What is Ayurvedic Tradition?
‘Ayurveda’ means knowledge (veda) of life (a¯yus). It is one of the ancient Indian systems of healthcare and involves bringing about balance between body and mind. It includes individualized herbal remedies, diet, exercise (yoga), meditation, massage and other interventions. Health is perceived as a balance of physical, emotional and spiritual energies, and any deviation from health is thought to be caused by an imbalance of these elements. Treatment is aimed at reestablishing the balance through individualized prescriptions, usually of several interventions simultaneously.
Ayurvedic practitioners will take a medical history, examine the patient, diagnose the nature of the imbalance and try to restore balance. There is much emphasis on lifestyle advice, but Ayurvedic medicine supplements are also prescribed frequently. A consultation might take 30–60 minutes and numerous sessions are usually recommended, often lasting up to a year. All conditions are claimed to be treatable in the Ayurvedic tradition.
What is the Evidence?
The whole system of Ayurveda has not been submitted to clinical trials, but elements of it have. The results are mixed. For instance, yoga has proven benefits for cardiovascular health. A recent trial of Indian massage, however, showed no positive effects in stroke patients. Ayurvedic remedies usually contain a multitude of herbal and other compounds. Some encouraging findings exist for conditions like acne, constipation, diabetes, chronic heart failure, obesity and rheumatoid arthritis. However, in none of these cases is the evidence sufficiently strong to warrant a positive recommendation.
Ayurvedic medicines have regularly been implicated for containing substances such as heavy metals. These can either be a contaminant or a deliberate addition – according to Ayurvedic belief, they generate positive medicinal effects if handled properly. In reality, however, heavy metals are highly toxic no matter how they are prepared.
In summary, ayurvedic healthcare is a complex system that cannot be easily evaluated. The current evidence suggests that some of its elements are effective while many others are essentially untested, or overtly dangerous, e.g. many herbal preparations.
For More Information:
This extract is taken from “Trick or Treatment?” (Transworld), a book that contains a series of 1-page summaries looking at the evidence for and against a range of alternative therapies. The authors of the book are Simon Singh (founder of the Good Thinking Society) and Edzard Ernst (the world’s first professor of complementary medicine