Dr Sarah Brewer June 27, 2019

Ayurveda is an ancient, Indian system of medicine whose name translates as 'knowledge of life'. It dates back over 5000 years and is both older, and followed by more people, than Western medicine. 

What are the principles of Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is based on a belief that everything in the universe is composed of five elements: earth, ether, fire, water and air. These combine to form three internal forces, or doshas:

Pitta

Diagram saying pita=water+fire

Pitta

...is the metabolic force

Kapha

Diagram explaining what kapha is (water and earth)

Kapha

...is the fluid force

Vata

Diagram saying vata=air+ether

Vata

...is the driving or moving force

What do doshas have to do with health?

The balance between the relative levels of each dosha is believed to rise and fall according to the time of day and the seasons as well as your diet and lifestyle factors. Everyone has one or two dominant doshas, however, which determine your constitution, body type and the illnesses to which you are prone.

Unbalanced doshas can lead to ill health and can result from irregular meals, poor diet, working long hours and lack of exercise, for example.

As different foods contain different levels of the three doshas, they are used to normalise dosha imbalances, with different combinations of food recommended to treat different conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and various forms of arthritis. A daily program of meditation, posture control, breathing exercises (pranayama), yoga, hydrotherapy, massage and herbal medicines is also recommended.

Ayurvedic massageOil surrounded by broken up bits of coconut

Ayurvedic massage uses therapeutic oils produced from medicinal herbs boiled in sesame or coconut oil. The correct therapeutic oil for each patient is selected by a physician during an initial consultation in which your constitutional type and any ailments are considered.

Over 80 different oil and herb blends are available, but only 10 to 20 are used regularly. During an Ayurvedic therapeutic massage, a therapist rubs half a litre of the chosen medicinal oil into your entire body and hair for around 45 minutes.

Penetration of the medicinal oil is then encouraged by sitting in a steam room for fifteen minutes before the oil is showered off using a green paste made from gram flour and herbs to absorb the last traces of grease.

Aloe vera in close upAyurvedic herbs

A number of traditional herbs and spices are used in Ayurvedic medicine. Some are now well known in the west, such as Aloe vera, fenugreek, cardamom, cumin, liquorice and turmeric.

Turmeric in small basketAyurvedic turmeric

Turmeric is a golden spice obtained from the underground stems, or rhizomes, of a ginger-like plant. Turmeric is used extensively in the kitchen, and is also a traditional Ayurvedic medicine used to reduce inflammation, boost liver function and support immunity.

The main active ingredient in turmeric is a powerful antioxidant pigment called curcumin. Modern research supports the traditional use of turmeric by showing it suppresses inflammation in osteoarthritis and Crohn's disease (an inflammatory disease of the bowel), improves resistance against infection and stimulates bile production in the liver to improve digestion and reduce gallbladder pain.

Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP)

There has been some negative coverage of ayurvedic medicines, saying they have the potential to contain unsafe levels of metal such as lead, mercury and even arsenic. Because of the lack of regulations regarding the manufacturing and purity of traditional Ayurvedic medicines, it’s important to select products made to a pharmaceutical standard known as GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice). Testing ensures such products do not contain such impurities and provide a consistent dose, so you get the same benefit each time you take it.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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