The Classical Medicine System from India

Ayurvedic medicine is one of the world's oldest medical systems that still has great value today. Ayurveda is the primary health care system which helps to keep India's 1.13 billion citizens in good health. Ayurvedic medicine has an excellent world wide reputation with Ayurvedic doctors being trained in many countries.

70% of all illnesses begin in the mind, wrong thinking results in an unhealthy lifestyle and paves the way for disease. The other 30% of diseases are chemical or outside of one's personal control. 

Key Points

  • The aim of Ayurveda is to integrate and balance the body, mind, and spirit. Promoting wellness helps prevent illness.
  • In Ayurvedic philosophy, people, their health, and the universe are all seen as related and that health problems result when these relationships are out of balance.
  • In Ayurveda, herbs, metals, massage, and other products and techniques are used with the intent of cleansing the body and restoring balance.

What is Ayurvedic medicine?

Ayurvedic medicine is also called Ayurveda. It is a system of medicine that originated in India several thousand years ago. The term Ayurveda combines two Sanskrit words--ayur, which means life, and veda, which means science or knowledge. Ayurveda means "the science of life."

Ayurveda is considered a type of CAM and is a complete medical system. As with other such systems, it is based on theories of health and illness and on ways to prevent, manage, or treat health problems. Ayurveda aims to integrate and balance the body, mind, and spirit (thus, some view it as "holistic"). This balance is believed to lead to contentment, health and prevention of illness. However, Ayurveda also proposes treatments for specific health problems, whether they are physical or mental. A chief aim of Ayurvedic practices is to cleanse the body of substances that can cause disease, and this helps to re-establish harmony and balance.

History of Ayurvedic medicine?

Ayurveda was developed in India over many thousands of years and to understand Ayurveda, it's helpful to understand the scope of India:  Up until the British arrived in India in the 1600's, India was a world super power alongside China. These two countries made up almost two thirds of the worlds GDP and were the worlds most advanced civilisations.

Before Islamic expansion from about year 800, India had a strong influence from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. Most of Persia and Arabia followed Vedic philosophy and what we refer to today as Hindu religious practices.  India as a country included Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and was referred to as Hindustan; a name given by the British that was shortened to Hindu in reference to the people of India and Hindu was also given as the countries religion.

The actual name of India is Bharatha and before the invasions and annexation of Afghanistan the country was feudal with many kingdoms underpinned by a rich tradition that evolved around the quest to know the nature of reality and freedom from suffering.

The science of yoga provided a backbone to Indian traditions and it is from the many thousands of years of study and practise, yogis and healers learned what worked best to not only cure diseases, but to cure suffering in all aspects of life.

Ayurvedic knowledge has been handed down by word of mouth from long before there were any written records.  Two ancient books, written in Sanskrit on palm leaves more than 2,000 years ago, are thought to be the first texts on Ayurveda; these are the Caraka Samhita and Susruta Samhita. They cover many topics, including:

  • Pathology (the causes of illness)
  • Diagnosis
  • Treatment
  • Surgery (this is no longer part of standard Ayurvedic practice)
  • How to care for children
  • Lifestyle
  • Advice for practitioners, including medical ethics
  • Philosophy

Ayurveda has long been the main system of health care in India, although conventional (Western) medicine is replacing it, especially in urban areas.  About 70 percent of India's population lives in rural areas; about two-thirds of rural people still use Ayurveda and medicinal plants to meet their primary health care needs. In addition, most major cities have an Ayurvedic college and hospital. Ayurveda and variations of it have also been practiced for centuries in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. The professional practice of Ayurveda in Western countries began to grow and became more visible in the late 20th century.

Does Ayurveda work?
Ayurveda includes many types of therapies and is used for wide range of health issues. A summary of the scientific evidence is beyond the scope of this Backgrounder. You can consult the PubMed database on the Internet or contact the NCCAM Clearinghouse (for both resources) for any research results available on a disease or condition. However, very few rigorous, controlled scientific studies have been carried out on Ayurvedic practices. In India, the government began systematic research in 1969, and the work continues.

