Alternative Medicine Part 2: Ayurvedic Medicine

White flower with red rose petals in the bowl in SPA salon

Twenty — even 10 years ago, if a patient wanted to explore unconventional treatment options, they were on their own. Traditional health professionals generally didn’t encourage alternative medicine or treatments, discouraging departures from allopathic treatment models such as drugs and surgery. But as the efficacy of non-traditional treatment models, such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) mentioned here in part one, ayurvedic medicine, massage and chiropractic adjustment, naturopathy, diet and natural supplementation — even homeopathy and sound therapy, is being validated by research, new branches of medicine are emerging.

Integrative, Functional, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine

The “integrative” medical model developed during the early 1990s, but was formalized when the National Institute of Health (NIH) created the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). This classification covered non-conventional treatment and research, and was the beginning of a slow recognition of alternative systems. Integrative models include consideration of a patient’s lifestyle, body, and mind, and how to promote well-being for the whole person rather than just diseases and their symptoms.

“Functional” medicine refers to holistic and alternative medical practices intended to  improve overall functions of the body’s systems, and explores individual biochemistry, genetics, and environment to determine underlying causes of disease.

According to the NIH, “complementary” medicine combines non-mainstream practices with conventional treatment in a coordinated way. This has  helped drive acceptance of alternative therapies such as TCM, diet, and nutraceuticals, or supplements.

Alternative medicine is any practice that falls outside conventional systems, and is not combined with traditional treatments. For example, if a patient chooses ayurvedic medicine, dietary changes, and supplementation to treat their cancer, and excludes conventional therapies, they have entered the realm of alternative medicine.

Exploring Alternative Medicine Models

In recent decades, relatively obscure healing modalities have emerged as treatment options. Some are ancient, such as TCM, Ayurveda, herbalism, and shamanic energy medicine. Others, such as osteopathy, homeopathy, naturopathy, and chiropractic, arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most recently, biofeedback, structural integration, aromatherapy, energy medicine practices such as reiki and sound wave therapy, music therapies such as singing bowls, and mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) have found enthusiastic patient support.

Yoga and Ayurveda: Vital Essences

Ayurveda, or Vedic Medicine

In Sanskrit, “Ayurveda” translates to “life” (ayur) “science” (veda). According to the NCCIH, ayurveda, sometimes called “vedic” medicine, is one of the world’s oldest medical systems, originating on the Indian subcontinent over 3,000 years ago. While at present the NCCIH recognizes the Vedic system, Western clinical researchers have not effectively studied ayurveda practices and treatments to prove or disprove efficacy.

Vedic medicine’s core principles include the premise that food and lifestyle are the most important medicines, and that there is no routine, diet, or lifestyle that works for everyone — each individual is unique.

Elements and Doshas

Like the Chinese, the Vedics have an element-based system, but with important differences. Vedic elements are earth, water, fire, air, and space, or ether. As with all element-based systems, the Vedics believe everything in existence is comprised of these elements in infinite combinations. Humans are no exception — everyone has a distinct elemental makeup, but Ayurveda defines three broad categories, called doshas, for the purpose of treatment and diagnosis: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Vedic treatments are dedicated to achieving the perfect balance of the doshas. While there are classic dosha temperaments and constitutions, Ayurveda recognizes each individual is some combination of the three doshas.

Vata Dosha: Space and Air

In Sanskrit, “Vata” translates to “blow or move like the wind.” A combination of space and air, Vata rules movement in the mind and body, including movement within the body. Because all movement — physical, mental, and energetic — depends on the Vata principal, Vedics designate vata as the leading dosha. Vata also governs thinking, reasoning, and creativity as well as blood flow, heart rhythm, and sexual and elimination functions.

Ayurveda describes Vata qualities as; dry, cool, mobile, rough, and subtle. Indications of Vata imbalances are: dry, rough, or thin skin; worry and racing thoughts; fear or anxiety; restlessness and insomnia; constipation, joint pain, and fatigue. The Vata-dominated person learns easily and quickly, but may not retain information — easy come, easy go. In physical terms, the Vata type is tall, thin, and fast-moving — think Uma Thurman, Katherine Hepburn, and Gwyneth Paltrow. They have brief bursts of high energy, like gusts of wind. Balanced Vata manifests as creativity and vitality — Vata imbalances manifest as fear and anxiety.

Vedics believe Vata-dominant individuals will ideally avoid becoming too cold or chilled, and will consume ginger tea for warmth, wear grounding earth tones, minimize sweeteners, and avoid beans. Over-active Vata may be pacified with dairy products such as hot milk with added spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, or pepper.

