Mung beans have anti-inflammatory properties!!! The research comforts me! After all, my mother always gave me Khichdi when I was sick, we still eat it and it was a vital part of my Panchakarma. Is it only now that I should feel better about it with a scientific study to back up my experiential knowledge?
Imagine a world where preventive medicine reduces the cost and incidence of disease.
Ayurveda is a respected form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) that is growing in popularity in the US. This 5000+ year old ‘science of life’ from India is practiced as a form of medicine. Did you know that in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, 70–95 percent of the population still use traditional medicine for primary healthcare? About 100 million people are believed to use traditional, complementary, or herbal medicine in the European Union alone—as high as 90 percent of the population in some countries.
In the US, integrative medicine—integrative centers, herbal supplements (like turmeric, ashwagandha, triphala, ginkgo biloba), personal care products, diets, spas, and therapies like traditional Chinese medicine, chiropractic, acupuncture, yoga, breathwork, meditation, massage, Ayurveda, and Panchakarma—is gaining popularity. According to studies, 36 percent of US adults use some form of CAM and ¼ of those are referred by a conventional medical provider. In 2016, the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California San Diego, began a research study on how diet, natural therapeutics, and lifestyle behaviors like exercise can treat diseases like cancer and heart disease. That is just one of many integrative medicine studies and clinical trials.
“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.” — Carl Sagan
Lifestyle-based disorders are on the rise. Six out of ten Americans have chronic ailments such as hypertension; type 2 diabetes; joint, kidney and lung disorders; and certain forms of cancer. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), lifestyle-based disorders are the leading cause of death and disability in the nation. A lifestyle-based science such as Ayurveda can definitely alleviate disease! Like any scientist, I respect modern medicine, but I also realize that sometimes it could be restricted to symptomatic relief, medications (and procedures) have side-effects and many people who want proactive health management are seeking integrative solutions.
Imagine a world where modern medicine respects CAM and they work in conjunction to provide what is best for the individual.
Ayurveda in the US and India
The Affordable Care Act has a provision for licensed complementary and alternative providers and Ayurveda follows industry standards in its education and practice. The study and practice of Ayurveda is not licensed in the US yet, but organizations like the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) have worked hard to define its scope, standardize education and practice, advocate, and make it mainstream. Ayurvedic Wellness Counselors work towards health management, prevention, nutrition, and lifestyle counseling. Ayurvedic Wellness Practitioners additionally undertake disease management. Ayurvedic BAMS or Vaidyas from India may practice in the US based on regulations in the state where they are residing, but cannot call themselves doctors and at all levels, Ayurvedic professionals assess (not diagnose) and manage (not treat) clients (not patients). The Ayurvedic doctor program has been introduced by some respected institutes in the US as well.
The Indian government plans to roll out a One Nation, One Health System policy by 2030, which would integrate modern and traditional systems of medicine like allopathy, Ayurveda, and homeopathy in medical practice, education, and research. What a trailblazing move!
The British did not allow Ayurveda to be practiced in India, but it thrived nonetheless as most homes, villages, and towns continued to practice and preserve the lineage. My great grandmother was a village Vaidya and midwife (despite colonisation!). Today, 80 percent of India practices some form of traditional medicine, of which Ayurveda is a big chunk. Its standardization and contemporarization is now under the guidance of the Ministry of Ayush and there are many licensed practitioners, world class educational institutes, hospitals, clinics, integrative centers, and much research being conducted.
“The practice of Ayurveda can truly enhance the quality of your life.”— H. H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of Art of Living
21 Reasons I Opt for Ayurveda
- Ayurveda is holistic and considers the mind, body, and spirit to be connected. Modern medicine has indisputable evidence that stress impacts a host of illnesses such as cardiac diseases, diabetes, and chronic pain; which in turn can impact mental health. (There is a new groundbreaking study on the immune system in mice illuminating the mind-body connection!) Ayurvedic tools are holistic, natural, and benign—natural herbs, yoga, meditation, marma, and palliative (shamana), and cleansing (shodhana) therapies. For Ayurvedic practitioners, every assessment—whether for osteoarthritis or anxiety—involves delving in detail into a holistic analysis of physical, physiological, psychological, emotional, spiritual and genetic history.
