Decorative image

Ayurvedic medicine

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of medicine that uses a wide range of treatments and techniques.

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of medicine which began about 5,000 years ago. It is not just one treatment. It is a way of diagnosing illness and using a wide range of treatments and techniques.

Ayurveda is an Indian word. Ayur means life and veda means knowledge.

Ayurvedic medicine can include:

  • advice on diet and special diets
  • taking specific Ayurvedic medications
  • herbal medicine
  • massage
  • meditation
  • yoga, breathing and relaxation techniques
  • bowel cleansing

An Ayurvedic practitioner might suggest any or all of these treatments. It will depend on your particular health problems.

There is no scientific evidence to prove that Ayurvedic medicine can treat or cure cancer or any other disease.

How it works

The main belief behind Ayurvedic medicine is that health problems happen when your mind, body and spirit are out of balance.

Ayurvedic practitioners believe we are made up of 3 elements known as doshas.

These are:

  • air and space (vata dosha) which allows movement
  • fire and water (pitta dosha) which allows for change and handles digestion and metabolism
  • water and earth (kapha dosha) which gives structure or cohesion

These 3 doshas let the body's organs work together in harmony. They also create your relationship with the environment and universe.

Ayurvedic practitioners believe that our health depends on the correct balance of all 3.

Practitioners claim that different combinations of Ayurvedic medicine bring balance and harmony into the body to help:

  • increase energy and wellbeing
  • balance mind, body and spirit
  • decrease stress
  • prevent and cure disease

Why people with cancer use ayurvedic medicine

People with cancer often use touch therapies such as massage and aromatherapy. Many people say these therapies help them to cope better with cancer and its treatment.

Research is looking into whether some herbs or plant treatments used in Ayurvedic medicine could help to prevent or treat cancer.

But, we still don't know much about some of the treatments that are part of Ayurvedic medicine, such as special diets and herbal remedies.

These treatments could be harmful to your health or interfere with conventional treatment such as cancer drugs and radiotherapy.

What having Ayurvedic medicine involves

Your practitioner will aim to restore or maintain your health and well being by balancing many factors in your life.

To plan your treatment, they will take your medical history and assess your doshas.

They will examine your tongue, lips and nails, and look inside your eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth. They might also examine your back passage (rectum) and genital area. They will listen to your lungs and heart, and take your pulse.

They will ask about your emotions and relationships with other people. They will even consider the time of day and what season it is.

Then they'll discuss which treatments they think will help you most.

Some practitioners might recommend getting rid of toxins. They might cleanse the bowel (intestines) by putting liquid into your back passage (enemas). Or, they might suggest taking medicines to make the bowel work more quickly (laxatives).

Other ways of cleansing and detoxifying include forced vomiting and drawing blood from the body. These methods can be harmful. Most therapists don’t use them.

Some Ayurvedic methods such as yoga, massage and relaxation are generally helpful for people with cancer. But others such as some herbal treatments, diets and bowel cleansing can be harmful.

Always check with your doctor first as some treatments can have serious side effects. Ask your doctor for advice if an Ayurvedic practitioner diagnoses you with a new medical condition.

Your relationship with your practitioner is very important. They are responsible for creating a safe space for you to work together to decide on your treatment.

Tell your practitioner if you don’t feel comfortable with anything that they are doing.

Possible side effects of Ayurvedic medicine

You might have some side effects depending on which treatments you have. Herbal treatments, diets and bowel cleansing can have harmful side effects.

There is very little published information about the herbal remedies used by Ayurvedic practitioners. Some common herbs might have dangerous side effects if you take them with cancer treatments, such as cancer drugs or radiotherapy.

Following certain diets when you have cancer is not always safe either.

Some Ayurvedic practitioners will recommend getting rid of toxins. They might cleanse the bowel (intestines) by putting liquid into your back passage (enemas). Or, they might suggest taking medicines to make the bowel work more quickly (laxatives).

Regularly having enemas and laxatives can cause many side effects. Some of these can be serious and potentially fatal.

