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Ayurvedic Medicine

By A. Devia

Consider Ayurvedic Medicine for:

Strictly speaking, Ayurvedic Medicine is not a treatment. Rather, it is an entire medical system whose goal is the prevention of disease through the proper balance of three "irreducible principles" at work in the body.

Derived from philosophical theories propounded in India over 2,000 years ago, the principles of Ayurvedic Medicine have never been substantiated by contemporary medical science--and no medical conditions have been proven to respond to Ayurvedic treatments. Certain Ayurvedic exercises, such as the meditation and gentle stretching exercises of yoga, afford people relief from tension and stress. However, any impact these exercises have on chronic conditions such as high blood pressure appears to be momentary, and can't be considered a lasting remedy.

How Ayurvedic Treatments Are Done

Ayurvedic Medicine encompasses a wide range of treatments and lifestyle measures, including dietary recommendations, massage, medicinal herbs, and the meditation and breathing techniques of yoga. Some practitioners also recommend intestinal "cleansing" through the use of laxatives or enemas. Depending on your specific ailments and condition, you could be prescribed any or all of these various modes of therapy.

Ayurvedic practitioners generally begin by taking a comprehensive personal and medical history to determine your physical and spiritual "type," and then prescribe and treat accordingly. Expect detailed questions about your emotional temperament, skin type, food preferences, and other quirks. The practitioner is also likely to examine your tongue and spend a significant amount of time taking your pulse. (In the Ayurvedic view of medicine, the pulse is a critical diagnostic tool, revealing imbalances in the three basic principles at work in the body.)

Much like traditional Oriental medicine, the Ayurvedic system aims not just to treat diseases, but to maintain and balance the energy and health of both mind and body. It emphasizes avoidance of stress and a moderate, balanced lifestyle. The version of Ayurvedic medicine commercialized in the United States is a relatively recent "reconstruction" of ancient Indian medical practices, refined and tailored to meet Western expectations and tastes. In India itself, Western-style medicine is replacing many of the older practices.

The frequency and duration of Ayurvedic treatments vary widely. Many aspects of Ayurvedic practice, such as dietary choices and yoga, can be self-administered on a regular basis or as needed. Typical measures may include massage with warm sesame oil; avoidance of certain types of foods (based on flavor, not nutritional content) and emphasis on others; breathing exercises, such as breathing alternately through one nostril and then the other; and herbal saunas or enemas to "detoxify" the body. A comprehensive program of treatments, called panchakarma, aims at overall "purification" and rejuvenation, and may be offered at some Ayurvedic clinics, centers, or spas.

What Ayurvedic Treatment Hopes to Accomplish

The complex Indian system of healing called Ayurveda (from the Sanskrit words for "knowledge of life") has been around for millennia, but was first popularized in the United States by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement. Later, the physician-author Deepak Chopra, MD seized the baton, promoting the system in a string of books and lectures during the 1980's and 90s.

According to Ayurveda, there are three doshas, or basic metabolic types: kapha, pitta, and vata. Each dosha is rooted in specific organs of the body and associated with two of Ayurveda's elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space, or "ether"). Combinations of these doshas in various proportions are said to yield a total of 10 body types which determine each individual's physical and emotional makeup.
The Ayurvedic practitioner's job is to identify the individual's "tridosha," a unique combination of the three doshas, and prescribe dietary patterns, exercises, lifestyle changes, and therapies designed to bring the tridosha into balance. People described as predominantly "vata" are thought to be thin, quick, and energetic; "pitta" types are considered competitive and hot-tempered; "kapha" types are regarded as calm and stolid. Each type is considered prone to characteristic ailments (for example, "pitta" types are thought to be more vulnerable to ulcers, inflammation, or rashes).
Identification of one's tridosha determines an array of recommendations, ranging from dietary choices to the best types of exercise. Ayurvedic dietary advice is based on food's flavor rather than its nutritional content as defined by Western science. Increasing your intake of sweet, sour, and salty foods, for instance, is said to balance "vata." Herbal prescriptions are drawn from a vast selection of traditional Indian remedies, most of them unfamiliar to Westerners. (Don't make assumptions. Even familiar herbs may be used for different purposes than those documented by Western medical research.) Attempts to "purify" the body through excretion are also stressed, including herbal enemas and steam treatments. (Induced vomiting, a purgative technique used in Indian Ayurvedic practice, has--not surprisingly--been avoided by American practitioners.)

