Most people, particularly those in the western world, are all too familiar with conventional medicine. These treatment options are frequently recognized as safe and effective solutions for various ailments. Yet, several factors questioning the effectiveness of western medicine have seen the rise of complementary and alternative medicine, with more emphasis on the cultural and historical significance of traditional medicine.
In truth, traditional medicine is widely used due to the lack of access and high cost of conventional medical treatment in many developing countries. Today, it remains the primary healthcare in some Asian and African countries, with the World Health Organization highlighting 80% use in these countries. Nonetheless, rising discontent with western medicine has seen these treatment options introduced into the western market.
One of the most popular forms of alternative medicine is Ayurveda. Considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science, Ayurveda embodies everything we know about natural healing systems and relies on a holistic approach to physical, mental, and emotional health. But how does it work? This article aims to shed more light on this 5000-year-old treatment practice.
What is Ayurveda
The term “Ayurveda” originates from the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit and translates to “science of life.” Within the context of Ayurvedic philosophy, there is a fundamental principle that all aspects of life are interconnected, from the physical to mental and spiritual dimensions of human existence. As such, it’s believed that maintaining good health and overall wellness requires the right balance in life, thinking, diet, lifestyle, and herbs.
Ayurveda or ayurvedic medicine provides a natural and holistic approach to health, emphasizing the importance of balance and integration in all aspects of one’s life. Typically, ayurvedic practitioners recommend a range of natural interventions, treatments, therapies, and remedies tailored to each persons specific needs. These interventions address the root cause of diseases and imbalance and may include dietary changes, exercises, herbal remedies, massage therapy, meditation, and other lifestyle modifications.
Some Ayurveda principles are similar to other well-known alternative medicine like traditional Chinese medicine. For instance, they both suggest that all individuals have energy systems that play a crucial role in maintaining optimal health and wellness. Ayurveda refers to this life force as “prana” and emphasizes promoting healthy flow and balance throughout the body.
Aside from energy systems, Ayurveda also defines specific constitutions, or “Prakriti,” which determine a person’s physical, psychological, behavioral, and immunological traits. All these elements combine to form specialized treatment plans as different constitutions are thought to respond to different treatments.
History of Ayurveda
Ayurveda is an ancient system of medicine believed to have originated over 5000 years ago during old India’s Vedic period. The earliest known reference to Ayurveda and its sister science, Yoga, can be found in the scholarly texts of the Vedas, which are considered some of the oldest and most sacred texts in the Hindu tradition.
These texts describe Ayurvedic principles passed down from the gods to sages and then human physicians and highlight the use of natural remedies, dietary guidelines, and lifestyle modifications to promote health and wellness.
Following its inception during the Vedic period, Ayurveda experienced a period of flourishing where it was widely practiced and taught in India. However, as India faced centuries of political struggles with several invading countries, especially the British Empire, the Vedic texts faced a difficult spell where they struggled to remain relevant. Western medicine and technologies were favored and highly promoted at this time, leading to the decline in the practice and recognition of Ayurvedic medicine.
Despite these challenges, Ayurvedic practitioners and scholars persisted in preserving and promoting the Vedic texts until India gained independence in 1947. In the 1980s, Ayurveda gained wider recognition and popularity in the West as part of the New Age movement, characterized by a growing interest in spirituality, alternative healing practices, and Eastern philosophy. The increasing popularity of Yoga also contributed to the spread of Ayurveda in the West, paving the way for its integration into mainstream healthcare systems and academic research in recent years.
Today, Ayurvedic medicine is recognized outside the shores of India as a valuable system of medicine that offers unique insights and approaches to wellness. It has also continued to evolve and adapt to the changing needs and challenges of the modern world.
Understanding Ayurvedic Medicine
As mentioned earlier, Vedic scholars believe everything in the universe is connected. Hence, a person's mind, body, and spirit in harmony with the Universe is a recipe for good health. Similarly, a disruption in this balance results in health issues.