Side effects include:

  • infections
  • constipation
  • bowel inflammation
  • salt and other mineral imbalances in the body

Never use enemas or laxatives to clear your bowel if you have abdominal pain, vomiting or feel sick. Always ask your doctor first.

Other cleansing methods include drawing blood from the body (blood letting) and forced vomiting. These methods can be harmful. Most therapists don’t use them.

Blood letting can be dangerous for anyone, but especially for people with cancer. You might already have low levels of blood cells because of the cancer or your treatment.

Low blood cell counts can cause tiredness (fatigue), breathlessness and other symptoms. Removing blood will make these symptoms worse.

Forced vomiting is unhealthy and can upset the levels of salt and minerals in your body.

We advise anyone with cancer not to rely totally on Ayurvedic medicine and not to avoid conventional medical treatment.

The safety of Ayurvedic medicines

Yoga, relaxation techniques and massage are generally safe. But, other remedies that you ingest need more attention.

Most Ayurvedic medicines are made from different herbs. There has been no research to test many of them.

Some herbal medicines might interact with treatment you are already having, such as cancer drugs or radiotherapy. Or, some might contain harmful substances.

In 2004, a US study found that 14 out of 70 Ayurvedic medicines bought over the counter had harmful heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic in them. All the remedies had been made in South Asia.

How unlicensed traditional Chinese or Ayurvedic medicines are made can vary. Some contain illegal substances and toxic herbs which may not be listed on the packaging. The amount of active ingredient can also vary widely between products.

Companies that make herbal products to be bought over the counter in health food shops and pharmacies have to meet quality standards. They need to provide information about their product, including exactly what it contains, the dose and how safe it is.

Only use herbal products that are registered under the Traditional Herbal Remedies (THR) scheme. Registered remedies have a THR mark and symbol on the packaging. THR products have been tested for quality and safety.

To be safe, only buy plant remedies from a trained and qualified herbal practitioner who can trace where their herbs and plants come from.

Always check with your doctor first before having any type of herb or medicine.

Research into Ayurvedic treatment

Some research has found some types of Ayurvedic treatment can help relieve cancer symptoms and improve quality of life.

For example, massage can lower stress and help you to relax. Meditation can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and boost general wellbeing.

Studies have shown that yoga helps lymphoma patients sleep better, and reduces stress in people with breast or prostate cancer.

Ayurvedic medicine uses more than 200 herbs and plants. Researchers have looked at some compounds used in Ayurvedic medicine in the laboratory and tested them on animals.

Some of this early laboratory research suggests that it might help slow the growth of cancer in animals. But, there is no evidence that Ayurvedic medicine can prevent, treat or cure cancer in humans.

We won't know until we carry out large randomised clinical trials.

In 2011, US researchers took a compound called Withaferin A (WA) from the Ayurvedic medicinal plant Withania somnifera. They found that Withaferin A stopped the growth of some types of breast cancer cells in test tubes. It also stopped the growth of breast cancer in mice. Several other studies support these findings.

An Indian study in 2011 looked at selaginella bryopteris, a traditional Indian herb known as Sanjeevani. It found that compounds taken from the herb stopped the growth of cancer cells in test tubes. The compound also reduced the development of skin tumours in mice.

A US research study in 2011 looked at acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA) taken from the gum resin of the boswellia serrata known as salai guggal or Indian frankincense. This substance is used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat inflammatory conditions. The researchers found that AKBA slowed the growth of bowel cancers in mice and made the cancer less likely to spread.

The mangosteen fruit has a long history of medicinal use in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Recently, the compound alpha mangostin taken from the outside layer of the fruit was shown to kill various types of cancer cells in laboratory studies. Japanese researchers tested alpha mangostin in mice. The substance slowed the growth of breast cancer in mice and it was much less likely to spread to the lymph nodes.

Pomegranate (Punica granatum) is a sacred fruit in some world religions. Many cultures and systems of medicine use it for various health problems. Early laboratory research seems to show that pomegranate extracts may have anti cancer properties against prostate, bowel and liver cancer.