Who Should Avoid Ayurvedic Medicine?

Because none of the treatments endorsed by Ayurvedic Medicine have been tested and found effective in regular clinical trials, Western physicians rarely recommend them for anyone. At best, Ayurvedic techniques are seen as means of attaining balance and harmony in your physical and emotional life--certainly not as a cure for a specific disease.

In any event, it's wise to be especially wary of the purgative treatments sometimes recommended by Ayurvedic practitioners. Overuse of laxatives and enemas can lead to serious chemical imbalances within the body. Laxatives, in particular, should never be taken in the presence of abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting without first consulting a regular doctor.

Likewise, if you must follow dietary restrictions in order to manage a serious disorder such as diabetes or heart disease, it's advisable to consult a physician or registered dietitian before adopting an Ayurvedic diet plan. Because Ayurvedic recommendations are based mainly on the flavor of food, they may be at odds with the body's requirements as understood by contemporary medical science.

What Side Effects May Occur?

Meditation and the gentle stretching and breathing exercises of yoga are unlikely to have any adverse effects on most individuals. Likewise, gentle massage with warm oil, another mainstay of Ayurveda, is generally harmless. Ayurvedic herbal medicines, however, are a different matter. There's little published information on them, and many herbs have potent--and not necessarily desirable--effects when overused. If you develop any unforeseen symptoms while taking an Ayurvedic remedy, regard them as a signal to check with a mainstream doctor or pharmacist.

How to Choose an Ayurvedic Therapist

Ayurveda is not recognized as a medical discipline in the United States, and there is no licensure system in place for its practitioners. A few medical doctors and osteopaths combine Ayurvedic philosophy and practice with contemporary medicine and other types of alternative health care. For practitioners trained by the followers of the Marharishi Mahesh Yogi, contact the Ayur-Veda Health Center listed below.

When Should Treatment Stop?

If you are using Ayurvedic techniques such as meditation and yoga to combat stress and improve your general well-being, you can probably continue indefinitely. However, if a specific complaint fails to respond to Ayurvedic herbs or dietary adjustments within a matter of weeks, the wisest course is to discontinue the treatment and seek alternative therapy.

See a Conventional Doctor If...

Even if you find an Ayurvedic program to be a helpful tonic, it's best to regard it as an adjunct to other forms of medicine. If you develop any serious or alarming symptoms, seek diagnosis and treatment from a mainstream physician. Remember, even in India most health-care professionals now use at least some modern medical techniques.

The Raj, Maharishi Ayur-Veda Health Center
1734 Jasmine Avenue
Fairfield, IA 52556
Phone: 800-248-9050
This spa-like Ayurvedic health center is affiliated with a university founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian spiritual leader who devised Transcendental Meditation. The center provides general information on Ayurveda and referrals to graduates of their Ayurvedic training program.
Ayurvedic Secrets to Longevity and Total Health. Peter Anselmo with James S. Brooks, MD. Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.
Ayurveda: The A-Z Guide to Healing Techniques from Ancient India. Nancy Bruning and Helen Thomas. New York: Dell, 1997.
Maharishi Ayur-Ved: TM Goes Health Food. Stephen Barrett, MD and Victor Herbert, MD, JD, in The Vitamin Pushers. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1994.
Perfect Health: The Complete Mind-Body Guide. Deepak Chopra, MD. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.
The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies. Vasant Lad. New York: Harmony Books, 1998.
The Book of Ayurveda. Judith H. Morrison. New York: Fireside, 1995.
Yoga and Ayurveda. J. Raso in "Alternative" Healthcare: A Comprehensive Guide. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1994.


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