Ayurvedic medicine | Cancer Research UK
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What Ayurvedic medicine is

Ayurveda is an Indian word – ayur means life and veda means knowledge. Ayurvedic medicine 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. There is no scientific evidence to prove that Ayurvedic medicine can treat or cure cancer or any other disease. 

Ayurvedic medicine can include

  • Advice on diet and special diets
  • Taking specific Ayurvedic medications
  • Herbal medicine
  • Massage
  • Meditation
  • Yoga and
  • Breathing and relaxation techniques

Depending on your particular health problems, an Ayurvedic practitioner may suggest any or all of these treatments.

Some therapists also recommend cleansing of the bowel (intestines) by putting liquid into the back passage (enemas). They may suggest taking medicines that make the bowel work more quickly (laxatives). These practices are supposed to get rid of toxins. Other ways of cleansing and detoxifying include forced vomiting and blood letting (drawing blood from the body). These methods can be very harmful and most therapists don’t use them.

Some Ayurvedic methods, such as yoga, massage and relaxation, are generally helpful to people with cancer. But others, such as some herbal treatments, certain diets and cleansing the bowel can be harmful. You should be very cautious when using them and always check with your doctor first because they can have some serious side effects. You should also contact your doctor for advice if an Ayurvedic practitioner diagnoses you with any new medical condition.


How Ayurvedic medicine is thought to work

The main idea behind Ayurvedic medicine is that health problems happen because your mind, body and spirit are out of balance. Practitioners aim to bring balance and harmony back into your body, which they think prevents or cures disease. They claim that certain combinations of Ayurvedic medicine will help to

  • Increase energy and wellbeing
  • Balance mind, body and spirit
  • Decrease stress
  • Possibly prevent and cure disease

Ayurvedic practitioners think we are all 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 change or transformation and is responsible for digestion and metabolism
  • Water and earth (kapha dosha), which gives structure or cohesion

These 3 doshas allow all the organs of the body to work together in harmony. They also create your relationship with the environment and universe (cosmos). Ayurvedic practitioners believe we usually have strong features of one dosha, but the others also influence us. Our health is dependent on the correct balance of all 3.


People with cancer using 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 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 or radiotherapy.


What Ayurvedic medicine involves

To decide on a plan of treatment your practitioner will take your medical history and assess your doshas. To do this they examine your tongue, lips, and nails. They look inside your eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth. They may also examine your back passage (rectum) and genital area. They listen to your lungs and heart, and take your pulse. 

The practitioner will also take into account your emotions, your relationships with other people and even the season and time of the day. They hope to be able to balance all these factors in your life and restore or maintain your health and well being. They will then discuss which treatments will help you most.

Your relationship with your Ayurvedic practitioner is very important. They are responsible for creating a safe setting in which you can both work together and decide on your treatment. If you don’t feel comfortable with anything that your practitioner is doing it is important that you try and discuss this with them.


Possible side effects of Ayurvedic medicine

Depending on which treatments you use, you may have some side effects. Some herbal medicines are safe, but not all. 

There is very little published information on the herbal remedies used by Ayurvedic practitioners, so always let your doctor know before taking any of them. Some common herbs may have dangerous side effects if you take them with cancer treatments, such as cancer drugs or radiotherapy. 

Some Ayurvedic remedies contain harmful heavy metals such as lead or zinc. We have information about the safety of herbal products during cancer treatment.

Following certain diets when you have cancer is not always safe either. So be sure to ask your doctor before starting on any diet.

Yoga, relaxation techniques and massage are generally safe. 

Some methods of ayurvedic medicine can be very harmful. Blood letting can be dangerous for anyone, and especially for people who are ill. Because of their disease or treatment, many people with cancer already have low levels of blood cells. 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. Taking regular enemas and medicines to clear your bowel is known to cause side effects. Some can be serious and potentially fatal. Side effects include

  • Infections
  • Constipation
  • Inflammation of the bowel
  • Salt and other mineral imbalances in the body

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

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


Safety of Ayurvedic medicines

Most Ayurvedic medicines are made up of a combination of herbs. Some herbal medicines may interact with treatments from your doctor, including cancer drugs or radiotherapy. Some herbal treatments may affect the way cancer drugs are broken down by your body or the way drugs are carried around your body. Always check with your doctor before taking any type of herb or medicine.

There are concerns about the toxicity of some Ayurvedic medicines. There has been no research to thoroughly test many of these medications. In 2004, a study published in America found that 14 out of 70 Ayurvedic remedies bought over the counter contained levels of heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic that could be harmful. All the remedies were made in South Asia. The amount of the active ingredient may also vary between products. 