Ayurveda Today

In recent times many vested interests (the pharmaceutical giants) are waging a war against Ayurveda to check its unprecedented growth. There has been a systematic, ongoing campaign to malign Ayurvedic medicines especially, those containing metals and minerals. Surprisingly, the focus is on the safety and not the efficacy when it comes to Ayurvedic medicine.

Ayurvedic medicines should not be studied after splitting up the individual drugs. They have to be looked at in a synergistic way. They are very safe as the ingredients are buffered by many other compounds contained in them. Medical journals and newspapers tend to give disproportionately dramatic coverage to isolated reports of harm caused by taking these medicines. Interestingly, none of the credible journals have carried out any human trials on Ayurvedic medicines that caused any harmful effects

The failure of Allopathic medicine to effectively treat a wide range of chronic illnesses opens up a space for Ayurveda in the West, especially as modern medical negligence and incompetence is the 4th highest cause of death in the USA with other Western countries not far behind.

To appease western medicine proponents, Ayurvedic approaches are starting to dovetail with Allopathic approaches i.e. to reduce stress, reduce exposure to free radicals, improve nutrition, manage weight, caloric consciousness and so on.  In India herbs are used as medicines and not as dietary supplements.

Ayurveda resists the Cartesian world view of Allopathy, which separates mind and body and its advocacy of the mechanical intervention into nature that strives to manufacture health. In Ayurveda, knowledge is context bound, resistant to universalizing rules applicable to all. Another policy that appears to be underway is systematic Allopathization of Ayurveda and closing down small Ayurvedic firms by insisting and imposing number of restrictions. Here the politics are forcing Ayurvedic drug research to follow the line of Allopathy, not to meet any consumer demand, but to appease the drug corporations.

Concerns about Ayurvedic medicine?

While health officials in India have few concerns about Ayurvedic medicines, the major pharmaceutical companies and anti competition lobbyists have raised concerns about certain Ayurvedic medicines containing herbs, metals, minerals, or other materials. Some governments also share some of these concerns which are that:

  • Some Ayurvedic medications have the potential to be toxic.
    1) Many materials used in them have not been thoroughly studied in either Western or Indian research. In the United States, Ayurvedic medications are regulated as dietary supplements. As such, they are not required to meet the rigorous standards for conventional medicines.
    2) An American study published in 2004 found that of 70 Ayurvedic remedies purchased over-the-counter (all had been manufactured in South Asia), 14 (one-fifth) contained lead, mercury, and/or arsenic at levels that could be harmful.
    3) Also in 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received 12 reports of lead poisoning linked to the improper use of Ayurvedic medications.

    • 1) The anecdotal evidence of using particular herbs and herbal combinations going back 6000 years should be evidence enough of a products safety. Such concerns are most often raised by the pharmaceutical industry.
    • 2) Lead, mercury, and arsenic exist in our diet and Ayurvedic doctors are careful to prescribe only safe products that meet modern quality controls.
    • 3) Such cases may occur in remote villages where the doctors are not properly trained and where medicines are fraudulent and this is extremely unlikely to occur today as the doctors training and manufacturing standards have improved.
  • Most Ayurvedic medications consist of combinations of herbs and other medicines, so it can be challenging to know which ones are having an effect and why.
    • This is also true for many modern pharmaceuticals, however well trained doctors have a wealth of evidence on the use of herbal medicine to draw from.
  • Whenever two or more medications are used, there is the potential for them to interact with each other. As a result, the effectiveness of at least one may increase or decrease in the body. For example, it is known that guggul lipid (an extract of guggul) may increase the activity of aspirin, which could lead to bleeding problems.
    • Ayurvedic doctors are well aware of this and it is important when visiting a doctor to let him/her know what other medications you take.
  • Most clinical trials of Ayurvedic approaches have been small, had problems with research designs, lacked appropriate control groups, or had other issues that affected how meaningful the results were.
    • Such trials do not have the unlimited financial resources of the pharmaceutical industry or any government backing and the as there is no financial profit for anyone, such trials are difficult to set up. However there are 6000 years of anecdotal evidence supporting the use and effectiveness of herbal medicines that far outweigh the brief trials of allopathic medicines, some of which have claimed many thousands of lives despite the best trails and safety evaluations.

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