What is ayurveda?
Ayurveda, which means "life wisdom" in Sanskrit, is one of the oldest medical systems still in use. Developed in India thousands of years ago and promoted in the U.S. today by alternative-medicine guru Deepak Chopra, it is based (in the simplest terms) on the idea that each person's metabolism and personality are influenced by three main doshas, or forces. These are pitta, which regulates digestion; kapha, which controls bodily fluids; and vata, which governs the nervous system. Chronic stress, a poor diet, or lack of sleep, proponents believe, can disturb the balance among doshas and make you sick. Ayurvedic practitioners claim that you can restore your "doshic balance" and treat illness by cleansing your body of toxins, modifying your diet, taking certain herbal medicines, and practicing yoga and meditation. Which therapies will work best for you depends on your constitution, as well as your medical history and current complaints.
What does treatment involve?
On the first visit, you'll fill out a health-history form and a questionnaire to help your practitioner determine your primary dosha. He or she may then listen to your voice, note the color of your tongue and nails, take your pulse three times on each wrist (one for each dosha), and perhaps check your eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, and genitals for unusual secretions. These observations provide information about how an imbalance among your doshas might be affecting your organs and emotions. At the end of the session, your practitioner may recommend that you avoid or favor particular foods, change your sleeping and eating patterns, take certain herbal remedies, or do various yoga, breathing, or meditation exercises. This initial 45- to 90-minute consultation ranges in price from $65 to $300 and is usually followed by one or two brief checkups within a month to six weeks.
What's the theory behind ayurveda?
The theory is that certain foods, herbs, habits, and exercises stimulate or depress your doshas, and the right combination of therapies can bring them back into balance. For example, constipation or PMS may result from an excess of vata, which you can ease by eating warm, salty, creamy foods. If you're overweight or feeling sluggish, you may be told to eat your main meal at noon in order to reduce your kapha. For gallstones, an ayurvedic practitioner may suggest a program of massage, herbs, and aromatherapy to pacify an overactive pitta.
No conclusive research has documented the ability of ayurvedic medicine to cure disease, but meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety by slowing the heart rate and relaxing the mind. What's more, initial studies have shown that Mucuna seed powder -- a traditional ayurvedic medicine -- can help in treating the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Other researchers are looking at the use of yoga techniques in treating heroin addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
How safe is it?
The milder components of ayurveda -- a healthy diet, yoga, meditation -- are safe for most people, but you shouldn't rely on them alone if you suspect you have a serious illness. If you have back, knee, or other physical problems, get the go-ahead from your doctor before trying yoga, since some poses can aggravate injuries. You may also want to check with your doctor before using any herbs, especially if you're already taking prescription medications.
Be wary of herbal supplements. A study published in the December 15, 2004, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that some herbal preparations contained harmful amounts of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic. Researchers tested a sampling of 70 different ayurvedic supplements manufactured in South Asia and sold in Boston-area stores, and found that 20 of them contained lead, mercury and/or arsenic at levels that could be harmful. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 12 cases of lead poisoning between 2000 and 2003 were linked to ayurvedic medicines.
There is no evidence that purging techniques, including sweat baths, bloodletting with leeches, self-induced vomiting, nasal washes, laxatives, and enemas, will cleanse you of any toxins -- and they may be harmful. Avoid these therapies if you're pregnant, nursing, elderly, or suffering from heart disease; if you are in normal health and wish to try ayurveda, consult your doctor.
How do I find a qualified practitioner?
There are only a handful of training programs in the United States, and referrals often happen by word of mouth. A good place to start is your local yoga studio, health-food store, or nutrition center. Some physicians, chiropractors, and nutritionists are trained in ayurvedic medicine. Look for a practitioner who has at least three years of experience, doesn't insist on invasive purging techniques, and would send you to an M.D. or osteopathic physician in the case of serious illness. The California College of Ayurveda in Grass Valley maintains a list of practitioners who have graduated from their state-approved program on their website at www.ayurvedacollege.com/practitioners.htm. Or, call them at (866) 541-6699 for a referral to a practitioner in your area.
Adrienne Fugh-Berman MD, Alternative Medicine: What Works. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1997.
William Collinge, The American Holistic Health Association Complete Guide to Alternative Medicine. New York: Warner Books.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. What is Ayurvedic Medicine? November 4, 2010.
Dhanasekaran M, Tharakan B, Manyam BV. Antiparkinson drug Mucuna pruriens shows antioxidant and metal chelating activity. Phytotherapy Research. 2008 Jan; 22(1): 6-11.