Pomegranate is a good source of fibre and vitamins and fine to include in a healthy diet. One small study found that men who drank pomegranate juice every day had their cancer grow slower than  normal. Other studies of men who drank pomegranate juice or had extract did not show any benefit.

So it’s still unclear whether pomegranate is helpful for men with prostate cancer. We need more research in large trials to be certain.

Some laboratory studies have looked at Ayurvedic herbal remedies called MAK-4 and MAK-5. The remedies seemed to show some activity in controlling tumours in rats and cancer cells in lab dishes. But there have been no studies in humans.

Finding an Ayurvedic practitioner

There is no single professional organisation that regulates Ayurvedic medicine in the UK. Therapists and practitioners can join several associations but there is no law to say that they have to.

You must choose a trained and qualified therapist or practitioner if you are considering having Ayurvedic medicine. Contact the Ayurvedic Practitioners Association (APA) first.

According to the APA, Ayurvedic practitioners are qualified to diagnose diseases and conditions from an Ayurvedic perspective. They can prescribe and give Ayurvedic remedies and treatments, as well as nutrition and lifestyle advice.

Ayurvedic therapists are not trained as practitioners and do not have to finish any specific training. They can give Ayurvedic nutrition and lifestyle advice and hands-on treatment such as massage. But they can’t diagnose conditions or prescribe Ayurvedic remedies.

There are several places that people can train to become Ayurveda therapists and there are different levels of training. Many therapists go to India to study as there are more than 180 Ayurveda training schools there. Some of the training in India can take up to 5 years to complete.

Some therapists train in a specific treatment that is part of the Ayurvedic medicine system such as massage or meditation, but not in others such as herbal treatments.

The cost of Ayurvedic medicine

The cost will depend on the treatments that you have.

The first consultation can cost anything between £25 and £65. Follow up appointments usually cost less.

Some Ayurvedic clinics encourage overnight or longer stays for intensive detoxification treatments. These can be very expensive.

Make sure you get full information about treatment costs before agreeing to have it. Check with your cancer doctor first to make sure the treatments are safe for you.

Useful organisations

These organisations can give you useful information about Ayurvedic medicine in the UK.

23 Green Ridge
Brighton
BN1 5LT

Telephone: +44 (0)1273 930 956

The Association regulates and maintains a list of Ayurvedic practitioners and therapists. All therapists have professional indemnity insurance and abide by the APA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.

The website has helpful information and explains the difference between practitioners and therapists.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)

151 Buckingham Palace Road
London
SW1W 9SZ

Telephone: 020 3080 6000
Email: info@mhra.gsi.gov.uk

The MHRA regulates medicines, medical devices and blood components for transfusion in the UK. This includes herbal products.

They have information about:

  • the safety of herbal medicines including what consumers need to know
  • advice and guidance about taking specific herbs
  • which Ayurvedic medicines might contain harmful substances

More information about Ayurvedic medicine

For further information about Ayurvedic medicines go to the websites of these organisations.

The National Institutes of Health in the USA conduct and support research. The Center for complementary and intergrative health researches and gives information about complementary health products and practices.

The American Cancer Society has detailed information about complementary and alternative therapies.

Last reviewed: 
04 Feb 2015
  • Complete Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies (2nd Edition)
    American Cancer Society, 2009

  • Psychological adjustment and sleep quality in a randomized trial of the effects of a Tibetan yoga intervention in patients with lymphoma. L Cohen and others. Cancer. May 2004. 15;100 (10):2253-60

     

  • US National Institute for Health - National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health
    Ayurvedic Medicine: In Depth – accessed November 2015

  • The National Cancer Institute best case series program: a summary of cases of cancer patients treated with unconventional therapies in India
    O Olaku
    Integrative Cancer Therapy, 2013 Sep;12(5): pages 385-92

  • Medical and Health Regulatory Authority
    PUBLIC HEALTH RISK WITH HERBAL MEDICINES: AN OVERVIEW 2009 report

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.