Merck Manual

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Denise Millstine

, MD, Mayo Clinic

Last full review/revision Feb 2019| Content last modified Feb 2019
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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. (See also Overview of Integrative, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine.)

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 uses

Ayurveda has been studied, including in allergic rhinitis, neurologic conditions, pain, and diabetes. As with other studies of whole medical systems, high-quality research is difficult to conduct. 

Possible side effects

In some of the botanical 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.

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