- Ayurvedic medicine
- Traditional Indian medicine
For Patients & Caregivers
Tell your healthcare providers about any dietary supplements you’re taking, such as herbs, vitamins, minerals, and natural or home remedies. This will help them manage your care and keep you safe.
What is it?
Ayurveda is a medical system that originated in India. Oral formulations, dietary and lifestyle changes, and yoga or meditation are the main components. Herbs such as curcumin have beneficial effects but should be used under supervision. Yoga and meditation help alleviate side effects associated with cancer and its treatments.
Derived from the Sanskrit words “ayur” (life) and “veda” (knowledge), Ayurveda dates back more than 3,000 years. Treatment is tailored to the individual and consists of oral formulations containing herbal, mineral, spice, and animal components; cleansing practices; dietary and lifestyle changes; and improving mental balance through yoga or meditation.
Commonly used herbs in Ayurveda, such as ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), guggul (Commiphora mukul), boswellia (Boswellia serrata), gotu kola (Centella asiatica), curcumin (Curcuma longa), ginger (Zingiber officinale), aloe (Aloe barbadensis), and garlic (Allium sativum), exhibit antioxidant, antimicrobial, immunomodulatory, or anti-inflammatory properties.
Studies in humans however, are quite limited. Some data suggest various Ayurvedic formulations may be helpful for diabetes, knee osteoarthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis. However, additional studies are needed. One study of guggulipid to treat high cholesterol found it may actually raise cholesterol levels. Curcumin is among the most extensively studied, but positive findings on cancer preventive effects are preliminary.
What are the potential uses and benefits?
- To treat cancer-related symptoms
Yoga has been shown to improve sleep, mood, and quality of life, and reduce stress in cancer patients both during treatment and throughout survivorship. Meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and enhance well-being both in the general population and in oncology settings.
- To treat diabetes
Several herbs used in Ayurveda have blood glucose-lowering effects, but the clinical evidence for their use is not strong. More studies are needed.
- To lower high cholesterol
A study of the herbal medicine guggulipid found it may actually increase cholesterol levels.
- To treat arthritis
A few preliminary studies suggest benefit with various Ayurvedic formulations, but additional confirming studies are needed.
What are the side effects?
- Skin hypersensitivity and rash with guggulipid.
- Itching, GI discomfort, nausea, oral ulcers and elevated liver enzymes with Ayurvedic formulations in one study.
- Heavy metals, liver toxicity, and arsenic poisoning with various Ayurvedic preparations.
What else do I need to know?
- Although heavy metals such as lead, gold, and silver are traditionally used in Ayurvedic formulations, the use of lead for its assumed benefit has been a cause of concern. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 12 cases of lead poisoning associated with the use of Ayurvedic medications.
- Improper use of nasal rinsing devices such as Neti Pots have been associated with rare but severe infections. Only distilled or sterile water should be used and these devices must be cleaned properly after each use.
Do Not Take if:
- You are taking phenytoin: The Ayurvedic syrup shankhapushpi causes decreased blood concentrations of phenytoin.
- You are taking CYP450 substrate drugs: Several ayurvedic herbs induce or inhibit CYP enzymes, and may reduce effectiveness or increase the risk of side effects of these drugs.
- You are pregnant or nursing: Adhatoda vasica, an herb often used for respiratory tract ailments, may induce labor or abortion, and other ayurvedic formulations have caused birth defects.
- Although Ayurveda is available in a few clinics in North America, there is no licensure for practicing Ayurveda in the United States.
For Healthcare Professionals
Derived from the Sanskrit words “ayur” (life) and “veda” (knowledge), Ayurveda originated in India over 3,000 years ago. Treatment is patient-tailored and consists of oral formulations containing herbal, mineral, spice, and animal components, purgatives, dietary and lifestyle changes, and improving mental balance through yoga or meditation. It is available in a few clinics in North America, but there is no licensure for practicing Ayurveda in the United States. Ayurvedic medicinals, which can contain from a few to hundreds of components, are commonly used to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, acne, obesity, and cancer.
Studies in humans are quite limited, perhaps in part due to the individualized nature of Ayurveda treatment. Preliminary data suggest some benefit of various Ayurvedic formulations for diabetes (46). In an equivalence study, pain reductions and improved function with either of two traditional ayurvedic formulations were comparable to glucosamine and celecoxib for knee osteoarthritis (47). However, additional safety studies are needed. Other preliminary data suggest that an individualized Ayurvedic treatment may be as effective as methotrexate against rheumatoid arthritis (48). A clinical trial of guggulipid for hyperlipidemia found it may actually raise cholesterol levels (3).