- Swasthya and balance. The very definition of health is Swasthya or being balanced and centered in the self. When Doshas (energy principals), Dhatus (tissues), Malas (excretion) and Agni (digestive and metabolic fire) are in balance and the sense organs, spirit and mind are blissful, that state of homeostasis is health.
- Importance of the gut and concept of nutrition. Ayurveda believes that most diseases originate in the gut and any assessment begins there. Digestion is of paramount importance and the definition of nutrition is unique, involving food, liquids, breath and sensory perceptions. I have a fond memory of one of our professors greeting us with, “How is your agni?” Modern medicine now accords a lot of importance to the enteric nervous system or the second brain and the gut brain axis.
- Mental health isn’t stigmatized. I recently spoke to my son’s vaidya about psychological ama or toxins post-anaphylactic shock. And a Rogi just told me about incontinence from fear and anxiety. There is no stigma because of the inalienable mind-body connection.
- Preventive health. Ayurveda focuses on preventive medicine through diet and lifestyle interventions. It’s first goal is “Swasthasya Swasthya Rakshanam”—preserving the health of the healthy. With lifestyle disorders on the rise this is a big part of health management.
- The three pillars of health. Sleep (Nidra), nutrition (Ahara), and a balanced lifestyle (Vihara) are the three pillars—the very basics of health management or trayostambh. The importance of these in restoring balance is well known now in evidence-based medicine. For instance, studies have shown that sleep disruptions can cause chronic inflammation and hardening of arteries.
- Prevention is cost effective. Ninety percent of the nation’s $3.5 trillion annual healthcare costs are attributed to chronic disorders and mental health. Prevention through dietary and lifestyle changes and investment in holistic healing is much less expensive than trying to ease the severity of the pain of disease without removing the cause.
- Disease management, chronic ailments, and root-cause analysis. The other goal of Ayurveda is ‘Aaturasya Vikara Prashamanam,’ or disease management with root-cause analysis rather than merely providing symptomatic relief. Diseases addressed include chronic and lifestyle-based disorders, as well as aggravated, acute conditions. To quote Dr. Alex Hankey, British theoretical physicist trained at MIT and Cambridge and distinguished professor in yoga and physical science, “Ayurveda can make India the world capital for curing chronic ailments.” India, or for that matter, any place in the world where it is practiced.
- Individualized medicine. Ayurveda acknowledges everyone’s unique prakriti, or constitution, which is determined at the time of conception and composed of doshas—energy principals vata, pitta, and kapha formed from the five elements in nature, in us, and in everything around us. This can be explained through the science of epigenetics. We know that one size doesn’t fit all. You may be able to digest kidney beans and salads and I may not. You may get irritated easily, while I get anxious. These propensities govern our structure, function, affinities, and tendencies.
Ayurveda acknowledges that health is in a state of flux (imbalances in doshas are called vikrati) and can be brought back into balance. The importance of personalized medicine is now being acknowledged by modern medicine. We’re beginning to see a shift from reaction to prevention, reduced trial and error prescribing, fewer invasive procedures, and lower healthcare costs.
- Circadian Science. Ayurveda advises a daily (Dinacharya), seasonal (Ritucharya), and lifespan regimen for health management. There is a rhythm to nature, a cardiac rhythm, a rhythm to our breath, and a menstrual rhythm—corroborated by the Nobel Prize for Circadian Rhythms.
- Immunity and Rejuvenation (Rasayana). Boosting immunity is a cornerstone in Ayurvedic health management. Ayurveda focuses on the host rather than disease (to quote Dr.Bhaswati Bhattacharya, Fulbright Specialist in Public Health Integrative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College) and defines immunity comprehensively as the ability to avoid diseases and to recover faster from any ailment. (Read more on how to boost your immunity here.) Rasayana, or rejuvenation, is an important aspect of Ayurvedic management of the ojas (vitality). It enhances immunity and helps improve the quality of longevity. This is significant as people are living longer and degenerative- and chronic inflammation–based ailments are on the rise.
