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What is Ayurveda?

traditional Ayurvedic oil foot massage, health
Indian practitioners give a traditional Ayurvedic oil foot massage.
Credit: Valery Kraynov | Shutterstock

Ayurveda is an ancient health care tradition that has been practiced in India for at least 5,000 years. The word comes from the Sanskrit terms ayur (life) and veda (knowledge).

Though Ayurveda, or Ayurvedic medicine, was documented in the sacred historical texts known as the Vedas many centuries ago, Ayurveda has evolved over the years and is now integrated with other traditional practices, including yoga.

Ayurveda is widely practiced on the Indian subcontinent — more than 90 percent of Indians use some form of Ayurvedic medicine, according to the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality & Healing — and the tradition has gained popularity in the Western world, though it's still considered an alternative medical treatment.

Principles of Ayurveda

As a holistic health practice, Ayurveda seeks to maintain a balance between a person's physical, mental and spiritual aspects. When this balance is upset, disease and other health problems can result, according to Ayurvedic practitioners.

Health care is a highly individualized practice under Ayurvedic principles, and everybody has a specific pattern of characteristics called a dosha, which is like a metabolism type based on body chemistry and mental state. There are three basic doshas, and though everyone has some features of each, most people have one or two that predominate, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center:

Pitta energy is linked to fire, and is thought to control the digestive and endocrine systems. People with pitta energy are considered fiery in temperament, intelligent and fast-paced. When pitta energy is out of balance, ulcers, inflammation, digestive problems, anger, heartburn and arthritis can result.

Vata energy is associated with air and space, and is linked to bodily movement, including breathing and blood circulation. Vata energy is said to predominate in people who are lively, creative, original thinkers. When out-of-balance, vata types can endure joint pain, constipation, dry skin, anxiety and other ailments.

Kapha energy, linked to earth and water, is believed to control growth and strength, and is associated with the chest, torso and back. Kapha types are considered strong and solid in constitution, and generally calm in nature. But obesity, diabetes, sinus problems, insecurity and gallbladder issues can result when kapha energy is out of balance, according to Ayurvedic practitioners.

How safe is Ayurveda?

Disturbances in any of the three doshas are addressed by a range of Ayurvedic treatments, including herbal remedies, dietary restrictions, yoga, massage, meditation and breathing exercises called pranayama.

The effectiveness of Ayurvedic therapies has not been widely studied in clinical trials by practitioners of Western medicine. Therefore, some doctors and other health care professionals consider Ayurveda a risky adjunct to conventional medicine.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that almost 21 percent of Ayurvedic medicines purchased over the Internet contained detectable levels of lead, mercury or arsenic.

And in 2012, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that six cases of lead poisoning were found in pregnant women who had used Ayurvedic medicines containing lead. (Fetal exposure to lead can cause severe problems with neurological development and other prenatal health concerns.)

Benefits of Ayurveda

Despite these concerns, there have been studies demonstrating the effectiveness of some Ayurvedic treatments.

Turmeric, a spice derived from the turmeric plant (Curcuma longa), is often prescribed by Ayurvedic practitioners. Turmeric contains beta-carotene, calcium, flavonoids, iron, niacin, potassium, zinc and other nutrients.

And in addition to its potential effectiveness in treating peptic ulcers and some forms of cancer, turmeric also has proven anti-inflammatory properties. Several studies have suggested that it may help reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

Additionally, a 2011 study found that an Ayurvedic herbal compound was just as effective at treating rheumatoid arthritis symptoms as Trexall (methotrexate), according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Another widely used Ayurvedic treatment is frankincense, a dried resin derived from the Boswellia tree. According to NCCAM, osteoarthritis patients had significant decreases in pain after using a frankincense remedy.

Before you begin Ayurvedic treatment

If you're considering an Ayurvedic treatment, or any other alternative therapies, be sure to speak with your primary care physician or other health care professional. Some Ayurvedic treatments may be dangerous when combined with prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

Because there is no nationally recognized licensing procedure for Ayurvedic practitioners, you may wish to contact an Ayurvedic school for recommendations about how to find a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner.

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Marc Lallanilla, LiveScience Staff Writer

Marc Lallanilla

Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Marc on .
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