dangers. Illness and even deaths have resulted from contaminated equipment, electrolyte imbalance, or perforation of intestinal walls. People with certain diseases of the colon may be at higher risk of bowel injury. In addition, fluids, herbs, and other substances that are added to the enema can be absorbed into the body through the colon walls. In some cases, this can result in fluid overload, toxicity, or allergic reactions. For more on this, see our document called Colon Therapy.
Always tell your doctor and pharmacist about any herbs you are taking. If you use Ayurveda, it should be delivered by a trained therapist who knows all of your medical history and allergies.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and delaying or avoiding conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
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Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 08/26/2011