The What, Why and How of Ayurvedic Medicine

What is Ayurvedic medicine?

Ayurveda is a Sanskrit term that means "the science of life" or "life knowledge." Ayurvedic medicine is a system that originated in northern India over 5,000 years ago primarily from one of the Vedic texts, the ancient books of wisdom and ceremony that contributed a great deal to the foundation of Indian culture and civilization. It includes a system of herbalism similar to that of traditional Chinese medicine, but also offers dietary regulation, yoga and other exercises, bodywork, detoxification, and psychological interventions.

According to the Ayurvedic perspective, being "healthy" is more than the absence of disease - it is a radiant state of vigor and energy, which is achieved by balance, or moderation, in food intake, sleep, sexual intercourse and other activities of daily life, complemented by various treatments including a wide variety of plant-based medicines.

For what disorders might Ayurvedic medicine be useful?

Because Ayurveda emphasizes prevention of disease, individualization of treatment, and the maintaining of balance between body, mind and spirit, the approach can be considered appropriate in most any clinical circumstance and is considered as such in India. In the West, it is seldom used as a primary therapy for critical medical conditions, but rather as a complement to other healing systems. Ayurvedic medicine can be helpful in the treatment of chronic conditions such as asthma, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, digestive disorders, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions, as well as chronic skin disorders.

What should one expect on a visit to a practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine?

Vaidyas (Ayurvedic doctors) will spend time diagnosing a patient's overall health and resilience, including an assessment of which organ systems are functioning appropriately versus which ones are weak. Deficiencies may be innate or acquired involving both body and mind. An assessment of mental status and level of life-energy (prana) is done, understanding that a person's constitution is unchanging, but their interaction with the environment around them can cause dynamic imbalances.
One of the first goals of treatment is to determine the client's dosha, or unique pattern of living force and energy that controls various activities of the body. Overall health and disease are believed to be directly related to the balance of these life forces in relation with each other. When the body fails to adapt well to changing conditions, it will display abnormal patterns of activity in the forms of excesses or deficiencies, which can manifest as illness. 
There are three such doshas recognized by vaidyas: vata, pitta, and kapha.

Vata is described as the energy of movement (breathing, heartbeat, bowel/bladder function); this pattern of relatively unfocused overactivity can oftentimes lead to depletion. People with the vata pattern are often described as being typically thin with dry skin, quick-minded, alert, active, flexible and creative. When out of balance they become prone to anxiety and nervousness, more susceptible to diseases involving the element of air (emphysema, pneumonia) and may display flatulence, tics, twitches, aching joints, nervous disorders and mental confusion.

Pitta composes the energy of digestion and hormones; this pattern is one of focused, sometimes aggressive, overactivity that can create abnormal heat. Individuals dominated by this constitution are of middle build with ruddy skin and warm bodies, sharp intelligence and wit. Imbalances cause agitation and anger. Diseases involve the element of fire with fevers, inflammation, skin rashes, and ulcers.

Kapha involves the energy of strength, immunity and growth, where imbalances can lead to accumulation and stagnation. People dominated by this dosha have thick skin with well-developed bodies and muscular function. These individuals appear more tolerant and possess both strength and endurance, but when out of balance, they tend to become lethargic and possessive, and are more prone to "diseases of water" such as sinus congestion and upper respiratory conditions.

Initial treatment plans will often focus on rebalancing the doshas, eliminating toxins, improving digestion and addressing lifestyle habits including diet, activity, levels of stress, relationships and coping strategies. Herbal and other formulations are often recommended, along with aromatherapy, various forms of massage, enemas and supervised fasting, yoga exercises, meditation and counseling. These therapies are often recommended in the form of a program known as panchakarma that oftentimes occur over a series of days.

Are there any circumstances where Ayurvedic medicine should be avoided?

In the U.S. and much of the Western world, Ayurvedic medicine is considered an adjunct to conventional medical care, not primary therapy. Women who are pregnant or nursing, or people who are thinking of using Ayurvedic therapy to treat a child, should be especially sure to consult their health care provider. There has been growing concern over contamination with toxins such as lead, mercury and arsenic in many Ayurvedic herbal remedies as discussed below. When using Ayurvedic remedies make certain the source is pure.

Is there a governing body that oversees or credentials practitioners in Ayurvedic medicine?

In India, there are more than 150 undergraduate and 30 post-graduate colleges for Ayurvedic medicine. Education can take more than five years to complete, and one can earn a bachelor's degree or a doctoral degree in Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (BAMS and DAMS, respectively). The United States does not have a credentialing authority, though there are a few educational institutions that offer training programs. As of yet, though, there is no certification body in existence to develop national standards for licensure. Seek out a practitioner who is well-trained and experienced.

How does one contact a practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine?

If you are considering Ayurveda, you should discuss this therapy with your primary care physician. Here is a list of Ayurvedic practitioners by state, which is claimed to be updated frequently. Ayurvedic practitioners trained in India have opened schools in America, for instance, the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's university in Fairfield, Iowa.

Are there other therapies that might work well in conjunction with Ayurvedic medicine?

Aspects of Ayurveda may be safely combined with conventional medical care and select complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies, and many American integrative practitioners incorporate some Ayurvedic healing practices in their work. At the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico, for example, Dr. Vasant Lad incorporates such healing  modalities as yoga, Jyotish (Vedic astrology), herbs, nutrition and acupressure.

Article courtesy of Dr. Weil's website, found here.

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