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Ayurveda

By Steven Novella, MD

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Patient Education

Ayurveda, the traditional medical system of India, originated > 4000 yr ago. It is based on the theory that disease results from an imbalance of the body’s life force (prana). It aims to restore balance within the body. The balance of prana is determined by equilibrium of the 3 bodily qualities (doshas): vata, pitta, and kapha. Most people have a dominant dosha; the specific balance is unique to each person.

Evidence for Ayurveda

Few well-designed studies of Ayurvedic practices have been done. Use of Ayurvedic herbal combinations to relieve symptoms in patients with RA has been studied. A 2005 systematic review1 identified randomized controlled trials that studied the efficacy of Ayurvedic herbal combinations for treatment of RA. Only a few high-quality studies were identified, but existing evidence did not demonstrate efficacy for treatment of RA. Use of Ayurvedic practices to treat diabetes is being studied.

  • 1 Park J, Ernst E: Ayurvedic medicine for rheumatoid arthritis: a systematic review. Semin Arthritis Rheum 34(5):705–13, 2005.

Uses for Ayurveda

After determining the balance of doshas, practitioners design a treatment specifically tailored to each patient. Ayurveda uses diet, herbs, massage, meditation, yoga, and therapeutic detoxification (panchakarma)—typically with enemas, oil massages, or nasal lavage—to restore balance within the body and with nature.

Possible Adverse Effects

In some of the herbal combinations used, heavy metals (mainly lead, mercury, and arsenic) are included because they are thought to have therapeutic effects. Several studies1,2 found that about 20% of Ayurvedic herbal supplements were contaminated with heavy metals in doses that, if taken as directed, could cause toxicity; cases3of heavy metal toxicity have been reported.

  • 1 Saper RB, et al: Heavy metal content of Ayurvedic herbal medicine products. JAMA 292(23):2868–73, 2004.

  • 2 Martena MJ, Van Der Wielen JC, Rietjens IM, et al: Monitoring of mercury, arsenic, and lead in traditional Asian herbal preparations on the Dutch market and estimation of associated risks. Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess27(2):190–205, 2010.

  • 3 Gair R: Heavy metal poisoning from Ayurvedic medicines. BCMJ 50(2):105, 2008.

* This is the Professional Version. *