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By Steven Novella, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine

Ayurveda is the traditional medical system of India, originating more than 4,000 years ago. It is based on the theory that illness results from the imbalance of the body’s life force or prana. The balancing of this life force is determined by the equilibrium of the three bodily qualities called doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. Most people have a dominant dosha, and the specific balance among the three doshas is unique to each person. Health care practitioners evaluate people by

  • Questioning them about symptoms, behavior, and lifestyle

  • Observing their overall appearance, including the eyes, tongue, and skin

  • Taking their pulse and checking their urine and stool

After determining the balance of doshas, health care practitioners design a treatment specifically tailored to each person. Ayurveda uses diet, herbs, massage, meditation, yoga, and internal cleansing (therapeutic elimination). Cleansing typically involves injecting fluid into the rectum to cause a bowel movement (an enema) or washing out the nose with water (nasal lavage) to restore balance within the body and with nature.

Medicinal claims

In Ayurveda, ashwaghanda, a medicinal herb, has been used to treat various disorders, such as arthritis, anxiety, difficulty sleeping (insomnia), tumors, tuberculosis, asthma, bronchitis, backache, fibromyalgia, menstrual problems, hiccups, and chronic liver disease. However, studies are needed to determine whether ashwaghanda is effective for these problems.

Few well-designed studies of Ayurvedic practices have been done. Ayurvedic herbal combinations have been studied in people with rheumatoid arthritis. However, there is no convincing evidence that these treatments are effective in relieving symptoms. Use of Ayurvedic practices to treat diabetes is being studied.

Possible side effects

In some of the herbal combinations used in Ayurveda, heavy metals (mainly lead, mercury, and arsenic) are included because they are thought to have therapeutic effects. However, heavy metal poisoning can result from taking such combinations, even in their recommended doses.

Ashwaghanda may have side effects, such as an upset stomach, diarrhea, or vomiting. Use of ashwaghanda may also increase the severity of autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. Ashwaghanda can interact with other drugs. For example, if people who are taking a sedative also take ashwaghanda, they may become too drowsy. Both drugs cause drowsiness.