October 19, 2012
Dear Mayo Clinic:
Is ayurvedic medicine a safe approach to managing health?
Ayurvedic medicine is a holistic approach to health care that is considered a form of alternative medicine in the United States. It includes a variety of practices that may be beneficial. However, at this time, there is limited scientific evidence that shows ayurvedic medicine to be a safe and effective way to manage one's health overall.
At its core, ayurvedic medicine seeks to assess and correct energy imbalance. The assessment is done using questions that address an individual's symptoms, predispositions, environment and physical state. It also includes checking a person's pulse, examining the tongue and making several other physical evaluations. Based on the assessment, the practitioner determines an individual's state of energy imbalance.
This approach is somewhat different than the methods of medical diagnosis used in Western medicine. It is a very holistic way of looking at a person. The assumption is that everything in your life has an impact on your health. That includes lifestyle choices like diet and exercise. But it also involves factors such as your day-to-day surroundings and environment, as well as your job, friends, family and emotions.
For example, from an ayurvedic medicine perspective, a person who has asthma may be experiencing that condition because he is too hot. A patient with a chronic cough and cold may be congested because she is predisposed to thick secretions. Someone with heartburn may have high metabolism.
To treat these problems, an ayurvedic practitioner attempts to correct the energy imbalance. That could involve eliminating or adding a variety of elements to a person's life, including certain foods, dietary supplements, exercise or meditation. In some cases, a person may be encouraged to change their environment.
Two different medical diagnoses may have the same core energy imbalance. Someone who has anxiety, for example, and someone who has peptic ulcer disease may get exactly the same ayurvedic treatment because their basic energy imbalance is the same.
Millions of people around the world use ayurvedic medicine. But the research on it right now is very limited. Small studies have looked at ayurvedic dietary supplements and botanicals for conditions like diabetes and osteoarthritis. Early results have shown some efficacy. But larger clinical trials are needed to confirm those results.
Finding the correct products can be a problem, too. In the United States, most ayurvedic therapeutic products are imported and are more easily available in large metropolitan areas. Safety also is a concern. One study that examined ayurvedic dietary supplements and botanicals imported from India and China found that up to one third were contaminated, including contamination with heavy metals.
In addition, no formal credentialing system exists in the U.S. for ayurvedic medicine practitioners. That means there is no guarantee that someone who claims to be an ayurvedic doctor actually has credible qualifications or specific training.
With all of these limitations, it is difficult to recommend ayurvedic medicine as an overall approach to health care at this point. That said, it clearly contains some beneficial aspects. For example, yoga, deep breathing and meditation are common components of ayurvedic medicine. All have been shown to be useful for many health conditions. Some ayurvedic dietary approaches may also be helpful.
If you are interested in ayurvedic medicine, find an experienced and knowledgeable practitioner. Although certification is not available in this country, other countries do certify ayurvedic practitioners, and some are now practicing in the U.S. Ideally, you should seek out one of these individuals for more information about ayurvedic medicine.
Before you move forward with any recommended treatment, though, talk to your primary health care provider to make sure it fits your situation and is safe for you.
— Amit Sood, M.D., General Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.