Ayurveda, a Sanskrit word that literally means, “The science of life,” has been the prominent form of medical practice in India for over 5,000 years. In the past two decades, Ayurveda has been quickly gaining in popularity and practice in the United States, perhaps due to its foundations in holistic health and its perspective on each individual as a unique entity. Let’s explore some of the tenets of Ayurveda and understand why this ancient medical practice is gaining prominence in the West.
The practice of Ayurvedic medicine has its roots in the Vedic texts of ancient India. These 5.000 year-old texts focus on three primary areas of health that even today make Ayurveda unique:
1) healing illnesses,
2) preventing diseases, and
3) promoting rejuvenation and longevity.
The foundation of Ayurveda is that through understanding ourselves, the world around us and how these interrelate, we can prevent disease in any organ system, and live a long healthy life in balance with nature. In comparison to Allopathic Medicine which predominates in the United States, Allopathy is primarily based on treatment of an existing illness by identifying symptoms, categorizing them, and then providing what is the most commonly used treatment, often pharmaceutical medications. One can already theorize that Ayurveda is finding a home in western culture due to an emphasis on prevention and treating the person and their symptoms on a more holistic level.
Furthermore, Ayurveda can be conceptualized as a form of Integrative Medicine, one that believes the mind and the body influence each other in profound ways in all human beings. Ayurveda further asserts that the mind and body not only affect each other, they are actually one entity acting in concert, paralleling the concept that singular events in nature affect the entire ecosystem, and eventually the organisms living within it. Therefore, in Ayurveda if there is an imbalance in the mind or body, ‘dis-ease’ is expressed through certain symptoms and organ systems.
Extending this to treatment, Ayurveda must therefore focus on balancing the entire individual, their mind, body and spirit, in order to overcome disease. Lifestyle interventions and natural therapies are at the core of Ayurveda for illness prevention and treatment of existing disease states. Strategies such as meditation, yoga, and visualization assist in strengthening the mind, while diet and lifestyle choices are examined closely. In contrast to the pharmaceutical focus that predominates Allopathic Medicine, herbal preparations have been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic Medicine.
Due to Ayurveda’s long history, various laboratory and clinical studies exist on its pharmacopeia of botanical therapies. Beneficial effects have been studied for preventing and treating certain cancers, treating infectious disease, diabetes, promoting health, and treating aging. Mechanisms underlying these effects may include free-radical scavenging effects, immune system modulation, brain neurotransmitter modulation, and hormonal effects. The Western research literature base is growing concerning the physiological effects of meditative techniques and yoga postures. Published studies have documented reductions in risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including cholesterol, hypertension, and reaction to stress, in individuals who practice Ayurvedic methods.
Moreover, another Ayurvedic premise is there can be no stability of mental health without the same in physical health, and vice versa. Within Ayurveda, symptoms and diseases that could be categorized as mental thoughts or disorders are just as important as those of the physical body. Both are conceptualized as due to imbalances within a person, and both are treated by restoring the natural balance mentally and physically. In Ayurveda, your entire life and lifestyle must be acting in concert before you can enjoy true well being. The focus on lifestyle choices is one that is receiving less attention in Allopathic Medicine, likely another reason Ayurveda is gaining popularity in the West.
For all of the above reasons and more, Ayurveda is finding its place in western culture. In future articles I will look at some of the primary medicinal botanicals used in Ayurveda and examine their uses in western medicine. Until then, it is at least safe to assume that if we base the efficacy of a medicinal treatment upon its effectiveness in the clinical population, the 5,000 year history of Ayurveda speaks loudly for the importance of an integrative approach and refocusing our treatments on the elements found in nature.