What Is Ayurveda? How Ayurvedic Medicine Works

Updated: Jun. 23, 2016

Used for acne, burns, and frequent illness, the ancient healing system of Ayurvedic medicine has much appeal for the modern world.

what-is-ayurvedaiStock/Nina Hilitukha

Practiced in India for thousands of years, Ayurveda takes a holistic and personalized approach, treating the whole person and providing a unique assessment of each individual. The goal of any treatment is to create a harmonious mental and physical balance, synonymous with health and well-being.

In Ayurvedic terminology, everyone has a unique combination of three doshas or energy types: vata (which controls movement), pitta (which controls digestion and metabolism) and kapha (which controls growth and maintenance). Anything such as stress or a poor diet that upsets the balance of the doshas, and a number of subcomponents, can have adverse physical and mental effects. Once the precise type of imbalance has been identified, the practitioner prescribes a tailor-made treatment.

While the nature of such a system challenges scientific evaluation, Western research supports individual components. Mainstays of Ayurveda, including lifestyle practices, yoga, meditation, and certain dietary interventions, have been borrowed and adapted across the world. Studies of specific Ayurvedic herbs are revealing constituents that help explain their therapeutic powers. For example, compounds in ashwagandha and holy basil, known as adaptogens, are thought to balance and revitalize the body.

Similarly, research suggests that various enzymes, hormones, and sugars in aloe vera help burns and other wounds heal faster; while the combination of aloe with two anti-inflammatory herbs—ashwagandha and turmeric—has been shown to naturally treat acne. Studies of another ayurvedic herb, andrographis, suggest that certain bioactive constituents may hold the key to its ability to prevent and curtail the common cold.

Where to Find Ayurvedic Medicine

To find a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner, visit the National Ayurvedic Medical Association or ask your doctor for a referral.

Safety First

Tell the Ayurvedic practitioner if you are pregnant and mention any medical condition you have. Ensure that you inform your doctor of any Ayurvedic herbs you are taking and tell your Ayurvedic practitioner about any prescription medicines you are on.

A Visit to an Ayurvedic Practitioner

At an initial treatment session, your practitioner will ask about your medical history, diet, and lifestyle. He or she will conduct a short physical examination, taking your pulse, looking at your eyes, tongue, and skin and even assessing your voice. Treatment will be designed to restore your personal dosha balance and may include lifestyle and dietary changes, mantras and meditation, as well as cleansing strategies and herbal medicines.

The Role of Food in Ayurvedic Medicine

The diet is a key component of the Ayurvedic healing system and a practitioner will ask you closely about yours. He or she will recommend you eat more or less of certain types of food, herbs, and spices—depending on your dosha—with the aim of bringing your body back into balance. When the body is well nourished and in balance, it is better able to fight off infection and ailments are less likely to arise. Common ingredients in Ayurvedic cooking include holy basil, ginger, fenugreek, garlic, gotu kola, turmeric, and sesame seed oil.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest