Intro to Ayurveda

Do the terms “vata,” “pitta,” and “kapha” sound familiar? If so, it’s because Ayurvedic medicine has made a comeback across health and wellness circles. Gwyneth Paltrow’s a fan, for instance. If Ayurveda’s new to you, here’s the rundown: Ayurveda, or “knowledge of life” in Sanskrit, is India’s ancient medical philosophy. But as its name suggests, the Vedic healing system transcends our modern definition of medicine. Rather than merely diagnosing and treating illnesses, Ayurveda informs an entire lifestyle to help people reach optimal states of well-being.

Vata, pitta, kapha: The Ayurvedic doshas

For such an ancient, holistic system that originated in Sanskrit, Ayurveda’s fundamental tenets translate surprisingly well into simple English: 

  • vata = air and the energy of movement
  • pitta = fire and metabolic processes like digestion
  • kapha = earth, lubrication and structure

According to Ayurveda, the three “doshas,” vata, pitta and kapha, comprise people’s unique constitutions. Ayurvedic philosophy proposes that each person tends to have a dominant dosha, and if left unchecked, it creates problems. Anger issues? Too much pitta. Excess vata fuels anxiety. And you can blame stubborn body weight on kapha. In fact, Ayurveda traces the roots of all diseases back to doshic imbalances and toxic buildup.

Ayurvedic appeal

By 2022, the global market for Ayurveda is expected to reach $9,791 million, up from $3,428 million in 2015. We can attribute this growth to a few factors. Ayurveda and yoga – one of the most popular forms of exercise in the U.S. – stem from the same Vedic tradition; popular wellness websites like Goop discuss it; and the millennia-old tradition offers a more personalized version of health care than conventional medicine.

Ayurveda prescribes specific dietary and lifestyle habits according to peoples’ unique constitutions. (You can take this quiz to find yours.) So, for people who’ve grown disenchanted with conventional medicine’s rigid approach to treating health concerns, Ayurveda may offer a refreshingly customized, intuitive option. Plus, Ayurvedic healing techniques, which include cleanses and herbal remedies, are relatively safe.

The caveat: As is the case with all supplements, the FDA does not regulate Ayurvedic herbs, so take extra precautions if you decide to try any. Some Ayurvedic products have tested positive for dangerous levels of  lead, mercury and arsenic. As always, we recommend consulting your doctor before you incorporate any major new medical modality.

What modern medicine says

Conventional doctors would balk at the idea that elemental energies can impact our health, right? Many probably do. However, a few research studies support Ayurveda’s effectiveness for treating specific issues. A randomized, double-blind, controlled study revealed that Ayurvedic formulations worked just as well as conventional drugs to reduce the painful symptoms of knee osteoarthritis. Similar research positioned Ayurveda as a viable alternative to pharmaceuticals for treating Rheumatoid Arthritis, pointing out that members of the Ayurvedic treatment group experienced fewer adverse effects than the test subjects who took medicine.

Should you try Ayurveda?

Clinical studies aside, your doctor would likely approve of Ayurveda as a general dietary guide. It calls for whole foods and the use of anti-inflammatory spices, like turmeric, while advising people to avoid processed food, alcohol and other toxins. However, some aspects of Ayurveda’s dietary wisdom require an arduous degree of commitment. Leftovers and restaurant food are a no-no, unless you want to consume “dead” or potentially negative energy. Other tenets of Ayurveda – such as the idea that people should begin each day with a lengthy self-care routine – might not fit within your busy schedule. You’d likely want to modify the ancient practice for your modern lifestyle. After all, health endeavors and all-or-nothing attitudes rarely get along.