Western cultures have been embracing holistic medicine or treating the whole patient -- mind, body and spirit -- in recent decades, but as many as 80 percent of people in India have been doing the same for about 3,000 years. Ayurvedic medicine, or Ayurveda, has its roots in the Hindu religion and focuses on both prevention and cures by looking at how well the body is balanced. Using three systems, or doshas -- the nervous (Vata), arterial (Kapha) and venous (Pitta) -- practitioners of Ayurveda help people keep their insides and outsides in check with the physical and spiritual world.
As many as 70 percent of individuals in India use only Ayurveda for health care, but most in the West and some in India and other parts of Asia combine it with more traditional medicine and physicians. Combining the best of both is often called complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM.
Translated as the "knowledge of life" or the "science of life," Ayurveda can help improve both physical, measurable health and the overall quality of life. We'll take a look at five benefits of using Ayurvedic treatments.
Eating grapefruits and other citrus food in advance of cold season is a simple immunity-booster in the West, but in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, a multitude of herbs, vitamins, minerals and proteins are mixed together to prevent and combat immune disorders. These combos, or tonics, are believed to help strengthen the body's defenses and to keep the appetite strong so illness has less of a chance of settling in.
Treatments for immunity are mixed depending on the condition or imbalance, but some general tonics can contribute to disease resistance when taken by healthy individuals.
One word of caution, though: Some ingredients have been found to be either toxic or dangerous when used in combination or along with traditional medications -- both prescribed and over-the-counter. Finding a reputable and trained Ayurvedic practitioner and eliminating any possible harmful drug interactions is very important before beginning treatments, even if they seem all-natural and harmless.
Along with tonics for improving immunity, practitioners also mix or give straight herb preparations to reduce symptoms of illness or disease. Most recommendations for symptom relief also come with lifestyle changes or activity, too. Exercising, taking breaks to breathe in and out, getting sun exposure, and eating a healthier or illness-specific diet all work together to help the whole person feel better and not just to treat the symptoms.
Sometimes foods believed to aggravate symptoms are eliminated from the diet and minerals might be increased. Even metals such as iron and gold are thought to have healing properties and to keep viruses and disease at bay before they have a chance to produce symptoms of ill health.
Yoga is a complement to this component of Ayurveda because it accomplishes so many of the mental, physical and spiritual parts of feeling good or getting better. Even without incorporating its historic Eastern, religious aspects, yoga is beneficial for breathing, stretching and improving circulation.
There are proven links between poor physical health and high stress levels, and Ayurvedic texts going back thousands of years recognized how taxing worry can be on the body and spirit. Treatments for reducing or relieving stress include the tonics and activities mentioned for physical well-being, but an added emphasis for balancing mood and mental activity can include getting more deeply in tune with the spiritual and tipping the scales back down from the material world. Even the Bible talks about "being choked out by the concerns of this world," and Ayurvedic medicine has long held the same belief. Worry and stress can literally take the life out of people and lead us away from a life more balanced and centered in the spiritual and non-physical.
Breathing for breathing sake is one way to stop the noise and re-center the mind and body, and taking breaks to stop thinking too much -- which is harder than it sounds, most of us know -- are actually medicinal when used in harmony with other Ayurvedic practices. One way to start is to avoid or reduce time in situations known to trigger your own worry.
Nourish the mind instead of letting the mind eat or consume you is one way to look at it.
Cleansing the Body
Many of the preparations and individual ingredients of Ayurveda aid in digestion and keeping the body in balance, and most of the diet principles complement the tonics or specific recommendations of practitioners. When a person is suffering from poor health or even poor happiness, Ayurvedic medicine also encourages a good cleansing of the insides for improved overall health.
Panchakama is the name of the process for getting rid of food and impurities that interfere with how the body should ideally work. Administering enemas, oils and massage therapy all help get the body moving from the tissue level to the intestinal level as impurities get released from the system. Breathing, digestion and thinking are thought to improve, and having a cleansed inside also allows for more filling spiritually.
Achieving balance through cleansing should be done carefully and with the go-ahead of your physician or a reputable Ayurvedic practitioner. Overdoing it can lead to deficiencies of vitamins and minerals as well as some of the body's healthy bacteria, which are also needed for digestion and balance.
Achieving Overall Balance
One of the greatest benefits of Ayurveda and other holistic forms of medicine is that it allows for individualizing treatments and improving the whole body a little at a time, all of the time. It is a lifestyle as much as a complementary and alternative medicine, so within reason and depending on health needs, it is practical for every day.
Even from its start, Ayurveda was believed to be effective for psychiatry, sexual energy, surgery and internal medicine. If health is waning or emotional stress and the blues have set in, diet, physical activity and connectivity to things spiritual -- in whatever religious tradition you adhere to -- can be "applied" to correct the imbalance and promote harmony.
A lot of the work of even the most traditional physician's treatments involves getting rid of junk that makes our bodies sick, and Ayurveda complements that basic approach to healing by helping us de-junk and de-clutter the mind and spirit while taking care of our bodies.
The ancient art of reflexology focuses on pressure points exclusively on hands and feet. HowStuffWorks looks at whether it really relieves stress.
More Great Links
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Ayurveda." Britannica.com. 2012. (May 6, 2012) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/46631/Ayurveda
- National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Ayurvedic Medicine: An Introduction."
- Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Frontline: World. "Ayurveda 101 and Related Links." PBS.org. 2011. (May 5, 2012). "http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/india701/interviews/ayurveda101.html
- University of Maryland Medical Center. "Ayurveda." UMM.edu. 2011. (May 5, 2012) http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/ayurveda-000348.htm
- Yoga Journal. "Ayurveda and Yoga." YogaJournal.com. 2012. (May 5, 2012) http://www.yogajournal.com/health/ayurveda