Roughly translated as the "knowledge of life," Ayurveda is a traditional method of medical treatment in India that has been practiced for more than 3,000 years. It is based on the concept that illness arises when the body’s three systems, or doshas, are out of balance. To balance the nervous (Vata), the venous (Pitta) and the arterial (Kapha) systems, Ayurvedic practitioners primarily prescribe medicinal herbs and massage with oil. Additional healing methods can include yoga, sweat baths, meditation, medical enemas and nasal cleansing.
Rooted in Hinduism, the philosophy of Ayurvedic medicine contends that the body, mind and soul are connected to the outer world. When the relationship among these elements of one’s personality is out of balance, health problems arise. The practice has evolved in recent years to treat such modern health concerns as addiction, work stress, weight loss and infertility.
Modern Indian society recognizes Ayurveda as a legitimate medical system. Practitioners receive state-licensed, institutionalized medical training. Approximately two-thirds of India’s rural people, who comprise 70 percent of the population, use Ayurveda for their primary health care needs. In the United States, approximately 751,000 people have received Ayurvedic treatment, according to a 2004 National Center for Health Statistics study.
Despite Ayurveda's growing popularity in the West, traces of lead, mercury and arsenic have been found in over-the-counter Ayurvedic medicines manufactured in South Asia. The Center for Disease Control received 12 reports of lead poisoning linked to Ayurvedic medications in 2004. As well, Ayurveda faces challenges brought about by the continued modernization in all sectors of Indian life. Read the extended interview with Dr. Ram Manohar of Arya Vaidya Pharmacy for more on the finer points of Ayurvedic treatment, the dilemmas that come with standardized medicine and training, and the UCLA study measuring Ayurveda’s effectiveness compared with Western practices.
Efficacy of Ayurveda in Test
India's national newspaper, The Hindu, reports on the UCLA study of rheumatoid arthritis patients at the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (AVP) in Coimbatore, India. Dr. Daniel Furst, director of clinical research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, is leading the study, which tests combinations of allopathic and Ayurvedic treatments to determine efficacy. "There is a major push for study on Ayurveda in the United States,” Furst says in the story. “It has been practiced for 3,000 years [in India]. No one will do it if it is garbage. It will gain credibility if adequately tested and will be used more."
Perspective: Ayurveda and Conventional Medicine
A U.S. federal agency, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), publishes this biannual newsletter on alternative healing practices, examining them through a scientific lens.
Introduction to Ayurvedic Philosophy
This holistic Web site provides an introduction to the history of Ayurveda and a New Age interpretation of the philosophy. It describes the connection between body and mind as integral and discusses maintaining health through "lifestyle interventions and natural therapies."
Library of Congress Study of Indian History and Health Care
This 1995 Library of Congress study by James Heitzman and Robert L. Worden offers an extensive overview of Indian history and health care. Ayurveda is one of the two main forms of traditional Indian medicine. The other is the herbal medical practice called "Unani." Not until the late 1970s did India's official health policy include the integration of Western medical doctors with practitioners of traditional medicine.
Traditional Beliefs and Natural Remedies
The principles of Ayurveda are compared with those of modern medicine on this Web site produced by Baylor University. It gives examples of natural remedies for common ailments such as headaches and fever and lists a few of the approximately 14,000 plants used in herbal medicine.
The Ayurveda Wars
This article in The Indian Express examines the connection between heavy metal poisoning and Ayurvedic medicine. It reports on recent accounts of patients who suffered from seizures and liver malfunctions due to ingesting high levels of arsenic, lead and mercury, which are found in some brands of over-the-counter medicine labeled "Ayurvedic."
Heavy Metals in Ayurvedic Products
The Journal of the American Medical Association published this Harvard University study of heavy metals in Ayurvedic herbal medicine products bought in the Boston area. Twenty percent of the products contained lead, mercury and/or arsenic. The study includes a list of these high-toxicity products and their manufacturers.
World Health Organization Report on Traditional Medicine (pdf)
According to this report published by the World Health Organization in 2003, 65 percent of India's rural population uses Ayurveda and herbal medicine for their primary health care. To meet regulatory challenges, the WHO suggests a plan for countries to implement national traditional medicine policies and programs, which would define the government's role in medicine development and delivery.
Need Surgery, Will Travel
This Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) article on medical tourism discusses India's marketing of itself as a destination for treatments that are prohibitively expensive in Western countries.
Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy (AYUSH), Government of India
This branch of India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare regulates the quality of prescription drugs and the educational standards for medical and homeopathic colleges. Their Web site provides information on Ayurveda as well as yoga, naturopathy, and the ancient Indian health care systems of Siddha and Unani.
American Academy of Ayurvedic Medicine (AAAM)
This organization of Ayurvedic practitioners, educators, researchers and administrators from India and the United States works to "obtain the necessary recognition for Ayurveda as a health care discipline, obtain licensure for practitioners in the United States, and develop practice guidelines, quality of care and standardization of products." The AAAM receives support from the government of India and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (AVP)
The home page of the Ayurvedic facility in Coimbatore, India, offers a look at the place where reporter T.R. Reid was treated. In addition to providing treatment, AVP manufactures numerous Ayurvedic medicines, including 15 over-the-counter products.
National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine (NIAM)
One of the only American medical doctors to hold degrees in both Ayurvedic and conventional allopathic medicine, Scott Gerson, M.D., Ph.D., founded NIAM, which provides medical treatment and training in Ayurveda in New York. The Web site explains basic Ayurvedic principles, outlines specific plants, techniques and remedies, and provides a list of book and retreat resources.
National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA)
This nonprofit trade organization of U.S. Ayurvedic practitioners serves to protect and promote Ayurvedic philosophy through education and public policy.
The Ayurvedic Institute
This Ayurvedic school and spa located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, aims to help integrate Ayurvedic principles into modern medical practices.
This organization in India has an "online Ayurvedic clinic," which offers health consultations. It sells numerous Ayurvedic products and offers online and residential courses on Ayurvedic medicine.
From Our Files
FRONTLINE: The Alternative Fix
Americans are spending billions on alternative medical treatments. And major hospitals and medical schools are embracing them. In this piece from 2003, FRONTLINE explores whether they really work.
(Sources: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institute for Ayurvedic Medicine, HolisticOnline.com)
-- Alison Satake and Andi McDaniel