Ayurveda, or “science of life,” is one of the oldest healing systems in the world. The first known practitioners of this ancient medical practice resided in India approximately 5,000 years ago. Its origins lie in one of the holy books of the Hindu religion, the Atharvaveda, which compiles 114 separate treatments for disease from which the practices of Ayurveda supposedly developed in order to treat ailments via the methods dictated by the divine order.
Essential to the success of Ayurveda remains the individual’s commitment to better health, practiced through modified diet, exercise, yoga, and meditation. It aims to serve as a holistic method of treating and preventing illness by serving the mind, body, and spirit. Practices like meditation and yoga strive to bring together the body and mind, and practitioners administer over 600 different herbal remedies to treat or prevent disease. Turmeric, for example, serves as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, and Ayurvedic practitioners use various spices to aid in the prevention of cardiovascular disease.
The practice of Ayurveda has become increasingly popular across the United States. In 1995, the state of California approved the California College of Ayurveda, one of the first institutions outside of India dedicated to training specialists in Ayurvedic medicine. Since then, organizations dedicated to the training and practice of Ayurvedic principles, including the National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine and the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, have been established across the United States. The technique is practiced by everyone from medical doctors and osteopathic physicians to massage therapists and unlicensed health practitioners. In addition, Ayurvedic medications are sold both online and as over-the-counter formulas. The practice has become so prevalent that the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) reports spending 1.2 million dollars in 2009 on research related to Ayurvedic practices. Multiple studies have evaluated particular ayurvedic remedies. For example, the article “Therapeutic potential of Phyllanthus emblica (amla): the ayurvedic wonder” from the Journal of Basic and Clinical Physiology and Pharmacology evaluates a popular ayurvedic plant and finds properties that may be useful in addressing everything from diabetes to bacterial infections. In the Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology article “From ancient medicine to modern medicine: ayurvedic concepts of health and their role in inflammation and cancer,” scientists from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center proposed ways in which ayurvedic medicine can be used to supplement allopathic medicine in the treatment of cancer through, for example, the use of ayurvedic herbs.
Skeptics of Ayurvedic medicine abound. While these practices have become more prevalent in the United States and across the world, large-scale, comprehensive clinic trials have yet to be conducted to prove the value of many Ayurvedic remedies in disease treatment and prevention. Additionally, a 2004 study funded by the NCCAM reported that at least fourteen over-the-counter Ayurvedic formulas contained levels of lead, mercury, or arsenic at potentially hazardous levels. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2004 reported twelve patients who had suffered from lead poisoning associated with Ayurvedic remedies. A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association further validated these concerns, demonstrating that approximately one-fifth of Ayurvedic products sold on the internet contained detectable levels of lead, mercury, or arsenic. The researchers predicted that use of these products could lead to metal ingestion up to 100,000 times the level deemed safe and acceptable.
Most Ayurvedic remedies are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because they are marketed for uses not regulated by the FDA. In 2007, the FDA placed an import alert on several Ayurvedic products to impede their use in the United States. The FDA is currently considering restrictions on domestically-manufactured Ayurvedic products as well, but whether or not such increased domestic regulation will affect the popularity of Ayurvedic practices is yet to be seen.
While there may be promise for the use of certain Ayurvedic techniques for the successful treatment and prevention of disease, many of the treatments must be used with a vigilant eye for possible negative health consequences. As a highly popular and rapidly spreading form of alternative medicine, Ayurveda will continue to serve as an area of interest for both healthcare providers and regulatory institutions alike.
This article was updated on 8/19/2011.