Ayurvedic Medicine: What Works and What May
primary emphasis in Ayurveda is on disease prevention and promoting longevity,
treatment of illness is an important secondary aim. Proponents consider
Ayurveda particularly helpful in dealing with chronic, metabolic, and
stress-related conditions. Ayurveda is considered to be potentially more
effective when it addresses illness early in the disease process, before
extensive tissue and organ damage has occurred.
is also used to alleviate the side effects of toxic allopathic therapies, such
as cancer chemotherapy. In addition, it helps patients recover from surgery and
encourages healing in a wide range of conditions.
stand-alone therapy, Ayurveda generally does not address such problems as
traumatic injuries, acute pain, and advanced disease. Surgery is not commonly
done by Ayurvedic practitioners today, although it was historically part of
are general conditions that are treated with Ayurveda, often quite effectively.
- Neurological. Some forty neurological disorders are
classified in Ayurveda as vata disorders. Herbs commonly used for neurological disease include Brahmi, which is said to enhance memory, reduce
insomnia, and act as a mild sedative, and Centella asiatica, or Gotu kola, valued as a memory enhancer. In the
treatment of dementia, Ayurveda uses a number of herbal compounds as memory
enhancers, including Withania somnifera (Ashwaganda), Brahmi, and Centella asiatica.
- Cardiovascular. A number of herbal compounds have been
used to prevent atherosclerosis, and to address other risk factors, such as
obesity, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Among the
most promising is guggul, an extract from the mukul myrrh tree, since it is widely used in
India for the reduction of cholesterol.
- Musculoskeletal. Ayurvedic herbs are used both
internally and externally to treat arthritis and muscle disorders. Herbal
compounds and massage also help relieve chronic pain.
- Respiratory. Ailments are treated with yogic
breathing and Ayurvedic preparations, including the herbs Sida cordifolia and Tylophora asthmatica, which are used to treat asthma.
- Gastrointestinal. Ayurvedic preparations have been used
to treat upper and lower gastrointestinal disease, and are considered
especially useful in liver disease. Irritable bowel disorder, as well as
peptic, gastric, and duodenal ulcers, are treated with Ayurvedic herbs. Ginger
is recognized as a digestive aid in Ayurveda.
- Cancer. Ayurveda places a great deal of
emphasis on preventing cancer with diet, lifestyle changes, exercise, and the
use of various Ayurvedic compounds, most notably the extract of Semicarpus
anacardium nut and the
flowers of Calotropis procera, as reported by Smit in 1995.
- Metabolic and endocrine. Diabetes is treated in Ayurvedic
medicine with herbal remedies, including guar gum and fennel, which have been
shown to lower blood sugar when used as adjuncts to primary drug treatment,
according to Sadhukhan in 1994. Ayurvedic herbal preparations are also used to
treat obesity, and as antifertility treatments.
- Mental disorders and psychosomatic
illness. Brahmi is highly valued as an anti-anxiety
compound, and Rauwolfia serpentina is an Ayurvedic herb that is the source of the antihypertensive
and tranquilizing drug reserpine. Substance abuse is treated with herbs,
detoxification, diet, and yoga, and so are stress-related conditions, such as
tension headache, colitis, and insomnia.
past, research on Ayurveda was sparse and often poorly designed. Since Ayurveda
has been practiced in India for thousands of years, the efficacy of the system
is accepted there without question. However, during the last several decades, a
great deal of effort has been made to study the scientific basis of Ayurveda.
Much of the more recent research in India has applied Western biomedical
research methods. More than forty research institutions in India have conducted
clinical trials. In the United States, many of the well-designed studies on
Ayurveda have been carried out by adherents of Maharishi Ayur-Ved, who have
conducted both basic and clinical research on herbal products. However, USC's
Dr. Mishra points out that much of this research is controversial, since it may
be biased by a business agenda.
factor complicating research is that, as with any comprehensive system of
medicine, it is difficult to demonstrate the efficacy of Ayurveda as a whole
through RCTs of specific substances. As with all clinical practices, Ayurvedic
treatment is individualized for each patient, and consists of extremely complex
combinations of interventions.
attempts have been made in the United States in recent years to evaluate the
efficacy of overall Ayurvedic treatment, or of complex Ayurvedic programs such
as pancha karma. In reporting these studies, only last names are given in this
chapter, since first names are traditionally omitted in Indian scientific
journals and articles.
- A 1989 pilot study carried out in the
Netherlands by Dr. G. W. H. M. Janssen evaluated the effectiveness of multiple
Maharishi Ayur-Ved interventions among a group of 126 adults who had ten
different chronic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, sinusitis,
bronchitis, asthma, eczema, psoriasis, diabetes, hypertension, constipation,
and headache. Each participant received an individualized nutritional program,
herbal preparations, and daily lifestyle guidelines. Seventy-nine percent of
the participants showed improvement, 14 percent showed no change, and 7 percent
became worse. There were highly significant improvements, or strong trends
toward improvement, in all ten of the medical conditions being studied, with
complete cures for ten patients. The study suggests that Ayurveda as a whole
system does have benefit.
- During a 1993 study by Dr. Sharma and
associates, the researchers evaluated the effects of pancha karma on risk factors for heart disease in
thirty-one adults. Patients who participated in a multimodal program were found
to have an 80 percent increase in dilation capacity of their circulatory system
three months after the treatment, indicating improved function. Total
cholesterol was reduced in all the participants, with a reduced measure of free
radical damage and significantly reduced anxiety.
- Among the most recent demonstration projects
is one funded by NCCAM and carried out by Dr. David Simon at the Sharp
Institute for Human Potential and MindBody Medicine in San Diego. This study
compared the effects of an Ayurvedic health promotion program with the effects
of a Western program among ninety healthy individuals. Participants were
randomized to one of three groups: a group that received no treatment; one that
received Ayurvedic treatment in the form of meditation, Ayurvedic diet, and
yoga; and a group that received a Western program of Jacobsen progressive
relaxation training, a low-fat, low-salt diet, and aerobic exercise.
Eighty-eight subjects completed the one-year trial.
In both treatment groups, health-related quality of life was found
to be improved, with the Ayurvedic group showing greater improvement than the
Western group in health perceptions, and in decreased use of Western
prescription medications. Among subjects in the Ayurvedic program, those who
were highly adherent to the prescribed therapy showed a decrease in depression.
Also, adherence to Ayurvedic meditation was found to be higher than to the
Western progressive muscle relaxation technique, which suggests that meditation
may be more attractive. Estimated health care costs over the year of the study
were more than double for the untreated group, compared with the two treatment
groups. Researchers concluded that the health promotion programs, especially
the Ayurvedic interventions, were effective.
studies have been done on specific herbal substances than on the system as a
whole. Following is an examination of that research.
- A 1988 Indian study by Dr. S. K. Verma
and colleagues evaluated forty patients with high blood lipids, who were
treated with guggul
(the crude gum of Boswellia serrata). In the guggul-treated group, serum cholesterol decreased by 7.8 percent, 15.78
percent, and 21.75 percent at the end of the fourth, eighth, and sixteenth
weeks, respectively. Triglyceride levels decreased by 6.7 percent, 17.1
percent, and 27.1 percent, with "good" HDL cholesterol showing a
gradual increase up to about 35.8 percent by the end of the sixteen weeks.
There was also a significant decrease in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels.
Researchers concluded that guggul was safe and highly effective in lowering the various lipid
fractions that are known to contribute to coronary heart disease.
- In the United States, some of the most
significant research on Ayurvedic compounds has been done by advocates of
Maharishi Ayur-Ved. A number of studies have evaluated two versions of a
traditional metabolic tonic, Maharishi Amrit Kalash, known as MAK-4 and MAK-5. Each of these
preparations contains a large number of ingredients, and has shown great
versatility in basic and clinical research. A series of test tube studies,
funded by the National Cancer Institute, investigated the anticancer properties
of MAK-4 and MAK-5. Preliminary studies by Dr. J. T. Arnold and associates in
1991 showed that these substances were able to significantly inhibit cancer
cells grown in both human tumor and rat cells. Another study, by Dr. M. L.
Prasad and colleagues of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New
Delhi, found that various forms of MAK-4 and MAK-5 were able to inhibit growth
of mouse and human melanoma cells. In a study by Engineer and associates in
1992, MAK-4 and MAK-5 were able to reduce mortality and reduce toxic side
effects in mice treated with Adriamycin, a human chemotherapy drug.
- One innovative 1990 study by Dr. Paul
Gelderloos and associates utilized a double-blind study to evaluate the effect
of MAK-5 on alertness. As compared with the placebo group, members of the MAK
group, all age thirty-five or over, showed significant improvement in their
ability to identify a symbol in a cluttered visual array after three and six weeks
of treatment. Researchers concluded that MAK may help improve alertness and
attentional capacity, and perhaps reverse some of the harmful effects of aging
on cognitive functioning.
- Using a double-blind, placebo controlled
trial, Dr. J. L. Glaser of the Maharishi International University in 1991
studied the effects of MAK-5 in forty-six patients with hay fever. Significant
reductions in allergy symptoms were produced by MAK-5.
- Focusing on arthritis treatment, Dr. K.
K. Kulkarni and associates in 1991 tested an Ayurvedic formulation consisting
of Withania somnifera,
Boswellia serrata, Cucurma
longa, and a zinc
complex. The Ayurvedic formulation produced a significant reduction in the
severity of pain and in the disability score, although neither group showed
significant changes on X ray.
- An article by Srivastava in Medical
Hypotheses in 1992
reported on fifty-six patients with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or
muscle pain who were treated with powdered ginger. More than three-quarters of
the arthritis patients achieved relief from pain and swelling, and all of the
patients with muscular discomfort had pain relief. None of the patients
reported adverse effects.