Pitta Dosha: Fire and Water

General Pitta qualities are; hot, sharp and penetrating, light, liquid, and dynamic (moving). This dosha is responsible for metabolism, digestion, and energy production; all aspects of agni, or fire. While Vata rules motion and movement, pitta rules transformation — imagine wood transforming to ash when fire is applied. According to chopra.com, “Those with a predominance of the pitta principle have a fiery nature that manifests in both body and mind.”

Vedics describes a Pitta-dominant person as being of medium size/weight. They have a cast-iron gut, can eat whatever they like, and have strong appetites for food, sex, and experience. They don’t like missing meals. Examples of classic Pitta types are Jennifer Lawrence, Madonna, and Lindsay Lohan.

A Pitta is generally focused with a sharp mind, is competitive, and wants to be in charge. Pitta unbalanced moves toward authoritarianism, pushiness, sarcasm, harsh speech, tantrums, and impatience, but their capacities for precision, order, and clarity make them good decision makers, persuasive orators, and strong leaders.

Imbalanced Pitta manifests as inflammation, fever, ulcers, rashes, heartburn, and indigestion. Ayurveda recommends strong Pitta types balance rest and activity and avoid skipping meals. Pitta should avoid overheating and too much direct sun, but spend time in nature when stressed — ideally, shaded, cool forests or under moonlight.

An ideal Pitta diet includes dairy in the form of milk, butter, and ghee to cool Pitta fire, but sour dairy, such as fermented yogurt and cheese, will aggravate Pitta. According to Vedic doctrine, Pitta benefits from sweetness in moderation, but should avoid molasses and honey.

Kapha: Water and Earth

While Vata is motion and Pitta is transformation, Kapha is protection, preservation, and stability. Kapha-dominant people are physically strong and are considered to have the most stable constitution of the three types. Vedics identify Kapha by their large, luminous eyes, soft skin, and abundant hair. The women tend toward curvy sensuality — think Elizabeth Taylor, Kate Winslet, or Christina Hendricks, who played the role of  the traffic-stopping Joan Holloway in Mad Men.

Kapha is most prone to weight gain — while they have, at their core, great strength and endurance, they generally have the slowest metabolism of all the types. Kapha often plays the role of “the rock” in interpersonal dynamics as they are patient and peace-loving. Kapha may be slightly slower in acquiring new learning, but once acquired, a Kapha will never forget. These people may be depression-prone, and can have a tendency for colds, congestion, sinus infections, allergies, and respiratory issues such as asthma.

Notably, Kapha is the one type with an absence of fire — so cultivating internal heat helps keep these people healthy. Spicy foods, exposure to warm sunlight, warming baths, and vigorous exercise all help warm up the Kapha and keep the metabolism humming.

The Vedics recommend Kapha avoid oily, heavy foods, and creamy sauces and dressings. Aside from honey or pure maple syrup, sweets are best avoided.

Ayurvedic Diagnosis and Treatment Methods

An Ayurvedic practitioner uses three diagnostic methods when evaluating a new patient; observation, touch, and questions. Observation includes noting details of body contours, skin, eyes, etc. Touch includes checking pulses, as in Chinese medicine, and palpitation. The practitioner will also ask extensive questions about health concerns, diet, lifestyle, stress, etc.

Treatment methods include herbs, but this is considered a very precise science that should only be used by qualified practitioners. Practitioners often prescribe a panchakarma, a detox boot-camp regimen designed to remove ama, or poisons. Steam treatments, massage, a dietary regimen, prescribed herbs, and possibly yoga are all part of the detox. Vedic practitioners are adamant the panchakarma be done only under the supervision of a specialist. Many opt for a panchakarma retreat.

Diet plays a large role in ayurvedic treatment — a practitioner identifies foods to be avoided, foods to emphasize, and an individualized dietary regimen to bring the body and mind into balance. Specialized massage is also prescribed, and Vedic massage therapists use specific oils prescribed by the practitioner.

Unique to Ayurveda is the practice of shirodhara — a technique of dripping medicated oil on the forehead, specifically in the third-eye area. The Vedics believe shirodhara has a calming effect on the nervous system. It is reported to be effective for treating insomnia, stress disorders, and hypertension, but is not suitable for pregnant women, those with recent neck injuries, or anyone diagnosed with a brain tumor.

The Ayurvedic M.D., Dr. Nita Desai



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7 Ayurvedic Home Remedies for Injuries and Prevention

A new year has started and with each new year come resolutions of being more active, getting in shape, picking up a new gym membership or doing Yoga every day. Though these are great plans, sometimes the body isn’t quite ready or conditioned to pick up a new exercise routine without signs of muscle fatigue, spasms and cramps, or we may even walk away with a torn muscle or a sprain.

No pain, no gain is the philosophy our society has adapted to with little questioning. In circles of sports and exercise it seems that the ultimate goal is to achieve more in less time by training harder, longer, faster, more intense, and more explosive, all times of the day.

