I know a woman who claims ayurveda cured her of cervical cancer and as a result is really big on douching with rose petals. I kind of want to believe this worked even though I don't.
Whatever the case, her cancer went away, and that's awesome. Ayurvedic practitioners make a lot of claims about their ancient Indian system of medicine, but as with all health modalities (allopathic treatments included), adequate research to back them up is sometimes missing.
The central concept of Ayurveda, whose meaning in Sanskrit is roughly "knowledge of life," is that health requires a balance between three fundamental bodily humours or doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. "Life," according to the Charaka Samhita (an Ayurvedic text), is responsible for preventing decay and death and is said to guide the processes of rebirth.
But ancient teachings aside, an alarming 2004 study published in the Journal Of The American Medical Association found toxic materials in several available Ayurvedic medicinal products. Health Canada researched further and issued an advisory, which you can find at www.hc-sc.gc.ca.
Be careful what you buy, be alert about promises and get the advice of a practitioner.
What the experts say
"There is evidence for many of the herbs used in Ayurveda, but not for the actual philosophical principles. Studies of the pharmacological effects of certain herbs have been carried out, but few clinical studies. The best evidence exists for andrographis paniculata (kalmegh, or green chiretta), used for infections and liver protection; asparagus racemosus (wild asparagus) for women's complaints; azadirachta indica (neem) as an insecticide; bacopa monnieri (brahmi) for cognitive function; momordica charantia (bitter melon) for diabetes, and withania somnifera (ashwagandha) for stress. All these have some clinical evidence, though it's not as comprehensive as for Western medicines."
ELIZABETH M. WILLIAMSON , director of pharmacy practice, School of Pharmacy, University of Reading, UK
"We went to Indian and ethnic markets and purchased all the brands of medicine for sale, 70 products in all, and tested them for lead, mercury and arsenic. We found that 20 per cent contained potentially harmful levels of these. We don't know what the impact would be on humans or whether this sample is representative. Studies in Canada, Houston, New York and Chicago have reported similar findings, and over 70 case reports published in medical literature show metal poisoning associated with these medicines. We are doing further research."
ROBERT SAFER , assistant professor, Boston University School of Medicine
"Ayurveda is rooted in the Vedas, believed to be the most ancient text in the world. It was only for gods and goddesses. After Brahma created the universe, people didn't know what to do or what to eat, and they were getting cholera and diarrhea. Wise people decided to save lives and went to Lord Brahma, who gave them a system of medicine. It has different branches -- yoga, herbal medicine, cleansing, diet, meditation, acupuncture, acupressure.'
SONAL BHATT , Ayurvedic physician and panchakarma specialist, Toronto
"Ayurveda is based on the science of breath, the science of metabolism and the functions of the mind. The principle of the doshas is based on the three humours of the body and the three metabolic body types (endomorph, ectomorph and mesomorph). Ayurveda is effective for cancer, skin conditions, depression, anxiety disorders, sexual dysfunction and schizophrenia. Anti-aging is its number-one application: rejuvenation and longevity."
ANDREA OLIVERA , founder, Andrea Olivera Centre for Ayurveda, Toronto
"As with other traditional medicine systems, plenty of knowledge appears to have been passed down over thousands of years, as well as anecdotal evidence based on clinical practice. It is difficult to get access to studies done in the country of origin. There is more research to be done. The randomized controlled trial (RCT) is the gold standard in conventional medicine, but when it comes to systems like Ayurveda, the RCT is not always applicable."
KEREN BROWN , director, Holistic Health Research Foundation of Canada, Toronto