Ayurveda is an ancient traditional healing science/ system/modality of the Vedic culture from India. It dates back millennia, and yet its methodologies are as applicable today in the West as they were thousands of years ago in India.
Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that literally translates as “The Wisdom of Life” or “The Knowledge of Longevity.” In accordance with this definition, Ayurvedic medicine views health as much more than the absence of disease; the primary focus is to promote good health rather than fight disease, but treatments may be recommended for specific health problems.
History of Ayurveda
Ayurveda is the oldest holistic (whole-body) healing modality, based as it is on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit. The wise seers and sages of the time intuitively understood the physiology and workings of the mind-body-spirit long before the advents of modern medicine.
Ayurvedic medicine was originally an oral tradition, taught and passed directly from teacher to apprentice, who would learn and work side by side, and so these practices and were passed on by word of mouth. The oldest written codification of Ayurvedic principles is found in the Rig Veda.
The fundamentals are laid out in 3 ancient books known as The Great Trilogy, written in Sanskrit more than 2,000 years ago. These 3 are considered the main texts on Ayurvedic medicine; Caraka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and Astanga Hridaya.
The Ashtanga Hridaya explains that when the doshas are in balance, they each perform functions that are necessary for homeostasis, but when they are imbalanced, they are the agents of disease.
Numerous other smaller works, written over time to explain the various branches of Ayurveda, include disciplines such as general medicine, fertility, rejuvenation, paediatrics, surgery, and toxicology. These have been explained in such a wonderful way that they rely on basic principles which can be applied practically in any day and age.
Over the centuries, Ayurveda has evolved to meet the needs of the time, and yet remained committed to its core principles; various cultures have drawn upon its ideas, and it continues to thrive in both East and the West.
In India, an Ayurvedic physician must undergo at least a 5 year post-graduate degree program (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery) to become qualified. In the West, Ayurveda is recognised as a Complementary and Alternative Health System by the National Institutes of Health, and is becoming more popular in various educational institutions.
Introduction to Ayurveda
Key concepts of Ayurvedic medicine include Universal Interconnectedness (among people, their health, and the universe), the Body’s Constitution (Janma Prakriti), and Life Forces (dosha), which are often compared to the Biologic Humours of the ancient Greek system. Using these concepts, Ayurvedic physicians prescribe individualised treatments, including compounds of herbs or proprietary ingredients, and diet, exercise, and lifestyle recommendations.
Ayurveda is however, not limited to only Diet & Lifestyle; it encompasses eight main branches of Holistic Medicine including:
- Kaya Chikitsa (Internal Medicine)
- Bala Chikitsa (Paediatrics)
- Graha Chikitsa (Psychiatry)
- Shalya Chikitsa (Surgical)
- Urdhvanga Chikitsa (Treatment of ailments above the Neck, Eye, Nose, Throat, Ears & Head)
- Jara Chikitsa – Rasayana (Rejuvenation)
- Damstra Chikitsa (Toxicology); and
- Vrishya chikitsa (Aphrodisiacs, relates to Infertility & Reproduction)
Basic Principles of Ayurveda
Ayurveda views the world in light of 3 universal principles or basic types of energy: vata, pitta, and kapha. These are explained in more detail below. In many ways, the doshas are the building blocks of the material world. All three of them can be found in everyone and everything, but in different proportions.
Every person is made up of a combination of 5 Basic Elements found in the Universe; Water, Earth, Fire, Air & Ether. An individual’s constitution (Prakriti) is therefore based on these 5 elements and is fundamental in creating Balance & Health within one.
An “Element” in Ayurveda is not to be understood in a literal way, but as Energy Principles that are present in the physical world.
- Space is the medium in which all elements exist. It is the basis for our linear experience of time.
- Air is the principle of movement (kinetic energy).
- Water stands for the principle of lubrication, cleansing and nourishment.
- Fire is the principle of transformation, transmutation, illumination and heat.
- Earth is the principle of cohesion, stability, and anabolism.
These elements combine in the human body to form 3 life forces or energies, called Doshas; they control how your body works. The three doshas are: Vata (air & ether), Pitta (fire) & Kapha (earth & water).
Vata dosha (Ether & Air) is thought to be the most powerful of all three doshas. Vata is composed of air and space, and is dry, light, cold, rough, subtle/pervasive, mobile, and clear. Vata regulates the Principle of Movement, including how cells divide, breathing, heart function and blood flow.
