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Thanks to the preservation of some sacred texts, we have access to the wisdom of 5000 years of medical science. Find out what healing substances have stood the test of time, and are still some of the safest and most potent medicines available today
Ayurveda, a sanskrit word meaning "knowledge of life", refers to a system of medicine developed in India during the Vedic period more than 2,000 years ago. The oral tradition is believed to extend as far back as 5,000 years.1 Outlined in the sacred Hindu texts known as The Great Trilogy, Ayurveda is believed to be the world's oldest healing science still in practice today.
The Ayurvedic system for maintaining health and balance is rooted in the inextricable link between mind and body, inner life and outer world. In many traditional cultures, the doctors were sages, holy men and women for whom the outward presentations of disease were rooted in the non-physical world. Today, our medical practices typically do not involve a patient's spiritual beliefs, and yet, through placebo effect, this phenomenon happens every day. With placebo effect, a patient is given an inert substance, like a sugar pill, that they believe to be a potent medicine. At least half the time, the patient gets better. "Real" versus "fake" medicine makes no difference on outcomes; rather, it's what the patient believes about their treatment. While Western scientists often denigrate this effect as an unfortunate human side-effect that distorts results, Ayurvedic practitioners called Vaidyas, recognize that the power of our belief is something we can harness for deep, healing impact.
A Holistic View of Body/Mind
Ayurveda teaches that healing starts at the level of thought, and illness results from accumulated toxins that undermine the balance of the body. By working at the physical level through diet, yoga, and interventions like massage, the toxins can be released and the balance of the doshas restored. Meditation affects healing at the mental level, and a spiritual practice of reverence for all life is encouraged. Ayurveda is ultimately a system for developing and maintaining a balanced body-mind complex, and for living a holistic and integrated life.
To understand Ayurveda, one must understand the way this science views the world. In this system, everything on Earth can be seen as a combination of five master elements, or mahabhutas:
- Earth (Prithvi) - structure, solidity, bones; cool, heavy energy that stabilizes
- Water (Jala) - cohesive, dissolving, moving; a protective barrier; damp and flowing like blood and lymph
- Fire (Agni) - hot, sharp, perceptive; metabolism, digestive process; fast energy that transforms
- Air (Vayu) - changeable, gaseous, dizzying; the realm of thought; dry, cold energy that moves
- Ether (Akasha) - pure potential, spirit realm; a clear, light, subtle energy that encompasses all things
The master elements are further distilled into three primary doshas, or energy types, that represent specific combinations of these elements. Each dosha combines two of the five master elements:
- Vatta (ether & air) - dry, cold, changeable; controls all movement in the body
- Pitta (fire & water) - hot, damp, driven; controls metabolic functions and energy
- Kapha (earth & water) - dense, cold, oily; controls the formation of cells and body structures
These doshas govern all physical and mental processes of the human body. Everyone is born with a "doshic blueprint" that is set at conception: an individual mixture of the five master elements. If a person is lightly built, with irregular features, dry skin, coarse hair, and a tendency towards constipation, that person would be said to have a vatta constitution. Someone with a muscular build, lots of energy, a strong appetite, and a tendency towards heartburn and indigestion (and possibly fits of rage), would likely be pitta dosha. A stocky person with a tendency towards overweight, smooth skin, a warm nature, and a need for 8 hours (or more) of sleep every night, would have kapha dosha dominant in their physiology.
These doshas are fixed in our inherent constitution, and present in the world around us in the food we eat, the places we dwell, and the activities we engage in. For example, a person who lives in a hot, humid climate experiences pitta dosha (fire + water) when they step outside each day. They may naturally be drawn to cool, bitter salads and sweet, tropical fruits in order to balance the fiery nature of pitta. Conversely, someone who lives in a cold, dry area may choose to eat hot, spicy soup for lunch most days, thus "firing up" pitta dosha to balance exposure to the cold.
It may sound like common sense, and in many ways, achieving balance is about trusting our intuition when making daily choices. The key to using Ayurveda lies in understanding what elemental qualities are prominent in you by nature, and which qualities are being emphasized (and potentially aggravated) by your lifestyle.
Prescription for Disease Prevention
The focus of Ayurvedic medicine is to restore the balance of elements within the patient's body and mind. To apply the right curative to a particular ailment, all medicinal substances are classified by twenty characteristics, or gunas, which are seen in all things. Qualities such as heavy or light, cold or hot, dull or sharp, static or mobile, smooth or coarse, and others, are ascribed to both the malady and the remedy. Specific herbs and oils are applied with the philosophy that like increases like, and opposite qualities have a reducing effect. For example, flatulence represents an excess of vatta or "wind" in the intestines. Eating raw vegetables, which are vatta-enhancing, tend to make this condition worse. Kapha-enhancing treatments such as oil massage of the abdomen, or drinking warm tea with milk and aromatic spices, soothe conditions like gas by reducing excess vatta dosha.
Preserving health, thereby preventing disease, is the primary aim of Ayurveda. Curing disease is viewed as a process of restoring the doshic balance of the constitution, and purging accumulated toxins so that self-healing can occur. Therefore, many of Ayurveda's curative treatments focus on detoxification, restoring vital energy, and supporting the body's natural processes of sleep, digestion, and elimination.