This attitude, or philosophy, also gets applied to Yoga. We have Fitness Yoga, and Yoga with weights, which focus mainly on the fitness component. But even traditions like Ashtanga Yoga or Hot Yoga are quite physically strenuous.

In the Yoga Sutras the sage Patanjali suggests to practice ahimsa, non-violence. The first Yama, or yogic guideline, wants us to do no harm against others, and ourselves. But accidents can happen, and if they do we want to recover as quickly as possible.

Here are seven home remedies to help relieve muscle pain and the discomfort of minor soft tissue trauma.

Ayurvedic Home Remedies for Injury

1. Turmeric and Bromelain

Combined, these two can help speed up recovery. The combination of Bromelain and Turmeric is known for it’s natural blood thinning and pain relieving properties and is often used for menstrual problems as well as and anti-inflammatory for painful joints. Though the use of Bromelain may not be traditional Ayurvedic treatment, Turmeric is used in many cultures as an anti-inflammatory agent, taken internally and often applied externally to reduce swelling.

2. Golden Milk

A great way to add more injury treating and preventing Turmeric to your diet is with an Ayurvedic remedy called Golden Milk. Though nearly every Ayurvedic practitioner will have a slightly different version of this drink, this is my favorite recipe:

Ingredients:

1 Tbsp unprocessed sugar cane or Succanat

1 Tbsp Ginger juice

1 Tbsp Turmeric powder

1 cup water

½ cup of Milk, Coconut-, Rice-, or Almond Milk

Directions:

Add the sugar cane or Succanat to the water and simmer until melted. Add the Ginger juice and Turmeric and simmer until ½ cup of liquid remains. Add your choice of milk and enjoy hot.

3. Ginger

Just like turmeric, ginger has strong anti-inflammatory benefits. When nursing an injury I like to increase the use of ginger in my daily habits. I add fresh ginger to my cooking and prepare a tea of 2 inches of fresh ginger, 1 tsp Lose Green Tea (or 1 teabag of organic green tea), 1 liter hot water, a squeeze of fresh lemon and raw honey to taste, in the morning which I keep warm in a thermos and sip throughout the day.

Another use of ginger is to add a few slices in your hot Epsom salt bath or put a couple of tablespoons of ginger juice in your bath. If you have sensitive skin please be careful as raw and dry ginger has a hot quality and can irritate your skin.

4. Castor oil

Castor oil packs are great in alleviating pain and help heal injuries as well as lessen the appearance of old scars. Warm a teaspoon of castor oil in your hands and massage into the area you want help with. Cover with a dishcloth or a couple of sheets of fleece to prevent staining. Then put a warm water bottle or heating blanket on top and leave on for 20-30 minutes so the oil can absorb into your skin.

Again, if you have sensitive skin do a small “patch test” first to make sure you don’t react to the castor oil.

5. Cool it

If you have a fresh injury you can apply an ice pack to counteract inflammation and swelling. Wrap the ice pack in a dishtowel so you don’t apply direct ice to your skin. Applying ice to a fresh injury can be really helpful as a first response. It will reduce blood flow to the area and numb the pain receptors. Keeping ice on the injury for too long however can hinder the healing process. So make sure you use cold treatment wisely and in alteration with heat to flush out the tissue. There are different hot-cold applications suggested for different types of injuries.

6. Pineapple and Pomegranate Juice

Both juices contain an enzyme that acts as an anti-inflammatory and anti-irritant, which speed up healing. When you feel you’ve overdone your practice and have a new pain or ache that doesn’t feel right, power up on anti-oxidants and said enzymes to support the healing process. Make yourself a juice or smoothie with lots of fresh pineapple and/or pomegranate, then add a little ginger and turmeric while you are at it.

7. Epsom Salt Baths

Epsom salt is a great help with recovery after a vigorous practice. Epsom Salts have been found in experimental studies to relieve pain and muscle cramps, relax the body and calm the mind, increase blood flow, and help muscles and nerves function properly. A twenty-minute bath with plenty of Epsom salts has been found to be equally effective as a 45-minute deep tissue massage.

Injuries are best treated when fresh. Don’t wait two days before applying heat or cold, or before starting to increase your intake of injury reducing anti-inflammatory foods. The best time to apply treatment, even self massage of the area, is right away before internal scarring of the tissue occurs and the injury settles in. When in doubt, always seek professional advice.

Please note that the above are suggested home remedies that can be very effective, yet you may need other means of physical adjustments. If you have an injury that doesn’t go away or at least get noticeably better after twenty-four hours please see a physician or sports therapist to get your injury assessed and take appropriate action.

Prevention is always better than treatment. Honor your body, know where you are, leave the ego off the mat, and if your teacher asks you to move in a way that doesn’t feel right to you, know that it’s okay to listen to your instinct and move accordingly. Pushing too far can mean a long time away from the mat and the practice you love so much.

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