Any bodily motion—chewing, swallowing, nerve impulses, breathing, muscle movements, thinking, peristalsis, bowel movements, urination, menstruation—requires balanced vata. When vata is out of balance, any number of these movements may be deleteriously affected.
Pitta brings forth the qualities of Fire & Water. It is sharp, penetrating, hot, light, liquid, mobile, and oily. Pitta’s domain is the Principal of Transformation.
Just as fire transforms anything it touches, pitta is in play any time the body converts or processes something; pitta oversees digestion, metabolism, temperature maintenance, sensory perception, and comprehension. Imbalanced pitta can lead to sharpness and inflammation in these areas in particular.
Kapha, composed of Earth & Water, is heavy, cold, dull, oily, smooth, dense, soft, static, liquid, cloudy, hard, and gross (in the sense of dense or thick).
Your Unique Constitution
As kapha governs Stability and Structure, it forms the substance of the human body, from the skeleton to various organs to the fatty molecules (lipids) that support the body. An excess of kapha leads to an overabundance of density, heaviness, and excess in the body.
The key to Ayurvedic wellness and healing is the knowledge that health is not a “one size fits all” proposition. One must understand the unique nature of each person and situation, taking into account the individual, the season, the geography, and so on.
Everyone inherits a unique mix of the three doshas. One dosha is usually more dominant. Each dosha controls a different body function. It is believed that your chances of getting sick are linked to the balance of your doshas.
Each individual has an Ayurvedic constitution that is specific to him or her, and any digression from that constitution will create health imbalances. If such imbalances are not addressed, one may become ill, so it is important to take note of the early signs of imbalance and make gentle and natural shifts in behaviour such as adjusting diet, modifying daily activities and taking herbal remedies to return to balance.
Once you know your Prakriti it is easy to start to employ lifestyle & diet advice based on this. Your constitution also warns you about what diseases you may be more susceptible to. Below is a brief description of the balanced and unbalanced states of each dosha. Keep in mind you may be a combination of doshas.
|Vata||Adaptable, cheerful, natural healing tendencies, thin framed, very tall or very short||Anxious, worried, talk very fast, tire easily, very thin, dry skin, gas, constipation, bone problems or arthritis, grasp concepts easily, but quickly forget.|
|Pitta||Warm, clear, penetrating thoughts, passionate, intelligent, athletic, moderate, muscular build||Hot tempered, impatient, too critical. Physically may develop health issues such as, ulcers, infections, rashes, acne, eye problems, high blood pressure.|
|Kapha||Loyal, calm, big boned, strong, deep clear voice.||Lethargic, sentimental, overweight, water retention, bronchitis|
The first line of defence in combating imbalances is to remove the cause of the problem. If the trouble-maker is out of the picture, the body starts being able to heal itself.
When making a diagnosis, an Ayurvedic physician will take a comprehensive history of past illnesses, family medical history & current symptoms.
The patient’s physical attributes such as body size, speech, tone and pace, skin colour and temperature, eyes, tongue, urine and stool characteristics and pulse are also all taken in to consideration.
Ayurveda practitioners look closely at a person’s mouth, eyes, skin, ears, nose, genitals and anus. They also check their pulse and listen to their breathing. This helps the practitioner identify the person’s primary life force, or dosha.
The 3 doshas describe a person’s lifestyle and habits, as well their emotional, spiritual and physical characteristics. Each person has one dosha that is stronger than the others. Keep in mind that all doshas are present in your body and it is the dominance or lack of balance which will cause symptoms. By addressing these, a physician can find the root cause and implement the appropriate Ayurvedic treatment.
Ayurveda offers various ways to balance doshas and find your well-being. The key is to find balance with a holistic approach—addressing mind, body, and spirit. The practitioner will then recommend ways to restore your natural dosha balance, which almost always includes changes in lifestyle, especially diet.
Ayurvedic remedies draw on a number of modalities, including:
- Cleansing Processes
- Diet modifications
- Herbal Supplements (including plant-based oils and spices)
- Lifestyle and Activity adjustments
- Marma (Energetic Pressure Points)
- Pranayama (Breath Techniques)
- Yoga, and much more!
Treatment will depend on your unique Prakriti, your primary dosha, and the balance between the three.
The most commonly prescribed treatments include:
- Abhyanga: Rubbing the skin with herbal oil to increase blood circulation and draw toxins out of the body through the skin.
- Herbal Medicines: Prescribing herbs to restore dosha balance.