- Prodromal symptoms and stages of a disease, including rehabilitation. In Ayurveda, the process of disease management starts with nidana panchaka—a diagnostic tool that includes understanding the cause and prodromal signs even before the disease manifests. The aim is to interrupt the pathological process. This goes on to understanding the samprapti, or etiopathogenesis of the disease. For each ailment, there are interventions at well-defined stages of the disease, or shat kriya kala. Ayurveda works to avoid chronic coughing or allergies from turning into chronic bronchitis or sinusitis and then COPD; this is the way it improves the quality of life of so many who slip through the cracks. This paper on the different stages of cancer based on the stages of disease makes for a good read. Rehabilitation is a vital aspect of care to improve the quality of life of the Rogi.
- The Concept of Cleansing. Periodic cleansing (corroborated by the Nobel Prize for autophagy) is considered therapeutic in Ayurveda not just for managing ailments but in preventing their recurrence. Cleansing helps in many chronic ailments and in de-addiction and the most efficacious is Panchakarma which has its clear indications and contraindications.
- Ayurveda honors our connection with our self, family, community, and nature. We are all connected (vasudev kutumbakam). Our connection with others defines our psychological health and aids well-being. Dr. Jayarajan Kodikannath, my mentor, Director of Kerala Ayurveda would always tell us, “We come from nature and will go back to nature; everything that we need to manage our health exists in nature” that is ever benign. Anything natural, less processed, less polluting is metabolised easier. In the context of Covid-19 and the use of Ayurveda and yoga to boost immunity, Dr. David Frawley laments, “… a greater breakdown in the biosphere, which we humans have disrupted in many ways…with the way we live, our air, water, food, urban and technological existence, as well as how we have polluted and damaged our natural environment in many ways from the soils to the sky.”
- Ayurveda as an integrative science. I had a chance to observe Ayurveda being practiced in an integrative manner in Kerala which was so admirable. We were interning at the Health Village and observed how a pediatric Rogi with eczema (and a history of the atopic march; asthma and pneumonia) was treated, by both the vaidya and the doctor. The child was treated Ayurvedically. When there was a flare up, the doctor stepped in with antibiotics. Eventually, the incidence of both eczema and asthma reduced significantly.
- Acknowledging the gross and the subtle. According to Dr. Hankey, Indian sciences can solve modern medical problems because “they recognize the difference between the gross physical level, Sthula, and the more subtle, Sukshma, level(s).” We study doshas and gunas (attributes of the mind) and the subtle expression of doshas (Prana, Tejas and Ojas) as well; channels (Srotas), nadis, and chakras. This is much like the principles of quantum physics that forms the theoretical basis of modern physics.
Ayurveda concepts and paradigms are different from modern medicine. Imagine a world where we don’t have to defend quantum physics using the principles of classical physics.
- Experiential and increasingly research-based, but we need different paradigms in research. Ayurvedic research is based on quantum logic and we are trying to forcefit it into modern science, but have to acknowledge the differences. The Ministry of Ayush recognizes that we need more peer-reviewed evidence-based studies and accelerated clinical trials in India, particularly in the context of Covid-19 prophylaxis and management. In fact, two-thirds of the clinical trials in India during Covid-19 are based on traditional medicine. Here are details about the Covid-19 Indian government Ayurveda trials, Shakti Drops, and Ashwagandha trials. You can access Ayurvedic studies, papers( and resources for the US) here.
- Ayurveda is empowering. An Ayurvedic Professional’s goal is to educate you about your health and an Ayurvedic Professional is typically an important part of your family’s life journey. Dr.Jayarajan always asks Rogis, “Where is the disease happening; in your mind-body complex. So who is the healer? And if you are the healer, let’s examine why you fell sick?” as he explains the disease process. The objective is to empower you and there are a lot of basic prevention measures, many courses one can attend. But for management of imbalances please consult a professional.
- Philosophical science, optimizing our life’s potential. Ayurveda’s goal is for you to reflect on who you are, assess your own tendencies, work towards your health and wellbeing and optimize your life potential. Ayurveda asks questions based on your stage of life and where you are headed. (It uses the paradigm of life goals or Purushartha; Dharma or duty, Artha or material gain, Kama or pursuit of pleasure and Moksha or self realization as a spiritual quest. Again, we honor whatever is your way).
