October 6, 2022

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Medically Reviewed
Ayurveda is one of the oldest traditional medical systems in the world, originating in India more than 3,000 years ago. With the resurging interest in integrative medicine in the U.S., Ayurveda is an increasingly popular holistic health option. While research into the scientific efficacy of various Ayurvedic treatments is ongoing, this ancient practice continues to be a well-regarded and even dominant medical system in other parts of the world, including India.
Read on to learn more about this ancient traditional medicine practice, including its history and governing principles, as well as the potential benefits and limitations of Ayurvedic treatments.
Ayurveda is an ancient medical practice with a holistic and individualized approach to wellness. “Ayurveda” is a Sanskrit term stemming from “ayur,” meaning “life,” and “veda,” meaning “science” or “knowledge.” Therefore, Ayurveda translates to “the science of life.”
“Ayurveda utilizes natural laws and rhythms as the guiding points to how we work with people to bring harmony and balance,” says Hilary Garivaltis, an Ayurvedic practitioner and the executive director of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA). “Ayurveda is the original integrative medicine.”
Ayurvedic practitioners believe humans are connected to nature as well as each other. Personalized treatments are based on several individual factors, such as constitution (of mind, body and spirit), environment and specific ailments, and they address not only acute symptoms but also the root cause(s) of those symptoms.
Ayurveda originated in India more than 3,000 years ago and was a prominent medical system in parts of Asia for millennia, says Simi Godagama, an acupuncturist and Ayurvedic practitioner in the U.K. Sushruta, an ancient Ayurvedic practitioner known as the “father of surgery,” pioneered and recorded procedures including rhinoplasty, kidney stone extraction and sutures as early as the sixth century BCE.
In 1980, the National Congress of India began funding training programs in Ayurvedic medicine to reinvigorate and advance the practice.
Today, Ayurveda remains a prominent medical system in India, overseen by the Ministry of Ayush (Ayurveda, yoga, unani, siddha and homeopathy).