In the UK, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) regulates the registration of herbal products. You can find information on its website about  

  • The safety of herbal medicines including what you need to know as a consumer
  • Herbal safety news, which has advice and guidance about taking specific herbs
  • Ayurvedic medicines that may contain heavy metals (type 'Ayurvedic medicines' into the search box to find the list)

Companies making herbal products bought over the counter in health food shops and pharmacies have to meet quality standards. They also need to provide information about their product, including the exact content and dose of the product and how safe it is. It is important to use only herbal products that are registered under the Traditional Herbal Remedies (THR) scheme. Remedies that are registered under the scheme have a THR mark and symbol on the packaging. THR products have been tested for quality and safety.

The Medicines and Healthcare regulatory Agency (MHRA) states that there is a big variation in how unlicensed traditional Chinese or Ayurvedic medicines are made. Some have been found to contain illegal substances and toxic herbs. These substances may not be listed on the packaging of the product. The amount of the active ingredient can also vary widely between products.

It is safest to buy plant remedies from a fully qualified herbal practitioner who is trained to work out which herbal medicines are appropriate for you. They can also trace where their herbs and plants come from. Lower down this page is information about finding a herbal therapy practitioner. 


Research into Ayurvedic medicine

Research has looked into Ayurvedic medicine for cancer symptoms and Ayurvedic medicine to treat cancer.

Ayurvedic medicine for cancer symptoms

Ayurvedic medicine involves the use of several types of therapies and people use it for many different types of illness. Some of these therapies, such as massage, may lower stress and help you to relax. Research has found that some aspects of Ayurvedic medicine can help to relieve cancer related symptoms and improve quality of life.

Meditation can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and boost general wellbeing. Recent studies have shown that yoga helps to improve sleep patterns in lymphoma patients and also reduces symptoms of stress in people with breast cancer or prostate cancer.

Ayurvedic medicine to treat cancer

More than 200 herbs and plants are used in Ayurvedic medicine. Some early laboratory and animal research suggests that compounds taken from traditional Ayurvedic medicines may be able to slow the growth of cancer in animals. Although this early research looks promising, there is no evidence that Ayurvedic herbal medicines can prevent, treat or cure cancer in humans. We won't really know whether Ayurvedic medicine is helpful in treating cancer until large randomised clinical trials have been carried out.

Researchers have looked at some compounds used in Ayurvedic medicine. These include those listed below.

Withaferin A

In America in 2011 researchers took a compound called Withaferin A (WA) from the Ayurvedic medicinal plant Withania somnifera. They found that in the laboratory Withaferin A stopped the growth of some types of breast cancer cells. 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 referred to as Sanjeevani. It found that compounds taken from the herb stopped the growth of cancer cells in the laboratory. The compound also reduced the development of skin tumours in mice.

Indian frankincense

A US research study also 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. Traditionally, this substance has been 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. This led Japanese researchers to test 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 seen as a sacred fruit in some world religions. Many cultures and systems of medicine, including Ayurvedic medicine, have used it for various health problems. Early research in the laboratory 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. Some studies looking at men who drank pomegranate juice or took extract have not shown any benefit in taking it. One small study followed men who drank pomegranate juice every day and found that their cancer took longer than normal to grow. So, at the moment it’s unclear whether pomegranate is helpful for men with prostate cancer. We need more research in large trials to be certain. It’s fine to include pomegranate in a healthy diet.

MAK-4 and MAK-5

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

If you decide to use Ayurvedic medicine, it is vital that the person who treats you is properly trained and qualified. 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 training schools there for Ayurveda. Some of the training in India can take up to 5 years to complete. 

Some therapists train in a certain treatment that is part of the Ayurvedic medicine system such as massage or meditation but not in others such as herbal treatments. There is no single professional organisation that regulates Ayurvedic medicine in the UK. Therapists can join several associations. But there is no law to say that they have to. Therapists do not have to finish any specific training.

Before you choose an Ayurvedic therapist or practitioner you should contact the Ayurvedic Practitioners Association.

You can ask the practitioner

  • How many years of training they've had
  • How long they've worked as a practitioner
  • Whether they have treated people with cancer before
  • If they have indemnity insurance (in case of negligence)

The cost of Ayurvedic medicine

The cost varies depending on the treatments 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. We recommend that you get full information about the costs of treatment before agreeing to have it. It is also important to check with your doctor that the treatments are safe for you.


Ayurvedic organisations in the UK

Ayurvedic Practitioners Association
23 Green Ridge

Telephone: +44 (0)1273 930 956
Website: apa.uk.com

The Association website has information about Ayurvedic medicine and the difference between practitioners and therapists. It 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.


More information about Ayurvedic medicine

You can find detailed information about Ayurvedic medicine on the American National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website and the American Cancer Society website.

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Updated: 4 February 2015