- Pancha Karma: Cleansing the body to purify it and reduce cholesterol. Practitioners use methods that cause sweat, bowel movements, and even vomit to cleanse the body of toxins.
- Pranayama: Breathing exercises. Practicing pranayama helps you feel calm.
- Rasayana: Using mantras (repeated words or phrases) during meditation combined with certain herbs for rejuvenation.
- Yoga: Combining pranayama, movement, and meditation. Yoga has been shown to improve circulation and digestion, and to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol levels, anxiety, and chronic pain.
Ayurveda & Cancer
Some of the Ayurvedic therapies, such as massage, may lower stress. Research has found that some aspects of Ayurvedic medicine can help to relieve cancer related symptoms and improve quality of life.
Meditation can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and boost general wellbeing. Recent studies have shown that yoga helps to improve sleep patterns in lymphoma patients and also reduces symptoms of stress in people with breast cancer or prostate cancer.
In excess of 200 herbs and plants are used in Ayurvedic medicine. Some early research suggests that compounds taken from traditional Ayurvedic medicines may be able to slow the growth of cancer.
More research on Ayurveda and more large randomised clinical trials are necessary in order to understand the role that Ayurvedic herbal medicine and its approaches may play as a complementary therapy in helping people cope with cancer.
Researchers have looked at some compounds used in Ayurvedic medicine. These include:
In America in 2011 researchers took a compound called Withaferin A (WA) from the Ayurvedic medicinal plant Withania somnifera. They found that in the laboratory Withaferin A stopped the growth of some types of breast cancer cells. It also stopped the growth of breast cancer in mice. Several other studies support these findings.
An Indian study in 2011 looked at selaginella bryopteris, a traditional Indian herb referred to as Sanjeevani. It found that compounds taken from the herb stopped the growth of cancer cells in the laboratory. The compound also reduced the development of skin tumours in mice.
A US research study in 2011 looked at acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA) taken from the gum resin of the boswellia serrata, known as salai guggal or Indian frankincense. Traditionally, this substance has been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat inflammatory conditions. The researchers found that AKBA slowed the growth of bowel cancers in mice and made the cancer less likely to spread.
The mangosteen fruit has a long history of medicinal use in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Recently, the compound alpha mangostin taken from the outside layer of the fruit was shown to kill various types of cancer cells in laboratory studies. This led Japanese researchers to test alpha mangostin in mice. The substance slowed the growth of breast cancer in mice and it was much less likely to spread to the lymph nodes.
Pomegranate (Punica granatum) is seen as a sacred fruit in some world religions. Many cultures and systems of medicine, including Ayurvedic medicine, have used it for various health problems. Early research in the laboratory seems to show that pomegranate extracts may have anti-cancer properties against prostate, bowel and liver cancer. But there are no studies so far looking at the use of pomegranate in humans.
MAK-4 and MAK-5
Some laboratory studies have looked at Ayurvedic herbal remedies called MAK-4 and MAK-5. The remedies seemed to show some activity in controlling tumours in rats and cancer cells in lab dishes. But there have been no studies in humans.
The following herbs are used in Ayurveda to bring balance to the doshas, and are claimed to have helped minimise or completely eradicate colon cancer:
Due to being an adaptogen, this herb is used for literally hundreds of ailments in Ayurvedic medicine. It ‘intuits’ where your body needs support and provides it. Ashwagandha increases our resistance to stress while increasing energy levels, freeing up the body’s systems to scavenge rogue cells.
According to research conducted on the herb, ashwagandha helps in the slowing down of the growth of the cancer cells and inhibits the growth of tumour cells without harming the good cells.
Numerous double-blind studies have shown that garlic is a powerful herb for treating cancer. Naturopaths have been using raw garlic, and even garlic juice or soups, to treat cancer for ages.
Garlic has even proven to kill brain cancer cells (in addition to colon cancers) without harming healthy cells, and with no side effects.
Add some onions and broccoli, and you’ve got a cancer fighting power-house. It is also a staple of the Ayurvedic herbal medicine cabinet.
Green tea isn’t just a social grace, but a healing remedy for colon and other cancers. Not only does it inhibit the formation of cancerous cells, but the catechin polyphenols within can even kill cancerous cells without harming healthy cells.
By drinking green tea regularly, you can eradicate colon tumours while they are in their most infant stages.
A member of the poppy plant family, celandine has been known to treat colon cancer as well. It also boosts the immune system so that cancer and other disease never have a chance to develop. Further, the herb treats diseases like asthma and atherosclerosis.
