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Ayurvedic medicine

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of medicine. It uses a wide range of treatments and techniques. There is no reliable evidence to support its use as a treatment for cancer.

Summary

  • Ayurvedic medicine uses a range of treatments and techniques
  • Some techniques might help with the symptoms of cancer or its treatment
  • Ayurvedic medicine as a treatment for cancer is not backed up by research
  • Some of the treatments might have severe side effects

What is Ayurvedic medicine?

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.

Ayurvedic medicine believes 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 health depends on the correct balance of all 3. They claim that combinations of Ayurvedic medicine bring balance and harmony into the body. It helps to:

  • increase energy and wellbeing
  • decrease stress
  • prevent and cure disease

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

Why people with cancer use it

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. These include treatments like special diets and herbal remedies.

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

How you have it

Your practitioner will aim to restore or maintain your health and well-being. They will do it 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). They do it 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
  • drawing blood from the body

These methods can be harmful. Most therapists don’t use them.

Some Ayurvedic methods are generally helpful for people with cancer. These include:

  • yoga
  • massage
  • relaxation

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 their advice if an Ayurvedic practitioner diagnoses you with a new medical condition.

Your relationship with your practitioner is 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.

Finding an Ayurvedic practitioner

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

Always choose a trained and qualified practitioner. Contact the Ayurvedic Practitioners Association (APA) first.

Aurvedic practitioners are qualified to diagnose diseases and conditions from an Ayurvedic perspective. They can prescribe and give Ayurvedic remedies and treatments. They can also give nutrition and lifestyle advice.

Ayurvedic therapists are not trained as practitioners. They do not have to finish any specific training. They can give Ayurvedic nutrition and lifestyle advice. They can also give 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 practitioners. There are also different levels of training. Many practitioners 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 practitioners train in a specific treatment. It might be in massage or meditation, but not in others such as herbal treatments.

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 little published information about the herbal remedies used by Ayurvedic practitioners. Some common herbs might have dangerous side effects when you take them with 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). They might put liquid into your back passage (enemas). Or, they might suggest taking medicines to make the bowel work more quickly (laxatives).

Regular 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 (bloodletting) and forced vomiting. These methods can be harmful. Most therapists don’t use them.

Bloodletting can be dangerous for anyone, but especially for people with cancer. You might already have low levels of blood cells because of 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 entirely on Ayurvedic medicine. Talk to your doctor if you are thinking of giving up 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 cancer drugs or radiotherapy. Or, some might contain harmful substances.

In 2012 US researchers found that six people had lead poisoning. The lead came from Ayurvedic medicines bought from India. Previous research had similar results. It found that over the counter Ayurvedic medicines had harmful ingredients. These included mercury, lead and arsenic. All the remedies were from South Asia.

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

Companies that make over the counter herbal products have to meet quality standards. They need to provide information about their product. It has to include what it contains, the dose and how safe it is.

Only use registered herbal products. That means 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. They can trace the origin of their herbs and plants.

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

Research into Ayurvedic treatment

Researchers have found that some Ayurvedic treatments can help relieve cancer symptoms. It can also 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. It also 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. They tested them on animals.

They found that some might help to 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 looked at Withaferin A (WA). It is a compound 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.

In 2017 researchers looked at Withania somnifera root extract (Viwithan) They found that it could help to make a type of chemotherapy, called cisplatin, work better.

In a 2018 laboratory study, researchers also looked at Withania somnifera root extract. They found that it could cause the death of melanoma cancer cells (apoptosis). The researchers said that they need to do more studies.

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

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

A 2017 laboratory study also looked at Boswellia serrata extract. It found that it slowed down the growth of triple-negative breast cancer cells. But we need more research.

The mangosteen fruit has a long history in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Researchers took the compound alpha mangostin from the outside layer of the fruit. It showed that it could 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.

A 2018 laboratory study also looked at alpha mangostin. It found that it could help to reduce resistance to treatment in primary liver cancer cells. But we need more research.

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 showed that pomegranate extracts might have anti-cancer properties. The researchers looked at cancers like prostate, bowel and liver cancer.

A 2018 laboratory study looked at pomegranate peel extract. It showed that it caused triple negative breast cancer cells to die. It also played a role in the genetics of the cancer cell. It stopped it from spreading. But we need more research.

Pomegranate is a good source of fibre and vitamins and fine to include in a healthy diet.

How much it costs

The cost will depend on the treatments that you have.

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.

A word of caution

It is understandable that you might want to try anything if you think it might help treat or cure your cancer. Only you can decide whether to use an alternative cancer therapy such as Ayurvedic medicine.

You could harm your health if you stop your cancer treatment for an unproven treatment.

Some websites might promote Ayurvedic medicine as a cure for cancer. But no reputable scientific cancer organisations support any of these claims.

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: 
03 Dec 2018
  • Integrative Therapies During and After Breast Cancer Treatment: ASCO Endorsement of the SIO Clinical Practice Guideline.

    G Lyman and others

    Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2018 September 1;36(25):2647-2655.

  •  

    Withania somnifera Root Extract Enhances Chemotherapy through ‘Priming’

    A Henley and others

    PLoS One. 2017; 12(1): e0170917.

  • Viwithan, a Standardized Withania somnifera Root Extract Induces Apoptosis in Murine Melanoma Cells

    H Sudeep and others

    Pharmacognosy Magazine. 2017 October-December; 13(Supplement 4): S801–S806.

  • Pre-Clinical Validation of Mito-Targeted Nano-Engineered Flavonoids Isolated From Selaginella bryopteris (Sanjeevani) As A Novel Cancer Prevention Strategy.

    A Bhargava and others

    Anticancer Agents in Medicinal Chemistry. 2017 December 29.

  • Transcriptomic Profiling of MDA-MB-231 Cells Exposed to Boswellia Serrata and 3-O-Acetyl-B-Boswellic Acid; ER/UPR Mediated Programmed Cell Death.

    E Mazzio and others

    Cancer Genomics Proteomics. 2017 November-December; 14(6):409-425.

  • Gene Expression Changes in Pomegranate Peel Extract-Treated Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Cells.

    N Ahmadiankia and others

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  • 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.

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