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Ayurveda: The Science of Life

by Adam Gould
Ayurveda: The Science of Life

Ayurveda may be one of the oldest holistic health systems in the world but it’s still widely practised today in many cultures. In India, for instance – where it’s been practised for 5,000 years or so – ayurveda still provides health care to 65% of people in rural areas (says the World Health Organization). This means there are millions of people who rely on ayurveda as their main – and often only – source of healthcare. 

The practice of ayurveda was documented in Sanskrit in sacred texts called the Vedas, which are thought to originate from around the second millennium BC/BCE. Some scholars, however, say the tradition of Indian medicine originates from Buddhism, and that Buddhist scriptures centuries older than the accepted Sanskrit sources of ayurveda contain information about the earliest medical practices in India. 

Whichever way you look at it, ayurveda has survived and flourished for thousands of years. But ayurveda isn’t just practised in Asia. Interest in ayurveda has increased in the West too, especially since the mid- to late-20th century when Western travellers ‘discovered’ ayurveda alongside associated traditional Asian practices like yoga and acupuncture. 

Growing interest in meditation and mindfulness – both elements of ayurvedic practice – and how they benefit physical and mental wellbeing has brought ayurvedic principles to the attention of many in the West in recent years.

Did you know? The most recent figures suggest there are around 450,000 ayurveda practitioners, 250 colleges, 8,500 pharmacies and 7,000 manufacturers in India alone. 

How it all works

The theory of ayurveda can sound complicated for those who know little about it. So let’s keep things simple. 

In ayurveda everything in the universe is made up of five elements: air, water, space/ether, earth and fire. These five elements form the three doshas – which could be loosely described as energies – of the human body. Everyone has a combination of these energies, though one is usually more dominant than the other two.

The doshas are important characteristics of your prakruti (constitution) and have an impact on the way your body functions. They’re also said to have an influence on your body type, your personality traits and even the physical and mental illnesses you may be more susceptible to:

  • Vata dosha Vata is formed by the elements of space and air. The typical vata-dominant person is said to be quick, energetic, alert, restless and creative, often with a slim or slight frame. They may also be susceptible to anxiety, fear and nervousness, as well as conditions such as fatigue, digestive problems, insomnia, arthritis and nerve disorders. Staying calm and getting plenty of rest is important for a healthy vata balance.
  • Pitta dosha   This dosha is made up of fire and water and is said to govern digestion, body temperature and metabolism. If you’re a pitta person you may be intelligent, hard-working and a high achiever, often with a fiery temperament. Physically, pitta people tend to have a medium physical build. They may also be more likely to experience digestive problems, heart problems and high blood pressure. Extreme temperatures and spicy food may throw pitta-dominant people out of balance. 
  • Kapha dosha   Formed by earth and water, kapha is linked to calmness and tolerance, with kapha people likely to be down to earth and with a stocky physique. If this is your dominant dosha you may have a tendency for weight gain, depression, asthma and diabetes, plus you may often feel lethargic. To keep kapha in balance it’s important to exercise regularly, eat lightly and avoid taking naps. 

Achieving a balance

In ayurveda, good health needs a balance between all three doshas. If there’s an imbalance (vikruti) it can lead to physical and mental problems. Achieving it is tricky since dosha balance is constantly changing, with things like diet, inactivity, stress and exposure to toxins, chemicals and germs that cause infections tending to throw the balance out of whack. 

If keeping your doshas in balance is the key to good health, how exactly do you achieve it? Thankfully Ayurvedic medicine offers several routes to wellbeing, some of which include:

  • Herbs and spices (including oral preparations and steam therapies: ayurvedic herbs and spices you may have heard of include ashwagandha, turmeric, boswellia, cumin, cardamom and gotu kola)
  • Oil therapies (this includes a stress-reduction technique called shirodhara, where warm oil is slowly dripped or poured onto your forehead)
  • Massage
  • Meditation and mindfulness 
  • Cleansing therapies (detoxing, for example by using laxatives or enemas)
  • Diet (this usually means eating according to your dosha, as certain foods help promote dosha balance)
  • Exercise (yoga)
  • Mental and spiritual therapies (these include using rituals, mantras and other esoteric practices)

Did you know?   Ayurveda isn’t the only ancient medicine system that uses herbal remedies. In South America, for instance, herbs have been used traditionally for thousands of years. Take maca root, for instance. Also known as Peruvian ginseng this highly nutritious testosterone-boosting herb has been used to treat all types of conditions including erectile dysfunction, fatigue and menopause symptoms. 

