Ayurveda is an ancient type of healing system and traditional medicine that has been used in India for thousands of years. It focuses on harmony and balance among the mind, spirit, environment and cosmos.

Ayurveda practitioners look closely at a person’s mouth, eyes, skin, ears, nose, genitals and anus. They also check their pulse and listen to their breathing. This helps the practitioner identify the person’s primary life force, or dosha. There are 3 doshas. They describe a person’s lifestyle and habits, as well their emotional, spiritual and physical characteristics. Each person has one dosha that is stronger than the others.

Illness is seen as an imbalance between a person’s doshas and many other factors, such as personal relationships, lifestyle and diet. Ayurveda’s main goal is to restore balance and strength between the doshas to arrive at harmony and wellness. This is done using several approaches.

Food and diet are very important in Ayurveda. It recommends that you eat or don’t eat certain foods to help balance your doshas.

Ayurveda herbal treatments are often a mixture of many different types of herbs. They may come as pills, teas or oils to be used on the skin. Different combinations of herbs are used, depending on the balance of your doshas.

Cleansing, or detoxifying, the body is used by Ayurveda practitioners to help balance the doshas. They may combine oils and herbs that make you sweat or vomit. Other ways of cleansing include using laxatives or enemas, nasal washing and releasing blood from the body (bloodletting).

Yoga and meditation are used to increase spiritual awareness and help balance the doshas.

Ayurveda as a complementary therapy

There is no evidence at this time that Ayurveda as a system of medicine can treat cancer. There has been some research showing that certain approaches used in Ayurveda are helpful as complementary therapies. For example, research has shown that both yoga and meditation are helpful complementary therapies that can relieve stress and anxiety in people living with cancer.

We need a lot more research on Ayurveda to understand the role that its approaches may play as a complementary therapy in helping people cope with cancer.

Side effects and risks of Ayurveda

Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about trying any Ayurveda approaches. Each Ayurveda approach needs to be looked at on its own to understand its side effects and risks as a complementary therapy.

More research is needed to find out if following an Ayurveda diet is safe for people living with cancer and if it helps with any side effects of treatments.

More research is needed to find out if using Ayurveda herbs is safe for people living with cancer. We do not yet know how these herbs interact with conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Some Ayurveda herbal remedies have been contaminated with high levels of toxic metals such as lead, arsenic or mercury. Ayurveda herbs with natural product numbers (NPNs) meet the standards for Health Canada’s natural health product non-prescription regulations. These may be safer, but we still don’t know how they affect conventional cancer treatments.

Ayurveda cleansing methods may not be safe if you have a low blood cell count or if you have had vomiting because of cancer treatment.

Most types of yoga and meditation are safe.

Finding a practitioner

Ayurveda practitioners are trained in recognized programs or institutions in India. Ayurveda has become popular in the West, and there are some practitioners trained in India who practise and teach Ayurveda in North America. However, Ayurveda practitioners are not regulated anywhere in Canada.

Expert review and references

  • Aggarwal BB, Ichikawa H, Garodia P, Weerasinghe P, Sethi G, Bhatt ID, Pandey MK, et al . From traditional Ayurvedic medicine to modern medicine: identification of therapeutic targets for suppression of inflammation and cancer. Expert Opinion on Therapeutic Targets. 2006.
  • Decker G . Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies in integrative oncology. Yarbro, CH, Wujcki D, & Holmes Gobel B. (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 7th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011: 24: 626-654.
  • Deng GE, et al . Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for integrative oncology: complementary therapies and botanicals. Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology. Society for Integrative Oncology; 2009.
  • Jain S, Gill V, Vasudeva N, et al . Ayurvedic medicines in treatment of cancer. Journal of Chinese Integrative Medicine. 2009.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Ayurvedic Medicine: An Introduction. Bethesda, MD: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; 2013: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/ayurveda/introduction.htm.
  • Ulbricht C, Cohen L, Lee R . Complementary, alternative, and integrative therapies in cancer care. Devita, V. T., Jr., Lawrence, T. S., & Rosenberg, S. A. Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 9th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Willams, Wilkins; 2011: 181.