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Ayurvedic Medicine and Mental Health

With over 400 000 registered practitioners in India, Ayurvedic Medicine (or Ayurveda) is a familiar, affordable and accessible option for millions. When it comes to mental health, Ayurveda could provide a viable addition or alternative to Western-based mental health approaches, which often rely heavily on medications that may cause unwanted side-effects. In this article, we explore Ayurvedic Medicine and how it can be used to promote mental health.

What is Ayurvedic Medicine

Ayurvedic Medicine is a philosophy and medical practice that originated in India. The term ‘Ayurveda’ is a combination of two Sanskrit words: life (ayur) and knowledge (veda). Also referred to as ‘the science of life’, Ayurveda take a holistic approach to health, treating each person as an individual with a unique set of attributes and circumstances.

Regarded as the oldest medical system in use today, the earliest known Ayurvedic text was written approximately 5000 years ago, meaning that Ayurveda itself is likely to be even older. Ayurveda is a medical system that goes beyond treating symptoms, seeking to prevent illness and promote overall health.

What is the Theory Underlying Ayurveda?

From the perspective of Ayurveda, humans can be classified according to their Dosha, or biological humor. Ayurveda identifies three Doshas: Vata, Pita, and Kapha. Ayurveda also speaks of four basic components that make up a person: the body (Sarira), the mind (Manas), the physical/psychological senses (Indriya) and the soul (Atma). The practice of Ayurveda aims to promote health by establishing an equilibrium between all the above. Let’s look a bit closer at the concept of the mind.

Manas: The Mind

Manas is said made up three different qualities or character-traits. These are referred to as the three Gunas. The first (Sattva) is associated with positive qualities such as self-control, wisdom, spiritual awareness, patience, and happiness. The second (Rajas) is linked to anger, greed, and violence. The third (Tamas), is associated with qualities such as lethargy, depressive symptoms, and selfishness.

Mental illness is thought to result when an imbalance occurs between these three Gunas, and this may happen as a result of problems relating to the Doshas and a person’s lifestyle.

How Does Ayurveda Treat Mental Illness?

Treatment involves a holistic combination of diet and lifestyle changes, yoga, massage, aromatherapy and what could be compared to ethical or spiritual counseling. In addition, mantras, meditation, fasting, and vows may be used. Specific herbs may also be prescribed for treating psychological disorders: examples include Bacopa monnieri, Kava, Centella asiatica, and Saffron.

There is another Ayurvedic technique known as Sattvavajaya which may be used to improve mental health. Literally translated, this means ‘conquest of the mind’ – and this is the Ayurvedic equivalent of Western psychotherapy. Sattvavajaya involves helping the patient to calm, guide and structure the mind while challenging and replacing problematic ideas and thoughts with more functional ones – a similar approach taken by the West’s brand of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Differences Between Ayurveda and Western Psychiatry

From the Ayurvedic perspective, mental illness is not seen as occurring separately from bodily processes and the three Doshas. This is one way in which the Ayurvedic approach is potentially more advantageous than Western psychiatry, which has been criticized for separating the body and the mind. In the West, such critiques have given rise to exciting new research showing that the body and brain are in fact closely linked, as described by Ayurvedic practitioners.

Ayurveda also seems to have pre-empted another critique that Western psychiatry still grapples with: the fact that individuals are rarely considered with enough consideration to their broader social context.

For example, when a Western doctor diagnoses depression, they are saying that this person has an illness that should be treated with medication and/or psychotherapy. But the psychiatrist often is not acknowledging the significance of that person broader social context. Contextual factors such as poverty, crime and unemployment play an important role in the causation and maintenance of mental illness.

From an Ayurvedic perspective, on the other hand, mental illness is thought of as being far broader than just a matter of a chemical imbalance in the mind. In fact, from this perspective mental illness is sometimes seen as a community issue, rather than an individual pathology.

Does Ayurveda Work?

For many years, Ayurvedic wisdom has been used to treat mental as well as physical ailments. Examples of disorders treated by Ayurvedic practitioners range from depression, anxiety and insomnia to obsessive-compulsive disorder, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. But do these treatments work? The jury is not yet out in this regard. Promising scientific research has been conducted to show that Ayurvedic approaches may hold great potential when it comes to reducing psychopathology and improving quality of life. At this point, however, more research is required before we can be entirely sure about its efficacy from a scientific standpoint.

How Does the West View Ayurveda?

Today in the US, Ayurveda is classified as an ‘alternative and complimentary medicine’. This means that Ayurvedic methods may be used alongside Western Medicine; or as an alternative to it. The US Federal Drug Authority (FDA) also warns Americans to approach Ayurveda with caution. In the US, Ayurvedic medicines have not been approved as formal medical treatments; and certain Ayurvedic herbal medicines have been banned because they contain harmful substances.

Ayurveda and Mental Health: What Does the Future Hold?

For many in India, Ayurveda is an aspect of their cultural heritage and identity – not to mention an important source of healthcare.  By contrast, in the West, there are many traditionally oriented doctors and scientists who view Ayurveda as little more than “unscientific” quackery.

Before it’s embraced by medical science, Ayurveda must undergo further rigorous scientific research. However, Western mental health care models also leave much to be desired. Medications are addictive, and some have unpleasant side-effects. The effects of psychotherapy are at times modest and short-lived. Mental illness is on the rise, but Western medicine is treating the symptoms without paying enough attention to the broader social influences at play.

So, a more balanced and integrative approach is necessary. Ayurveda clearly holds great potential, but we can’t view it as a panacea. The same can be said for psychiatry: just because it’s based on the latest developments in science, its faults cannot be ignored. Perhaps, however, there’s space for Ayurvedic and Western mental health practitioners to continue to collaborate and find ways of learning from one another. Ayurveda may well provide solutions to some of the pitfalls that Western psychiatry has been grappling with for so long.

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