- A combination of turmeric and neem (Azadirachta
indica) was found by Dr.
Victor Charles of the Medical and Cancer Research and Treatment Centre of
Nagercoil, India, in a 1992 study of 814 subjects, to be useful in treating
scabies, with a 97 percent rate of cure within three to fifteen days of
treatment. Such herbal preparations commonly have many fewer undesirable side
effects than the pharmacological compounds that are used to treat parasites.
- During a 1994 study in India by Drs.
Dwivedi and Agourwal, a bark preparation of Terminalia Arjuna was evaluated in fifteen patients with
stable and unstable angina. Among patients with stable angina there was a 50
percent reduction in anginal episodes, but among patients with unstable angina
there was a statistically insignificant reduction in frequency of angina, and
these patients also needed to use other medications.
- In an Indian study by Dogra and
associates in 1994, thirty patients were evaluated to determine the effect of
MAK-4 and MAK-5 on angina. Eighty percent of patients showed a significant
improvement after six months of treatment, with a reduction in the mean
frequency of angina from 8.87 to 3.3 episodes per month. Five out of eleven
patients with high blood pressure also reported a drop in systolic blood
pressure. There was a statistically insignificant rise in HDL. Ten patients
showed improved exercise tolerance. No side effects or drug interactions were
- Another study of Terminalia, by Dr. Arjuna Bharani and associates in
1995, evaluated its effectiveness in congestive heart failure in a double-blind
placebo-controlled clinical study of twelve patients with refractory congestive
heart failure. Patients receiving Terminalia showed short-term regression of signs of
heart failure, and improvement in symptoms such as shortness of breath and
fatigue, as compared to placebo. In a two-year extension of the trial, patients
continued to show improvements in heart failure, as well as quality of life,
for about two to three months. Two patients died during the second phase of the
study, but the deaths were apparently not related to the use of Terminalia or placebo therapy.
- In a 1995 RCT, Drs. Paranjpe and Kulkarni
evaluated Ayurvedic formulations used to treat acne vulgaris. Eighty-two
patients were randomized into five groups. Four of the groups received
different Ayurvedic formulations orally for six weeks, while one group received
placebo. One of the formulations, Sunder Bati, produced a significant reduction in
acne lesions as compared both to placebo and to the other Ayurvedic
formulations, which failed to produce any significant improvement.
- For a study of more than 260 patients by
Dr. Etzel in 1996, a special extract of guggul (the crude gum of Boswellia serrata), known as H-15, was used in the
treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Patients who received H-15 were found to
have reduced swelling and pain, compared with those who received placebo.
Patients also reported reduction of morning stiffness and were able to cut back
on their intake of NSAIDs during the treatment period. Symptoms of rheumatoid
arthritis were reduced in 50 to 60 percent of the patients. Unfortunately, this
form of guggul is not
currently approved for use, since its classification has been changed from a
known traditional medicine to an unknown, or new, chemical entity that will
require special testing prior to approval.
- At the Southern Illinois University
School of Medicine, Dr. Bala Manyam evaluated the potential of a powdered
preparation of the Ayurvedic herb Mucuna pruriens in the treatment of Parkinson's disease.
During the twelve-week 1997 study, patients showed significant improvement.
Some reported mild side effects. Researchers concluded that the herbal
preparation, known as HP-2000, was an effective, low-cost treatment for patients
with Parkinson's disease.
- Conducting a 1998 study of 280 people
with acne vulgaris at the University of Poona in India, Dr. V. Shanbhag
evaluated the traditional Ayurvedic formula shanka bhasma. Patients were assigned to groups based
on their dosha
constitution. At the end of the four-week study, the vata and pitta patients showed significant improvement,
but the kapha
patients did not. This study indicates that individualized treatment based on
the doshas may be a
Guggul, also identified as Commiphora
has been used traditionally in Ayurvedic medicine for the last one thousand
years for a variety of inflammatory problems, including rheumatoid arthritis,
osteoarthritis, and cervical spondylitis. Guggul also lowers cholesterol
and triglyceride levels and helps maintain a healthy HDL/LDL, "good"
to "bad" cholesterol, ratio. This improved ratio protects against
cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis, and is also beneficial to the
of animal studies have investigated the anti-inflammatory potential of guggul as well as turmeric,
which does not show the same side effects and toxicity that are common in the
usual anti-inflammatory medications, such as corticosteroids or nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). There is also preliminary clinical evidence
that the traditional Ayurvedic remedy, phyllanthus, may be an effective
treatment for hepatitis. Such traditional herbals require further research but
offer great promise to be incorporated into a more integrative medicine
encompassing both conventional and alternative therapies of proven value.
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BEST ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE: WHAT WORKS? WHAT DOES NOT? by Dr. Kenneth R.
Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier,
Reprinted by permission of Simon &
Schuster, Inc., New York, New York.
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