What does Western science think?

Here in the West, the use of modern medicine depends very much on clinical evidence – it’s how we determine how effective it is. The problem with ayurvedic medicine, however, is there’s little scientific evidence to back it up. 

Then again you could say that the fact ayurveda has been practised for such a long time by so many millions of people – and is still popular today – provides a a powerful testament to its efficacy. Still, the lack of clinical research into ayurveda means it still isn’t widely accepted by Western medics. 

One of the problems with carrying out scientific research into ayurveda is that its focus is on individual treatment. Treatments are highly tailored for each different patient’s needs, and there may be many different treatments for the same illness or health issue. So clinical trials that aim to measure how effective a single treatment may be for a single illness simply couldn’t be carried out within the ayurvedic system. It just wouldn’t work. 

Some researchers have tried, however. One report, for instance, argues that – while studies into ayurvedic medicines often fail to show they work better than Western medicines – combining modern and ayurvedic medicine may be particularly effective in treating difficult disorders such as arthritis. 

Research into individual herbs and spices used in ayurvedic medicine has also produced encouraging results. Here's a couple of examples we know a lot about:

Our Organic KSM-66 Ashwagandha capsules use this, the finest and most researched Ashwagandha extract available.

  • Turmeric – which contains the active compound curcumin – is widely thought to help with inflammation, with researchers suggesting it may be as good as or even more effective than some modern anti-inflammatory drugs (and without the side effects). Scientists looking into the benefits of turmeric have also found it may have a protective effect against heart disease

Our Organic Turmeric Curcumin 1440mg with Organic Black Pepper and Organic Ginger is one of the most popular turmeric supplements in the UK

Did you know? Boswellia is also known as Indian frankincense (yes, as mentioned in the Christian bible) It’s made from a tree resin and has been linked with a number of health benefits, including pain and inflammation relief.

What are the drawbacks?

As with every type of medicine, there’s always a catch. For instance Western medicines have their side effects – even those we take every day, such as paracetamol. So what’s the snag with ayurvedic medicine?

Some ayurvedic preparations have been found to contain substances that are harmful to humans, called heavy metals (think lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium). Indeed, one study found that almost 21 per cent of ayurvedic medicines bought over the internet contained detectable levels of these heavy metals. The other problem is the sheer number of fake and low-quality ayurvedic medicine supplements available, particularly among those coming from countries with less commercial regulation. 

This is why it’s so important to choose pure, quality supplements from reputable companies. Look for high-quality certification from creditable organisations who have taken the care to source ingredients responsibly.  VitaBright supplements, for example, are Soil Association-certified, stringently tested, and sourced from trusted suppliers. 

It’s also important to talk to your doctor before you take any supplements or herbal remedies, especially if you have a medical condition. While ayurvedic medicines and treatments may offer many positive health benefits and work well alongside modern medicine in some scenarios, professional medical advice should always be sought . 

Did you know? The World Health Organization recognises ayurveda as a traditional system of medicine, and claims ‘traditional medicine holds great potential to improve people’s health and wellness’. 

And the upshot is…

Research into Ayurveda may be lacking, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence from millions of people around the world who say it works for them – whether they use it exclusively or alongside Western or another type of traditional medicine.

The other good news is that more clinical studies are ongoing – despite the technical difficulties – including research that’s exploring how Western medicine and ayurvedic science could work together. One study has even investigated how ayurveda may be used in stem cell research.

This all suggests that, while ayurveda may well be one of the most ancient forms of healthcare, many are making sure it will survive and thrive in the 21st century and beyond. 

by Adam Gould
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