One of the beautiful things about Ayurvedic Medicine is that it is a full system of health. There are eight branches of medicine in Ayurveda, and all of them are still practiced today by Ayurvedic practitioners in India. The branches were detailed in the Vedas, including an entire book called the Sushrutaa Samhita dedicated to surgery. Many say that modern plastic surgery derived from an Ayurvedic surgeon who developed skin grafting over 5,000 years ago. My particular specialties are internal medicine and psychiatry. Sattva Vijaya Chikisa, the psycho-spiritual aspect of mental health, translates to mean “the study of the liberation of the mind,” which I always say sounds more uplifting than Ayurvedic psychotherapy.
When we talk about treatment in Ayurvedic medicine, we are really talking about breaking it down into three components.
Prevention, Maintenance, and Treating Diseases (Swasthyarakshan)
First, there is prevention and maintaining health. This is the most important aspect when it comes to supporting a healthy lifestyle and the focus of my upcoming book. Prevention starts with learning your dosha or mind/body type so you know the right foods to consume for balancing the digestive fire (agni). This component also involves establishing effective daily routines, including yoga asanas, breathwork (pranayama), meditation, self oil massage, and proper sleep to maintain homeostasis of your constitution.
Those who are not in balance may need help to get to the prevention stage, and that is where we come into the management of disease. Ayurveda treats disease in two major ways: herbology (dravya guna) and purification (panchakarma).
Ayurvedic Herbology (Dravya Guna)
In Ayurveda, curing is seen through herbal therapies and substances (dravya guna), the Ayurvedic branch that is similar to modern pharmacology. The Charaka Samhita Sutrasthana has this to say about Ayurvedic herbology:
“There is nothing in the world which does not have therapeutic utility when applied in appropriate conditions and situations.”
Medicinal substances are classified according to 50 groups that have different physiological actions. In Ayurvedic herbology books, each plant is labeled with its taste (rasa), quality (virya), and post-digestive effect (vipaka), and it can have several different curing actions on the body. For example, a single plant could be obstructing, carminative, antihaemorrhoidal, diaphoretic, expectorant, purgative, nourishing, antiemetic, scraping, antiparasitic, intoxicating, moisturizing, tonifying, digestive, laxative, anti-spasmodic, blood building, blood cleansing, aphrodisiac, or emetic, just to name a few. An Ayurvedic herbalist would prepare these curing ingredients in one of several different medicinal preparations, like fresh juice, paste, powder, decoction, infusion, jam, medicated wine or tincture, pill, medicated ghee or oil, or administer it via smoke therapy.
Finally, there is purification. Seasonal cleansing is helpful to reset the body as it moves through the seasons, and the removal of ama (toxins) through processes like amapachana, purvakarma, and panchakarma. These practices reset the body and help with deep-seeded disorders or a buildup of ama in the body that needs to be released.
In an article about The Extensive History and Modern Use of Detoxification and Cleansing, Dr. Sarah Bennett, NMD, explains that there are controversies around the “modern-day detox,” but cultures around the world have been performing these techniques for thousands of years. Various cultures use cleansing and purification methods to rejuvenate one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health, including Ayurverda’s panchakarma protocols, Traditional Asian Medicine’s practices of cupping and scraping, and Native American sweat lodges and fasting ceremonies, to name a few.
Ayurveda recommends cleansing between the seasons. There can be an accumulation of pathogens, whether environmental or internal, which need to be gently removed or corrected. Natural pathways can become obstructed (like build up of plaque in the arteries), inflammation can perpetuate (like autoimmune disorders), or toxins can build in the body (like the increase of free radicals in the cells). One of the more well-known Ayurvedic purification techniques is panchakarma, which means “five actions” to describe the five ways to purify the body:
Nasal therapy (Nasya)
Medical vomiting or emesis (Vamana)
Blood letting (Rakta Moksha)
People often mistake this process as a luxurious treatment with lots of oil massage (snehan) and herbal steam therapies (svedana), but these five actions are not intended to make the body feel good. The purpose of the treatments is to prepare the body for another bout of elimination to release the buildup of ama (toxins) or deep-seeded disorders from the body. In traditional Ayurvedic practices, the process is repeated for a minimum of 7 days, although panchakarma can also last for 14 or 21 days. In modern practices, you can also find 3- or 5-day panchakarma sessions.
These types of cleanses are targeted and should not be administered without a proper understanding of the patient’s pathology, so I recommend consulting with a provider before simply engaging in a cleanse. Everyone is so different, and I sometimes tell a patient they are not eligible for a cleanse. The reasons can be anything from a compromised immune system to low body mass or weight. In those cases, I recommend beginning with rasayanas, which are techniques or therapies that add to the body instead of breaking it down. Also, since cleansing involves movement to occur within the channels of the body, the quality of vata can increase and cause physical and emotional instability if not performed correctly.
Many people think cleansing will aid in weight loss, and although that may be a side effect through changing the metabolism, it is generally not the main objective. Only a healthy diet and lifestyle will be an effective and lasting way to lose weight. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of doing a cleanse, that’s okay. As long as you are taking preventative measures in diet and lifestyle — like eating whole foods, staying active, and having a good mental health practice that keeps the mind growing and at peace — your body will naturally trigger itself back into balance.
As Hippocrates famously said, “The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well. Our food should be our medicine. Our medicine should be our food.”