What is Ayurvedic Medicine?
Ayurveda was the medical system of ancient India. It focuses on natural and holistic approaches to health and wholeness. The word “ayurveda” means “knowledge of life and longevity” in Sanskrit.
History of Ayurvedic Medicine
Writings of Ayurvedic medicine originate from the first few millenniums BC, although some scholars believe that some of the concepts of Ayurveda have come from as early as the Indus Valley Civilization. The main development of theoretical ideas occurred during the first millennium BC, placing an emphasis on balance and not suppressing one’s natural urges – for example, it was believed that if one tried not to sneeze, they may get a shoulder pain. However, it was also important for one to stay within reasonable limits particularly for matters such as food, sleep and sexual acts.
Some works teaching Ayurveda were translated to Chinese in the fifth century and to Arabic and Persian in the eighth century. By the twelfth century, the Ayurvedic texts had travelled to Europe, where notable families in Renaissance Italy were influenced by the writings, particularly on the subject of surgery and rhinoplasty. Physicians from Europe travelled to India to observe the surgical procedures, publishing medical journals about the techniques. In 1815, Joseph Constantine Carpue performed the first rhinoplasty in the Western world using the Ayurvedic method.
Teachings of Ayurveda
Early Sanskrit records of Ayurveda divide medicine into eight components, which are general medicine, pediatrics, surgery, treatment of ailments affecting the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, dealing with spirit possession, toxicology and antidotes, rejuvenation and increasing one’s lifespan, intellect and strength, and lastly aphrodisiacs for increasing one’s pleasure and dealing with infertility.
Ayurveda details seven basic tissues (or dhatu) of the body: plasma, blood, muscles, fat, bone, marrow and semen. Bodily substances were also divided into five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. Ten pairs of contrasting characteristics are believed to exist in all types of matter: heavy and light, cold and hot, unctuous and dry, dull and sharp, stable and mobile, soft and hard, non-slimy and slimy, smooth and coarse, minute and gross, and viscous and liquid.
Three bodily humors exist in Ayurveda, called the doshas. They are Vata, Pitta and Kapha, and Ayurveda teaches that these humors must be balanced to ensure good health, while an imbalance would result in disease. There were often two views on the concept of balancing one’s humors. Some thought that the humors must be perfectly equal to one another to be balanced, while others thought that the perfect balance differed according to each person, and it was these unique combinations that gave people their temperaments and characteristics. Either way, Ayurvedic medicine believed that in order to increase or decrease the doshas and return them to their original state, one must modulate their behavior or environment.
Ama, meaning uncooked or undigested in Sanskrit, is an Ayurveda concept referring to anything that exists in a partial or incomplete state of transformation. Food that has been improperly or partially digested is regarded as such, and is believed to be a toxic byproduct of the abnormal process.
Practices of Ayurvedic Medicine
In Ayurveda, the natural cycles are regarded as important. It is recommended that one keep to regular sleeping and waking, working and meditation to improve their health. Personal hygiene is also important in one’s well-being, with emphasis placed on regular bathing, skin care, washing of teeth, tongue scraping and eye washing.
One belief commonly used in Ayurvedic treatment is that one’s physical existence, mental existence and personality are wholes in themselves, with each one being able to influence the others. It is also thought that there are channels, called srotas, which transport fluids, and these channels can be opened up when they are massaged with oils and Swedana (steam therapy). If one’s channels are blocked or unhealthy, it can lead to disease.
Ayurvedic diagnosis can be done through eight methods: Nadi (pulse), Mootra (urine), Mala (stool), Jihva (tongue), Shabda (speech), Sparsha (touch), Druk (vision) and Aakruti (appearance). The lethal points, marman marma, are also observed during diagnosis.
Medicine in Ayurveda can include components from plants, animals (milk, bones and gallstones) and minerals. It was found that some Ayurvedic medications contained toxic amounts of lead, mercury or arsenic. The practice of adding metals to herbal medicines is called rasa shastra.
Alcohol and opium are also used in Ayurvedic preparations. In particular, an alcoholic beverage called Madya is said to be able to adjust the doshas, namely increasing Pitta while decreasing Vatta and Kapha. There are different types of Madya according to its raw material and fermentation process. Madya is believed to be non-viscid and fast-acting, able to permeate and clean minute pores of the body. It can improve one’s digestion or taste, loosen joints, cause purgation or create dryness.
Opium is mainly used for its sedative and pain-relieving effects. The first use of opium in Ayurvedic practices dates back to the mid-2nd century BC, where it is described as an aphrodisiac to increase one’s pleasure. Other Ayurvedic writings mention opium being used for a variety of ailments, including diarrhea, acute gastroenteritis and pain relief.
Tar and oils were usually used to stop bleeding. In the case of traumatic bleeding, practitioners would attempt to stop it using four methods: facilitating clotting, constricting the blood vessels, ligating the blood vessels and cauterization by heat.
In modern times, Ayurvedic practices are still being used in parts around the world. The percentage of those practicing some form of traditional medicine (including Ayurveda) in India is around 80 percent. Other major populations that use Ayurveda are Nepal and Sri Lanka.
It is still unproven whether the use of heavy metals in herbal preparations produces positive effects. Scientific studies have generally found that those who regularly consume Ayurvedic medicine tend to have higher levels of lead and mercury in their blood than the recommended amounts, with some cases of lead poisoning being linked to Ayurvedic medicine use. In Ayurvedic practice, heavy metals are considered to be active ingredients that are detoxified in certain physico-chemical purification processes when the medications are taken. The Indian government has ruled that the metallic content of Ayurvedic medications must be declared. However, quality control is difficult at this time and many Ayurvedic products are marketed without being approved by the relevant government authorities.
In general, Ayurvedic practice is regarded by researchers as pseudoscience and a form of alternative medicine. Some studies conducted on the effectiveness of Ayurvedic medicine showed that they had similar effectiveness to contemporary Western treatments for the same condition.
Despite concern over the practice of rasa shastra, Ayurveda practice is hailed as one of the oldest forms of medicine in the world, leaving behind a legacy worth millennia.