A few Ayurvedic herbs are being investigated for their anticancer potential. Curcumin is among the most extensively studied, but positive findings are preliminary.
Lifestyle changes and mind-body modalities are also a core component of Ayurveda. Yoga has been shown to improve sleep, mood, and quality of life, and reduce stress in cancer patients both during treatment and throughout survivorship. The effects of meditation in reducing anxiety, lowering blood pressure, and enhancing well-being both in the general population and in oncology settings have also been confirmed.
Purported Uses and Benefits
- Cancer-related symptoms
- High cholesterol
Mechanism of Action
Ayurveda emphasizes both health maintenance (Svasthavritha), and diagnosis and treatment (Athuravritha). Patients are classified by their prominent dosha, or physical, emotional, and metabolic type, Kapha, Pitta, or Vata, each located in specific organs and associated with two of the five elements (earth, fire, water, air, and ether) and five senses. The doshas represent properties shared by the organs, body, environment, and cosmos. When a patient’s unique state of dosha is out of balance, illness occurs. Therapy is personalized to the individual’s problems and metabolic characteristics to restore balance through diet and lifestyle modifications, medicinals (herbs, spices, metals and/or animal products), breathing exercises, and meditation. Detoxification (panchakarma) occurs before administration of medicines, which includes bloodletting, induced vomiting, and bowel purging. The therapeutic approach seeks to cure disease by reversing the steps that led to it (eg, administering cooling medicines if Pitta, the hot dosha, is predominant) (10).
Maharasnadi Quathar, a medicinal used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, increases antioxidant enzyme activity, decreases TBARS generation, and improves symptoms in human subjects (16). Many of the frequently used herbs, such as ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), guggul (Commiphora mukul), Boswellia (Boswellia serrata), gotu kola (Centella asiatica), curcumin (Curcuma longa), ginger (Zingiber officinale), aloe (Aloe barbadensis), and garlic (Allium sativum), have been studied extensively in vitro and in vivo, and show antioxidant, antitumor, antimicrobial, immunomodulatory, or anti-inflammatory properties. Herbs often used to treat diabetes, Gymnema sylvestre, Momordica charantia, fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), Coccinia indica, and Pterocarpus marsupium, show hypoglycemic activity in vitro and in vivo. Mucuna pruriens, used in preparations for Parkinson’s disease, contains L-dopa (17). Rasayana herbs, such as ashwagandha, Asparagus racemosus, Emblica officinalis, Piper longum, and Terminalia chebula that are said to promote positive health showed immunostimulant and adaptogenic activities in an animal study (18). Ayurvedic gold preparations (eg, Swarna Bhasma) have antioxidant and restorative effects in animal models of ischemia (19). The herbal mixtures Maharishi Amrit Kalash-4 and -5 have antioxidant properties, inhibit LDL oxidation in vitro, inhibit platelet aggregation, and cause a reduction in aortic arch atheroma in hyperlipidemic rabbits (20).
An in vitro study investigated the activity of extracts from eight plants that are traditionally used as immunomodulators in Ayurvedic medicine against HIV: Allium sativum, Asparagus racemosus, Coleus forskohlii, Emblica officinalis, Glycyrrhiza glabra, Piper longum, Tinospora cordifolia and Withania somnifera (21). The extracts significantly reduced viral production in human lymphoid CEM-GFP cells infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-INL4).
- Although heavy metals such as lead, gold, and silver are traditionally used in Ayurvedic formulations, the use of lead for its assumed benefit has been a cause of concern. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 12 cases of lead poisoning associated with the use of Ayurvedic medications (22).
- Improper use of nasal rinsing devices such as Neti Pots have been associated with rare but severe infections. Only distilled or sterile water should be used and these devices must be cleaned properly after each use (31).
Pruritus, epigastric discomfort, nausea, oral ulcers and elevated serum glutamic pyruvic transaminase (SGPT)/alanine aminotransaminase with Ayurvedic formulations in one study (47).
- Lead poisoning, severe GI symptoms, and anemia with Ayurvedic preparations (23) (24) (32) (33) (34) (35) (36) (37) (38) (42).
- Arsenic poisoning, manifested by hyperkeratosis, neuropathy, splenomegaly and anemia, following use of ayurvedic medications for dermatitis, vitiligo, and diabetes (39).
- Acute liver injury and death from a formula containing heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (43).
- Oxytocic and abortifacient effects with Adhatoda vasica, an herb often used for respiratory tract ailments (16) (19) (25) (26) (27) (28) (29).
- Fatal congenital defects in the fetus with the ingestion of ayurvedic tablets by a pregnant woman. Analysis of the tablets revealed presence of lead, mercury, and arsenic (44).