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“Ayurveda looks at the world as made up of certain elements,” says Garivaltis. “Each of these elements have characteristics and qualities that influence the weather, your climate and individual body.”
The five elements, according to Ayurveda—ether (space), air, fire, water and earth—make up the three primary doshas, or energies—Vata, Pitta and Kapha—which are present in everything and everyone. These doshas influence several aspects of the world depending on when they are most prominent, from the four seasons to the time of day to the human body, which, in turn, interact with one another. All three doshas are present in humans, with one typically more dominant than the others.
Vata consists of ether and air and is likened to the wind and kinetic energy. Vata influences bodily movements, such as the movement of limbs and blood flow. The other doshas are able to move through the body, the seasons and each day due to the impulses of the Vata dosha.
Individuals with a predominance of Vata tend to be creative, petite and prone to illness. An excess of Vata results in anxiety, trouble sleeping, brittle hair, dry skin, constipation, an erratic appetite and moodiness, says Tracy Adkins, a NAMA-certified Ayurvedic practitioner and nurse practitioner. Restlessness and excessive movement is also a sign of predominant Vata energy.
Vata is more prominent from autumn into winter when it’s colder and drier, in the early morning before the sun rises and mid-afternoon, says Garivaltis. At these times, Vata brings its light and uplifting nature to help energize the body and the mind.
Pitta consists of fire and water and, according to Ayurvedic theory, is responsible for digestion, metabolism and body temperature regulation.
“When in balance, Pitta gives us radiance and glow, proper heat, appetite and regular bowel movements,” says Adkins. “When it’s out of balance, we can experience burning [heartburn], indigestion, diarrhea, hives, acne, inflammation, anger and jealousy.”
Pitta excess causes you to “burn through material too quickly.” For example, you might notice an increased appetite or that you’re overworking yourself or lacking the ability to enforce boundaries for work/life balance. Pitta deficiency leads to mental and/or physical sluggishness.
Pitta is more prominent in the summer when the weather is hot and humid, during the midday hours (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) when the sun is at its highest point and late at night before sunrise, at which point pitta energy can keep you awake.
Kapha consists of water and earth and is responsible for moistening the body—lubricating the joint spaces, for example. Combining water and earth creates mud, making Kapha the “glue” that binds things together, says Adkins.
Balanced Kapha results in a strong immune system, as well as loyalty, patience, endurance and steadiness. Excess Kapha causes feelings of lethargy and congestion as well as physical weight gain: You may crave sweets, retain water and feel depressed, jealous or greedy.
Kapha is most prominent in the spring, from sunrise to mid-morning and from evening into nighttime. Morning Kapha time is best for exercise when Kapha brings strength to the muscles, Garivaltis says, while Kapha nighttime energy brings heaviness to the body and mind, leading into sleep.
Each individual is born with their own unique constitution, also known as a dosha balance or Prakruti, and the goal of Ayurveda is to maintain that balance. An imbalance or deviation from Prakruti, called Vikruti, is what causes illness or “dis-ease.”
Balance is achieved by applying opposites, a concept humans are already familiar with, says Garivaltis. “If you want to counterbalance the feeling of heaviness in your body, you create more activity for the body. You move it, you create energy,” she adds.
A person can regain balance with the help of tailored Ayurvedic treatments as well.
Determine your dosha. First, an Ayurvedic practitioner determines your dosha balance to create a treatment plan. The practitioner will ask questions about your life, such as your daily schedule, eating habits and personal history, as well as consider your symptoms as they appear.
Individualize the treatment. Ayurvedic treatments are based on the individual, so they can vary greatly. You and your partner may both have a cough, for example, but an Ayurvedic practitioner may address the same condition very differently depending on the individual root cause.
Ayurvedic treatments can include:
Always make sure you’re receiving recommendations from certified professionals and undergoing procedures, such as massages and detoxification, from licensed professionals. Speak with your doctor prior to trying any Ayurvedic treatments.
“Ayurveda aligns well for many chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, skin conditions, digestive disorders, fertility and women’s health [issues], fatigue syndromes and mental health [conditions],” says Godagama.
On a broader scale, Ayurveda can help you better understand yourself and your connection to nature. Ayurveda also aims to find the root cause of your symptoms and treats you according to your constitution, offering a comprehensive approach to body and mind wellness rather than treating a condition symptomatically.
Adkins provides a dual perspective as both an allopathic nurse practitioner and an Ayurvedic practitioner. “I believe the health benefits of Ayurvedic medicine are limitless,” she says, “especially when paired with Western medicine.”
The main limitation of Ayurveda is emergency medicine, says Garivaltis. Ayurvedic medicine is better suited for preventative care and supporting chronic conditions.
“Emergent and complex conditions like fractures, type 1 diabetes and heart attacks, are best left for allopathic (conventional) medicine,” says Adkins. For conditions that require treatment with drugs or surgery, it’s best to visit your doctor or an emergency room rather than seeking Ayurvedic treatment. However, certain Ayurvedic treatments can “serve as adjunctive therapy to support any healing process,” she adds.
Ayurveda is not a licensed profession in the U.S., although NAMA is working toward that goal while providing resources for both practitioners and patients, says Garivaltis.
Always speak with your doctor before trying a new treatment, including Ayurveda, to make sure it’s a good fit for you.
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Lauren Silva, a freelance writer in New York City, believes in feeling good in your body and making that experience accessible to everyone across generations. The proof is in her ever-piling browser tabs and newsletters, which help her stay on top of the latest wellness trends. When she’s not researching sustainable alternatives to her everyday products, Lauren is likely attempting to make a dent in her “TBR” book pile.
Dr. Bojana Jankovic Weatherly is a double board-certified physician in internal and integrative medicine and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. She practices integrative, internal and functional medicine to deliver optimal, evidence-based care customized to each one of her patients. Dr. Bojana serves patients in her practice in New York City, as well as patients in California, Connecticut and New Jersey via telemedicine. Throughout her academic career, she performed research in endocrinology and oncology, published papers in peer-reviewed journals and presented her work at academic conferences. Her goal is to discover and address the origins of her patients’ conditions and support them in living at their highest level of health. Dr. Bojana serves as an advisor and founding physician at The Lanby, an integrative primary care startup in New York City. She was also the co-founder of WellStart Health, a digital therapeutics startup for chronic disease prevention and reversal. She previously worked as the company’s chief medical officer and now serves as its medical advisor. She is on the board of the Environmental Working Group, as well as the board of directors of Lifeline New York, a nonprofit organization that provides support to Serbian hospitals and children in need. She is on the board of Tryall Fund, a nonprofit organization that promotes health and education in Jamaica, as well. Lastly, Dr. Bojana serves on the philanthropic leadership board of Eat REAL, a nonprofit that works to increase access to healthy food and educate families about healthy nutrition.

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