Ayurveda is an alternative medicine system that originates in India and is thought to be over 4,000 years old.
The word ayurveda is sanskrit and roughly translates to mean “the knowledge of life”.
The practice is based on ancient Indian traditions and takes a holistic approach to health, believing that most conditions can be treated by:
- taking herbal supplements
- eating a healthy diet
- practising yoga, meditation or deep breathing exercises
- massage therapy
- sound therapy (mantras)
Some Ayurvedic practitioners also promote the use of a ‘cleansing’ treatment called Panchakarma. This is where enemas, oil massages, nasal irrigation and blood-letting are used to rid your body of toxins and treat a number of health conditions.
But what’s the evidence behind these claims? And are there risks to using an Ayurvedic treatment?
What is Ayurveda?
Practitioners of Ayurveda believe that diseases are caused by an imbalance in your body’s life force (or prana), which is made up of 3 central elements called doshas. The 3 doshas are:
- vata — which governs movement and the health of your bones, nerves, bladder and heart
- pitta — which regulates digestion and the health of your blood, liver, spleen, brain, eyes and skin
- kapha — which represents strength and governs the health of your body fat, muscles and connective tissues
Ayurvedic teachings say that everybody will have a dominant dosha, but all 3 elements need to be in balance to maintain good health.
Does Ayurveda work?
Ayurveda is a complex belief system which has evolved over a long period.
Treatments vary from person to person and some practitioners try to adapt their practice based on your ‘dominant’ dosha. This makes it hard to measure the overall effectiveness of ayurvedic medicine.
A few studies suggest that some Ayurvedic herbs may be able to treat health conditions like osteoarthritis and metabolic syndrome, though more research is needed.
Some evidence also suggests that therapies that involve yoga, meditation, deep breathing and massage may be able to help with conditions such as depression or anxiety, and ones that cause chronic (long-term) pain.
But studies that set out to explore individual treatment options often show mixed results,
Yoga has been shown to improve your strength, flexibility and balance. Studies also show that regular yoga practice may be good for your blood pressure and lower back pain.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that practising yoga may help to lower pain and improve mobility in people with osteoarthritis.
A 2020 review found that yoga could help to reduce symptoms of depression. The authors noted, however, that it was hard to determine how much yoga you had to practice in order to see an improvement.
In August 2020, another study found that practicing a type of yoga called “Kundalini yoga” was an effective way to treat the symptoms of anxiety. But the authors highlighted that talking therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) should still be the first line of treatment offered for this condition.
Kundalini yoga is a traditional form of yoga that combines physical movements, meditation, deep breathing and mantras.
Certain herbs and spices used in Ayurvedic preparations are believed to have medicinal properties.
For example, the spice turmeric is included in many remedies for joint pain and digestive problems and a few studies support its use in this way.
A review published in 2017 suggests that 1 of the natural chemicals in turmeric (curcumin) could help to reduce some of the stiffness and pain associated with osteoarthritis.
And these findings are backed up by another review published in 2019, which concluded that curcumin seems to be an effective treatment for osteoarthritis — although the authors of the study state that more research is needed on the subject.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that curcumin could be used to manage metabolic syndrome. This is when someone has 3 or more conditions such as obesity, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol.'
And a 2020 study found that a herb called boswellia (Indian frankincense) may have anti-inflammatory properties that are helpful in managing some forms of arthritis.
But there’s less evidence to support claims that Ayurvedic herbs can be used to treat diabetes, hay fever or chronic pain.
Panchakarma is a cleansing treatment that aims to rid your body of harmful toxins. The word panchakarma means “5 actions”, which refers to the 5 different ways the treatment aims to purify your body.
- Vamana – forced vomiting
- Virechana — where laxatives are used to empty your bowels
- Vasti — where enemas are used to clean your digestive tract
- Nasya or nasal irrigation — where water is used to clean out your nose
- Rakta Mokshana — blood-letting
Experts warn that therapies involving forced vomiting or bloodletting can be dangerous and should be avoided.
Evidence on the benefits of panchakarma as a whole is very limited and experts further warn of its dangers.
Is Ayurveda safe?
In India, Ayurvedic practices are regulated by the Ministry of Ayush — an official government body that oversees Ayurvedic medicine.
The Ministry of Ayush is responsible for controlling the quality of herbal medicines that are sold in India. They also regulate therapists that practice Ayurvedic treatments.
Overseas, groups like the British Association of Accredited Ayurvedic Practitioners and (US based) National Ayurvedic Medical Association try to make sure that Ayurvedic medicine is only carried out by trained practitioners.
But that doesn't mean that all Ayurvedic practices are safe.
Western medical practitioners generally believe more evidence is needed to support its use more widely.
Meditation and deep breathing exercises are generally considered safe to practice as there’s not much evidence to suggest they can harm your health.
But there are safety concerns around Ayurvedic herbs and panchakarma treatments.
Are panchakarma treatments safe?
Panchakarma treatments that involve blood letting or forced vomiting can be very dangerous and should be avoided.
Are herbal remedies safe?
Experts warn that some herbal preparations can be dangerous as they can interact with your normal medications — or cause side effects like nausea, vomiting or an increased heart rate.
The US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) warns that Ayurvedic treatments are not regulated in the same way as normal medicines. Some preparations have been found to contain harmful substances like lead, arsenic or mercury.
For example, a 2008 study found that about 1 in every 5 Ayurvedic preparations contained dangerous amounts of certain metals. Practices may have changed since this study was published, but it’s important to be careful and ask your doctor for advice before buying herbal supplements.
If you’re considering using an Ayurvedic practitioner, speak to your doctor. They will be able advise you and make sure that your new treatment doesn't interfere with any pre-existing conditions or medications.
- Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient practice that started over 4,000 years ago
- treatments include eating a healthy diet, taking herbal supplements, meditating and practising yoga
- there is some evidence to suggest that some herbal treatments could help to treat conditions like osteoarthritis
- some Ayurvedic practices can be dangerous, and toxic metals have been found in some herbal remedies