According to Ayurvedic beliefs, every individual is composed of five fundamental elements in the universe – space, air, fire, water, and earth. The balance of these elements within the body is a crucial determinant of one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health, and they also combine to form three energy systems called doshas.
- Kapha Dosha (Space and Air)
Ayurvedic practitioners believe this is the most dominant dosha capable of exerting a significant influence on the body’s primary physiological functions and mental and emotional states. It also influences vital bodily processes such as breathing, heart function, blood flow, and other essential functions.
Typically, factors like eating again too soon after a meal, fear, grief, and late nights can disrupt the Kapha dosha, leading to imbalances that manifest as health issues. These health conditions could include but are not limited to, asthma, heart diseases, skin problems, anxiety, and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Pitta Dosha (Fire and Water)
According to Ayurvedic tradition, the Pitta dosha also governs several physiological processes in the body, including digestion, metabolism, and hormone regulation that influences appetite. Some factors that cause imbalances in the Pitta dosha include consuming sour or spicy food and prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Like Vata dosha, an imbalance in this energy system will also manifest as several conditions. Individuals with a dominant Pitta dosha are believed to be more susceptible to conditions such as Crohn’s disease, high blood pressure, heart diseases, and infections.
- Vata Dosha (Water and Earth)
Vata dosha is the subtle energy associated with movement. This energy system regulates several critical bodily functions, including muscle growth, body strength and stability, immune function, and weight management. Imbalances to the Vata dosha can result from daytime sleeping, excessive consumption of sweet or salty foods, and overconsumption of fluids.
Individuals with dominant Vata dosha are believed to be more susceptible to asthma, diabetes, obesity, nausea after eating, and cancer.
Each person has a combination of these three doshas in the body at any time. Hence, by understanding the characteristics and imbalances associated with these energy systems, Ayurvedic practitioners can prescribe specific dietary, lifestyle, and therapeutic interventions to restore balance and promote health.
Furthermore, the Vedic texts also identify a state of balance, or “Vikriti,” which represents the doshas elevated within our body at a specific time. If the doshas accumulate beyond healthy limits, they can adversely impact the host’s health.
Superfoods Included Within Ayurveda
Diet plays a significant role in Ayurveda medicine, as it is considered one of the foundational pillars of good health. Ayurvedic principles emphasize that the food we eat not only nourishes our physical body but also profoundly impacts our mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Today, superfoods have gained popularity as a vital part of a proper balanced diet. These dietary substances provide large amounts of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. However, while they might be all the buzz now, superfoods also have a foundation in Ayurveda medicine. Ayurveda recognizes the importance of mindful eating, including paying attention to “Ahar” – a dietary habit that says food must have at least one of six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy, and astringent.
Additionally, Ayurvedic principles highlight using fresh, whole foods, herbs, and spices to promote digestion and absorption of nutrients. As such, here are some superfoods included in Ayurveda.
- Turmeric: Turmeric is a spice that offers anti-inflammatory properties. It also provides a rich source of antioxidants.
- Ginger: Ginger is also known for its anti-inflammatory properties and is believed to aid digestion and help alleviate nausea.
- Ghee: This is a type of clarified butter that is rich in vitamins A, D, and E. Ghee is known to promote digestion and enhance immunity
- Amalaki: Also known as amla, or Indian gooseberry, Amalaki is a fruit rich in vitamin C and antioxidants.
- Ashwagandha: This is an adaptogenic herb that helps the body manage stress and anxiety, support the immune system, and improve brain function.
- Moringa: The moringa plant is high in nutrients and antioxidants. It also reduces inflammation, lowers cholesterol levels, and improves heart health.
- Triphala: Triphala is a blend of three fruits: amla, haritaki, and bibhitaki. It promotes digestive health and detoxification.
These are just a few examples of the many superfoods included in Ayurveda. Scholars advise people to incorporate these foods into their diets based on their doshas to promote overall health. Those without access to these foods can also rely on Ayurveda supplements that contain significant volumes of these superfoods to improve health, prevent diseases and restore balance within the body.