What Is Ayurveda? Here's How This Ancient System Can Heal You

Written by Elsbeth Riley

Image by Suzanne Clements / Stocksy

Ayurvedic medicine is truly so much more than medicine. This 5,000-year-old practice began in India and has since spread across the world, shaping and improving many lives.

The core of ayurveda is focused on prevention. It's based on the concept that general health and wellness rely on a delicate balance between mind, body, and spirit. Common practices in this system include yoga, meditation, mindful eating, breathing exercises, and more. While it aims to prevent disease, in some cases it can be used to treat disease.

If you've been searching for a holistic and balanced approach to your overall health, you're in the right place. Read on to learn everything you need to know about the practice of ayurveda.

The history of ayurveda.

Ayurveda dates back thousands of years. The earliest recorded texts on the practice, known as "The Vedas," describe the transfer of knowledge and wisdom from Gods to sages and then from sages to doctors.

The Vedas detail extensive preventive care approaches, as well as treatments, even highlighting surgical procedures like nose jobs, kidney stone removal, and stitches. The conditions that the Vedas detail how to treat with over 700 ayurvedic herbs include dry skin, fever, diarrhea, tumors, seizures, heart disease, and beyond.

Ayurvedic medicine thrived until India began to experience political conflict and invasion, notably by the British Empire. Plenty of people weren't dissuaded by the Western influence and continued to practice on the fringes of society. When India gained independence from Britain in the middle of the 20th century, ayurveda found its place again as a major medical system and practice that still continues to thrive in India—practiced by more than 90% of the country—and now is recognized around the world.

The science behind ayurveda.

In Sanskrit, the word ayurveda translates to "the science of life." In Western medicine, ayurveda is classified as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). CAM carries a stigma, as many Western medicine practitioners believe it's not based in science and provides treatments that are unproven and ineffective. However, recent data show that around 38% of adults in the United States use CAM treatments like acupuncture, massage, reiki, and—you guessed it—ayurveda.

While scientific research into ayurvedic medicine may be less prevalent than research on Western treatments, it's not nonexistent. In the 1970s, the World Health Organization conducted research that detailed the safety and efficacy of ayurveda for treating rheumatoid arthritis. That study found that the treatments provided relief for arthritis symptoms with no harmful side effects. A more recent study found that ayurvedic medicine can be helpful in determining a patient's risk of developing Parkinson's disease.

Ultimately, while Western medical practice primarily focuses on the treatment of disease, ayurvedic medicine is focused on the prevention of disease. Ayurvedic practitioners focus on maintaining the balance of energy through diet, exercise, and mindfulness that they believe is essential to overall health. When stress levels are low and your body and energy are aligned, the immune system can more effectively ward off disease.

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The benefits of ayurveda.

Because ayurvedic medicine focuses on holistic health and wellness, the benefits are vast. From self-confidence—ayurveda teaches you to love yourself—to weight loss to heart disease, this practice differs from the sometimes "one-size-fits-all" that Western medicine takes and allows practitioners to customize their approach based on mental and physical needs.

1. Promotes heart health.

A 2015 study suggested that ayurvedic medicine can have positive effects on people with coronary heart disease. This isn't surprising when you think about it. The practices of yoga and meditation have been shown to help regulate high blood pressure.

2. Reduces inflammation.

By now you've probably heard that inflammation is the culprit in many of the United States' most prevalent diseases. It can be caused by a lack of sleep (or just poor-quality sleep), digestive issues, and unhealthy diets. The focus on nutrition, sleep, and mindfulness in ayurveda has the potential to reduce inflammation by addressing its underlying causes.

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3. Improves sleep.

Though we've all done it, unhealthy snacking right before bed can disrupt sleep, along with caffeine or alcohol consumption. And our unhealthy addiction to our phones and screens has been shown to keep the mind active long after the devices are down. Ayurveda's approach to healthy eating and mindfulness has the potential to get you a good night's rest. Beyond that, simple practices such as rubbing an ayurvedic oil like jasmine or coconut on your temples has a calming effect that could lull you to sleep.

4. Promotes weight loss.

While ayurvedic medicine is focused on wellness, not weight loss, it can be a helpful tool for anyone in need of shedding a few pounds. Exercise and movement like yoga paired with mindful eating can promote a healthier lifestyle that leads to weight loss. Ayurveda recommends making lunch your largest meal of the day so that your body has plenty of time to digest, then eating a light dinner. And because most snack foods are highly processed and can disrupt the metabolism, it's recommended to keep snacking between meals to a minimum.

Creating inner balance with ayurveda.

As previously mentioned, balance is the key to ayurvedic medicine. And this is achieved by maintaining the three doshas—or energies—of ayurveda. It is believed that an equilibrium of these three energies is the key to health and wellness.

"The doshas are 'health types' used in ayurvedic medicine to specify how certain people should eat, sleep, exercise and what their emotional strengths and weaknesses may be," says Taz Bhatia, M.D., integrative medicine physician and mbg Collective member. "There are three main doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha."

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Vata dosha

Vata represents the energy of movement and is often associated with the earth force of the wind. It's linked with flexibility and creativity and surrounds all bodily movements like breathing, muscle contraction, and heart function. An imbalance in the vata dosha can result in anxiety and fear. People who are predominantly vata "need more protein and fat, along with warming foods and gentle exercise," says Bhatia.

Kapha dosha

Kapha is associated with earth and water and is thought to control strength, grounding, and growth. It is a stabilizing energy thought to supply water to the body and maintain the immune system. An imbalance in the kapha dosha can lead to envy and insecurity. People who are predominantly kapha "need protein and complex carbs, cooling foods, and a mix of calming and invigorating exercise," says Bhatia.

Pitta dosha

Pitta is linked to fire and is thought to control the endocrine, metabolic, and digestive systems. An imbalance in pitta can lead to anger, ulcers, and skin rashes. People who are predominantly pitta, "need to eat low-carb, high-protein, high-fiber, and need more vigorous activity and weight training to help [counter] their natural tendency to gain weight," says Bhatia.

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Incorporating ayurvedic medicine into daily life.

Ayurveda has powerful benefits when it comes to creating balance and addressing physical, mental, and emotional health with a holistic approach.

If you think ayurveda could be a fit for you, do additional research before making any drastic life changes. Talk to your health care provider before stopping any medication and before starting any supplements or treatments, and consider seeking out a medical professional with a strong background in both Western and ayurvedic medicine.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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