Asian medicines are fascinating, and they provide new strategies for treatment for those who haven’t helped by our western biomedical system.
As Chinese medicine was evolving north of the Himalayas, Ayurveda was emerging just south in India. While Ayurveda has been around since 6,000 BC or before, it’s only recently becoming popular in the U.S.
I didn’t encounter Ayurveda until I started working at the National College of Natural Medicine. Some of my students were interested in studying an Ayurvedic herb called Ashwagandha. This herb is central to Ayurveda with many purported effects, however very few studies addressed its effects on the immune system. At first, it seemed fairly straightforward to study Ashwagandha. However, as we began designing a study of Ashwagandha, I started to discover the complexity of the multifaceted Ayurvedic medicine.
Preparation of Herbs & Oil
For example, it matters how each herb is prepared and with what it is administered. Most Ayurvedic herbs are administered in combinations. It’s thought that using herbal combinations results in greater therapeutic efficacy.(1)
Another complexity in Ayurveda is that herbs may be administered with ghee (or other oils). I confess, I didn’t know what ghee was when I started. It turns out that ghee is a form of clarified butter. When ghee is combined with an herb, it’s possible that the fat helps the absorption of the herbal medicine.
But ghee isn’t just used as a carrier for herbs. It can be used medicinally. Ghee is thought to be good for a particular constitutional type called “pitta.”
What Type of Ayurveda are you?
This raises another complexity of Ayurveda. Individuals have a particular constitution called a “dosha.” There are 3 doshas: pitta (fire), vata (air), and kapha (earth).
The dosha helps Ayurvedic doctors determine what to give their patients. Some herbs are better for pitta, whereas others might be better for vata or kapha. In other words, the three doshas in Ayurveda are an example of personalized medicine that originated thousands of years ago.(2)
You want to know your constitutional type, don’t you? There are many online tests that you can take to determine which type is dominant for you. Here’s an example. http://tridosha.com/self-test. However, I confess that one of my colleagues, Dr. Corina Dunlap, has tested the validity of these tests and shown that they may not be as accurate as we might hope. Nevertheless, just like my inability to resist a good ‘Cosmo Quiz,’ I have taken the tridosha test and determined that I am pitta. An Ayurveda doctor will tell you that it’s not as easy as that. Your doshas shift with your health and situation. Even so, it’s a good start.
Yoga and Ayurveda
Yoga also originated with Ayurveda. As a form of therapy, the research behind yoga has been growing steadily. Yoga has been studied for everything from weight loss and depression to epilepsy and cardiovascular disease. One thing that amazes me is that certain yoga poses can encourage specific biological processes like stimulating digestion or reducing sciatica.
And then there are the spas. I was able to experience the serenity of Miraval spa in Tucson last year for the second time. Ayurvedic massage, aerial yoga, and beautiful places to meditate can make anyone aware of what health really is. Sometimes when all of the stresses of everyday life seem overwhelming, a self-care can re-center you and get you back in balance.
For me, there are enough interesting components to Ayurveda to continue to explore it. The research is growing and so is the access. Perhaps one day we will see Ayurveda licensed in the US, making it more available to everyone.