To keep in balance and free of disease, Ayurveda recommends a lifestyle that prioritizes the following:
- Pure food and water is consumed (a high-vibrational, Sattvic diet)
- Sleep is moderate (neither too much, nor too little) and restorative
- The mind is calmed through meditation
- A peaceful spirit is maintained by acknowledging one's connection to all life
When the balance of health is lost, as often occurs in the everyday world, Vaidyas use all five senses to diagnose the patient. They listen to the quality of the breath and speech. They observe the patient's skin tone, eye clarity, and other physical characteristics. They may touch the patient's skin to feel if they are hot or cold, oily or dry, rough or smooth. The pulse is taken, and possibly stool and urine samples. Once the nature of the disorder is determined via this intensive examination, a combination of detoxification practices and powerful herbal preparations called rasayanas, are typically prescribed to correct the imbalance.
Herbal rasayanas are defined in the Sanskrit tradition as "that which negates old age and disease." Rasayanas are typically a combination of ghee (clarified butter), fruits, herbs, honey, roots, and minerals. The exact mixtures are made in accordance with whatever energies need to be increased, or decreased in the patient. These medicinal preparations come in many forms: a thick paste of honey and fruit, designed to be consumed like food; combined with alcohol to make tinctures; mixed with warm water to make infusions. Some dried rasayanas can be taken in capsule-form.
Ayurveda has identified numerous important herbs for healing, along with potent superfoods that show up repeatedly in rasayana preparations. Here are three popular herbs used in rasayanas and herbal medicines by Vaidyas the world over.
Amla is the Hindi word for "sour," given to the tree that bears the gooseberry-like amalaki fruits used in Ayurveda. A potent stimulator of the sour guna, or taste, amalaki has been used for thousands of years to restore the body. One of the three fruits in Triphala, an Ayurvedic wonder drug, one amalaki fruit contains the vitamin C of nearly twenty lemons, and thirty times the antioxidant potency of red wine.
Scientific studies of the amla fruit have examined its many superpowers, including:
- Analgesic, making it a great pain-reliever
- Cardioprotective, creating strong, healthy veins
- Gastroprotective, strengthening and healing the gut-lining
- Improves skin, with demonstrated wound-healing capabilities
- Strengthens lungs by healing mucous membranes
- Protects brain cells by strengthening cellular structure
And many other benefits have been found. Amla fruit has even shown efficacy at treating and preventing cancer. With such an astonishing array of benefits, this Ayurvedic powerhouse deserves a place in everyone's health arsenal!
The herbal formulation known as amrit kalash is considered the preeminent Ayurvedic rasayana. The Charaka Samhita credits amrit kalash as having the ability to:
- Improve cognitive ability
- Increase longevity
- Impart radiance to the skin
- Sharpen the senses and intellect
But we no longer need to rely on ancestral wisdom passed down through millennia to affirm the healing potential of Ayurvedic medicine. There have been dozens of scientific studies on amrit kalash that have sought to validate claims made by Vaidyas as to the potency of this medicine.
The International Maharishi Ayurveda Foundation in the Netherlands, published a summary of scientific studies on amrit kalash, exploring its usefulness across the following areas of health:
- Cancer and chemotoxicity
- Neurophysiology and brain health
Some of the findings strongly support the claims Ayurvedic doctors have made for centuries. A 2005 study on both young and old mice explored the potential of amrit kalash to enhance resistance to infections and disease, as well as enhance longevity. The results showed that amrit kalash altered the behaviors typical of aging cells. It even effectively slowed aging! It also improved overall immune system function and had an adaptogenic effect. These findings are supported by numerous, additional studies on amrit kalash's antioxidant properties, which demonstrate its amazing potential to slow the effects of time.
Another herb that all Vaidyas have in their cabinet is ashwagandha. Considered one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurveda, ashwagandha is also known as winter cherry and Indian ginseng. As one might expect from ginseng, ashwagandha is invigorating! An adaptogen, it helps the body bounce back from illness, and gives overall energy and immunity a powerful boost. It has a reputation for enhancing sexual vigor, as well as improving mood and our ability to focus and concentrate.
This bushy plant known formally as Withania somnifera, produces small, red berries, and is a member of the nightshade family. The name translates roughly to "the strength of ten horses," and scientists have conducted studies to see if these claims held weight. One such study examined ashwagandha's adaptogenic properties, and sought to validate any impact on immune system function. Mice were subjected to stress tests by being forced to swim for a period of several minutes. Researchers found that ashwagandha improved stamina, and fortified adrenal glands, typically exhausted by stress.
Other studies on ashwagandha show a demonstrated effect on managing uterine fibroid tumors, improving memory, and being useful treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, Huntington's, and Alzheimer's diseases. Ashwagandha has also been shown to possess "great potential" as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.
For additional research on the benefits of Ayurvedic formulations, visit our database on the topic.
6. Pole, Sebastian. Ayurvedic Medicine: The Principles of Traditional Practice. Churchill Livingston Elsevier, 2006. 52, 126-127, 296, 303-304, 326.