What does the term Ayurveda mean to you?
Either a lot or nothing at all, depending on your culture. By definition, Ayurveda is “a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that has its origins in the Vedic culture of India” and is often touted as an excellent alternative to traditional medicine.
But, what is it exactly? That’s the murky part for most people — is Ayurveda an herb? A treatment like acupuncture? No, says Siva Mohan, M.D., a professor of yoga philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and founder of Svastha Health Ayurvedic Wellness.
“A common misconception is that Ayurveda is just a way of eating, but it’s so much more than that,” says Dr. Mohan.
Ayurveda: The Basics
Ayurveda (pronounced aah-yure-vay-dha) means “knowledge of life” and is based on the principle that everything in life — food, relationships, work, environment, age — is interconnected and can positively or negatively impact your overall health and well-being.
How these outside energies affect your body is determined by the three life forces that control how your body works, known as doshas. The doshas — Vata, Pitta, and Kapha — are combinations of the five essential elements of life: water, earth, air, space, and fire.
“Think of it as an energy mapping system,” says Dr. Mohan. “If you have an awareness of the pattern, where it’s coming from, you can apply tools and shift energy patterns” to bring your body back into balance.
The Three Doshas
In Ayurveda, every person develops a mix of the three doshas, one more dominant than the others, that controls different bodily functions.
Vata Dosha (Fire)
Vata is typically the strongest of the doshas and controls movement. “Its primary location is in the large intestine, with a secondary location in the nerves, bones, ears, and body cavities,” says Dr. Mohan. “Vata is responsible for the movement of nutrients into the cell and the circulation of nutrients with the cell.”
When vata is off-balance, the body responds with physical pain in the form of gas, constipation, anxiety, racing thoughts, and a rapid heart rate.
Pitta Dosha (Air and Space)
Pitta Dosha essentially controls appetite, digestion, and metabolism. “Its primary location is in the lower half of the stomach and small intestine, with a secondary location in the blood, skin, sweat glands, liver, and spleen,” says Dr. Mohan.
Kapha Dosha (Earth and Water)
Kapha Dosha is responsible for muscle growth, strength, stability, weight, and the immune system. “When Kapha is out of balance, the chief symptom is swelling,” says Dr. Mohan. “Other signs of Kapha excess include nausea, pale complexion, weight gain, and congestion.”
Does Ayurveda Work?
The fundamental difference between Eastern and Western medicine is in the approach: Ayurveda medicine aims to restore health through an individualized approach based on your doshas, while Western medicine is based on treating disease.
Modern studies into Ayurveda are few and far between. Still, it’s more popular than ever — more than 90 percent of Indian people use Ayurvedic medicine as their primary healthcare, according to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing.
That said, the studies that are out there seem to show some promise. For example, a study published in 2011 found that an Ayurvedic herb was as effective as treating rheumatoid arthritis as a leading medication. Another 2005 study found that another standard Ayurvedic treatment — yoga — positively affected high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
But there is a definite downside: herbs recommended for Ayurvedic healing purposes aren’t regulated, and the FDA has banned several from being sold in the United States. This leads many to buy over the Internet, which can be dangerous. A 2008 study found that 20 percent of these supplements manufactured in the U.S. and India had a detectable lead, arsenic, and mercury levels.
Ayurveda can complement Western medicine, says Dr. Mohan, because it utilizes various tools, like yoga, meditation, diet changes, and herbal remedies to bring the body back into balance. Your best bet: Use Ayurveda in conjunction with more modern care — and always let your doctor know about any extra supplements or treatments you’re taking; otherwise, you could be harming, not helping, your health.
Meagan Morris is the editor in chief of Celebribody. She's veteran health and wellness editor with over 15 years of experience. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Yahoo Health, Cosmopolitan, SELF, and Women's Health, among others. She spends most of her time writing, but her favorite part of the day is spent under a barbell doing squats.