Aloe Vera & Apple Cider Vinegar Fasts
While these two herbal remedies act together primarily as a means to cleanse the colon, thereby eliminating toxins which could accumulate in the digestive tract causing disease, they are also great anti-inflammatory agents.
The benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) cannot be understated. It helps with candida overgrowth (also shown to contribute to many cancers) and lowers blood glucose levels. Aloe Vera juice has been shown to help people who have tried numerous pharmaceutical meds – folfox, xeloda, avastin and other chemotherapies to no avail.
An Ayurvedic staple, ginger is used in many Indian dishes. Inflammation markers that have been earlier proved in clinical research as precursors to colon cancer can be reduced significantly by the consumption of ginger powder or ginger roots. A powerful anti-inflammatory, ginger soothes and heals the digestive tract, and therefore has been suggested as one of the best home remedies for the treatment of colon cancer.
In one study, Suzanna M. Zick, N.D., M.P.H, enrolled 30 patients and randomly assigned them to two grams of ginger root supplements per day or placebo for 28 days. She had astoundingly positive results. Ginger has also destroyed ovarian and prostate cancer cells in other studies.
If you haven’t heard of this herb by now, you’ve likely been living under a rock. The compounds in Turmeric can heal just about anything. Curcumins found in turmeric roots cause colon cancer cells to self-destruct. Astounding results were found when testing turmeric’s ability to destroy cancer cells at the Department of Surgery, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
You can also incorporate Ayurvedic Teachings into your daily life:
|Vata||Eat warm nourishing foods, avoid cold and raw foods. Sip on hot water with ginger or cardamom, fennel and coriander seeds. Avoid pungent, bitter and astringent foods. Sweet, sour and salty tastes pacify vats.||Apply oil daily after a bath or shower to hydrate skin. Avoid rushing. Floral & warming Scents are suited to vata, such as rose, jasmine, cardamom & patchouli.||Mild to moderate exercise, eg. yoga, pilates, swimming.|
|Pitta||Cooling foods are best for pitta. Try herbs such as turmeric. Avoid sour, salty and pungent foods, eat foods with sweet, bitter and astringent tastes predominantly.||Use a light, cooling oil such as Coconut Oil for pitta skin. Don’t let yourself get aggravated. Sandalwood, chamomile & lavender are suited to Pitta.||Moderate to strong exercise, but avoid overheating and do not exercise in the sun|
|Kapha||Warm foods, but not too heavy. Avoid too many fats and oils. Eat plenty of fresh vegetables. Sip warm ginger water. Avoid sweet foods, stick to foods with pungent, bitter and astringent qualities.||Cleanse well and exfoliate weekly. Kapha needs to get out and do new things. Oils suited to Kapha include cardamom, grapefruit and rosemary.||Kapha should exercise regularly and intensively.|
Side effects and Risks of Ayurveda
Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about trying any Ayurveda approaches. Each Ayurveda approach needs to be looked at on its own to understand its side effects and risks as a complementary therapy.
More research is needed to find out if following an Ayurveda diet is safe for people living with cancer and if it helps with any side effects of treatments. We do not yet know how these herbs interact with conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Some Ayurveda herbal remedies have been contaminated with high levels of toxic metals such as lead, arsenic or mercury. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that several Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic products could “result in lead and/or mercury ingestions 100 to 100,000 times greater than acceptable limits.” Lead, mercury, and arsenic are heavy metals. They can cause life-threatening illness, especially in children.
Ayurveda herbs with natural product numbers (NPNs) meet the standards for Health Canada’s natural health product non-prescription regulations. These may be safer, but we still don’t know how they affect conventional cancer treatments.
Ayurveda cleansing methods may not be safe if you have a low blood cell count or if you have had vomiting because of cancer treatment.
More to Consider
- Do not use Ayurvedic medicine to replace conventional care or to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem.
- Women who are pregnant or nursing, or people who are thinking of using Ayurvedic approaches to treat a child, should consult their (or their child’s) health care provider.
- Tell all your health care providers about any complementary and integrative health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help to ensure coordinated and safe care.
Please note that the Little Fighters Cancer Trust shares information regarding various types of cancer treatments on this blog merely for informational use.
LFCT does not endorse or promote any specific cancer treatments – we believe that the public should be informed but that the option is theirs to take as to what treatments are to be used.
Always consult your medical practitioner prior to taking any other medication, natural or otherwise.