- Sister sciences of Ayurveda. Ayurveda works well in conjunction with sister sciences like yoga, astrology, and vastu. Yoga is extremely popular around the globe and I am glad to share a feature I helped put together on how the study of Ayurveda can enhance your yoga practice. Imagine something simple like getting better rest based on sleep direction; the referenced article is one I enjoyed putting together using Ayurveda, science and the principles of vastu!
- Ayurveda during an epidemic of stress. The WHO has dubbed stress the health epidemic of the 21st century. Our lives are measured by our productivity in today’s day and age, which is very depleting. We tend to eat on the go and believe that skipping meals is ok and foregoing sleep is just fine—everything is done at the cost of our health. Ayurveda helps us dial back that stress and redefine our priorities.
Addressing Some Misconceptions, or the Elephants (/cows) in the Room…
The WHO recognizes Ayurveda as a traditional system of medicine; in fact the Organization adapted its formal definition of health from Ayurvedic teachings.
Imagine a world where no one tries to patent turmeric or neem…and our traditional knowledge base stays protected.
Ayurveda is about enemas and beauty. That doesn’t even scratch the surface. Yes, as part of Shodhana or cleansing therapies there are many forms of medicated enemas or basti and hundreds of ways of administering them in terms of dosage, sequence, and so on, as powerful stand-alone therapies and part of Panchakarma. And Ayurveda acknowledges beauty as inner beauty with good health, outer beauty with skin and hair care, Ojas (radiance) and lasting beauty or longevity. None of us mind looking good!
Quality of Herbs and Heavy Metal Contamination. Here is a list of 35 modern medicine drugs withdrawn by the FDA (1970–2014), the latest being Zantac that could cause cancer; a drug I have copiously consumed all of my life. The standardization and quality control of Ayurvedic herbs is the highest priority of good Ayurvedic manufacturers and the Ministry of Ayush in India. Bhasma Shastra is a nanomedicine in Ayurveda with detoxified metals and strict safety procedures. Bhasma herbs are not allowed in the US now; please buy herbs from reputed practices and companies which have some of the best manufacturing practices in the world. We cannot continue to vilify the industry.
Bhasma Shastra or the use of trace metals is a well-documented. Science in Ayurveda with carefully laid out manufacturing procedures. In 2004, a leading American journal (JAMA) reported heavy metal (arsenic, mercury, lead) content in some of the Ayurveda drugs sold in the US — I believe even one case is too much. There was world-wide condemnation and the Indian government made testing of heavy metals in herbal drugs compulsory as per WHO standards. Nobody explained that some Ayurveda herbal formulations contain metals and minerals that have therapeutic properties, painstakingly detoxified in elaborate processes before clinical use.
Is non-vegetarian food allowed? Yes. We do not comment on personal preferences—no medical science does. We just advise what is good for what imbalance, season, and place.
Is Ayurveda prudish? Not at all. Brahmacharya as one of the three pillars of health is connecting with a higher purpose. Balance in sexual conduct is advised but sexual health is a branch of Ayurvedic study.
Bhoot shastra is not the study of ghosts!!! It refers to Ayurvedic psychiatry and ‘Bhoot’ refers to the subtle mind or microorganisms depending on the context.
Imagine a world where a BBC journalist does not literally translate ‘Bhoot Shastra’ or Ayurvedic psychiatry as the study of Ghosts and malign Ayurveda. Clarifications are issued but unscientific misconceptions linger.
Intertwined with Culture. Ayurveda is intertwined with the Indian Vedic culture where it originated historically (which I honor), but there are many practitioners and rogis from other nations. This influence does not come up in prevention or disease management. We respect the rogi and meet them where they are at. Ayurveda is not a “Hindu practice that revolves around … dietary restrictions” as the New York Times claimed, to which the Ministry of Ayush gave a dignified rejoinder that these “appear to be unprofessional attempts to revive clichéd stereotypes.”
Based only on ancient root texts. Could it be? Could there be no research, no further literature, no detailed analysis, data or case history in 5000 years? Yes, we do refer to Ayurvedic root texts, but could a nation known for science and technology not develop a strong, scientific curriculum?
Six people who were blind were trying to fathom what an elephant is. One felt the tail and thought it was a snake and so on…factual knowledge about CAM empowers us.
What about cow’s urine and fire ceremonies? Do you know how many modern medicines use murine, bovine, porcine, equine, and other animal products? Similarly, some Ayurvedic formulations contain animal products; read more about the use of cow’s urine in anti-cancer activity here. In a Vedic Yagya and chanting, the use of mantras (to uplift and elevate consciousness) and burning (therapeutic and anti-pollution) herbs is done to purify the atmosphere which seems more benign than the DDT that was sprayed as part of anti-malarial fumigation efforts when I was small. Sometimes mantras are advised as part of healing, but disease management in the US does not delve into these tools.
Is clapping during a pandemic Ayurvedic? There was a day of clapping in unison recommended in India and if you wondered why; it is a form of activating marmas recorded in Charaka Samhita (Janapadodhwamsa Vimaniyam Adhyaya) and just as acupressure and acupuncture are respected sciences, so is marma therapy. It’s also a way of encouraging health workers, and raising the morale of people by uplifting the collective consciousness.
What about Ayurvedic Surgeries? In the US, until Ayurveda is licensed, a practitioner does not have the license to touch without an additional qualification like LMT or a disclaimer and consent (for instance, in pulse diagnosis). Let’s talk about India. Did you know that Acharya Sushrata who wrote the Ayurvedic root text Sushrata Samhita (around 800 BC) is considered the Father of Surgery (his statue at the Royal Australian College of Surgeons (RACS that trains surgeons and is responsible for surgical standards in Australia and New Zealand) has a plaque mentioning him as such). He is considered the Father of Plastic Surgery, he pioneered rhinoplasty and has enumerated 100’s of surgical procedures. He is mentioned by the American Academy of Ophthalmology as a pioneer of cataract surgery. With colonial rule restrictions, Ayurvedic surgery was, lost yet today, Kshar Sutra for anorectal disorders and anal fistulas is successfully done in Ayurveda without impacting the quality of life of so many who would otherwise flounder. The future of revival of surgeries in Ayurveda (that are studied in the educational curriculum) is being considered by the Ministry of Ayush and will depend upon how things evolve medically in India.
Is Ayurveda restricted to the kitchen? Appropriate nutrition and spices are all accorded a great deal of importance, but this is the tip of the iceberg and can render Ayurveda somewhat self-limiting as people assume it is restricted to the kitchen. Our goals include prevention and management of diseases to preserve health.
Ayurveda and Mythology. There is symbolism in Ayurvedic mythology that we honor which forms a miniscule part of our study. Ashtanga Hridayam, a root text starts with bowing to Lord Dhanvantari, the legendary healer ( in all of us) and alleviating diseases caused by cravings and aversions. To us the myth that Lord Dhanvantari emerged from the churning of the ocean while the Gods and Demi-Gods fought symbolizes our own personal struggle and journey of health, wellbeing and evolution. And yes, many of us meditate before we meet Rogis to ground ourselves.
Attitudes towards Ayurveda. Some of us in India believe that everything modern and contemporary (or even Western) is good and look down upon the Oriental or the practices we grew up with as too simple and not glamorous enough. I recall I once had malaria, was given hydroxychloroquine, got jaundice and nearly died. An Ayurvedic practitioner in Old Delhi gave me an herb (that my pharmaceutical colleagues in CDRI were aware of) and it saved my life. I have a very healthy respect for modern medicine and believe in integrative medicine. To those seeking Ayurvedic solutions, do find out the credentials (licensure in India and study and practice in the US) of your Ayurvedic practitioner, question and understand the process. To Ayurvedic practitioners I would advise to save your mind; educate and ignore (as my Guru, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shakar says).
Aspiring to make the world a better place. For every science, there is a journey and there are people who will assert that the earth is not round. Ayurveda is one of the oldest forms of medicine that we are advancing together and contemporizing. As scientists we are humble about the fact that we don’t know what we don’t know and we are open to learn and self-correct. As healers there is much to be done so we avoid getting stuck in obstacles; we pray for everyone’s peace and wellbeing and believe that with even one person feeling happier and healthier, the world is a better place.
Ayurveda is the most ancient form of medicine that has endured and is available in a modernized, contemporary, and robust form today.