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The Scientific Basis of Ayurveda

by Sebastian Pole(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 137 - July 2007

‘By knowing one science alone one cannot arrive at a proper conclusion. Therefore a physician should study other sciences in order to arrive at a correct diagnosis.’
– Sushruta Samhita
(3rd century Ayurvedic text)


Ayurveda and traditional medicine are sometimes criticized for being too general; their holistic concepts appearing alien to the scientific mind, but there are specific connections between Ayurvedic theory and modern scientific understanding.

Where Ayurveda perceives the body as a matrix of interconnected systems, modern allopathic medicine focuses on the detail of the individual parts. Ayurveda excels at understanding the whole picture, allopathy at determining the minutiae. Though the comparisons are not always linear, they reveal that the fundamental theories of Ayurveda are universal, specific and scientific.

Elemental Ayurveda and the Science of Matter

Chemistry is the scientific understanding of matter, based on the atom which comprises a nucleus, protons and electrons. Atoms combine to make molecules that form the various states of matter, which can be solid, liquid or gas depending on factors such as temperature, pressure and volume. Water is a good example; at room temperature it is liquid, below 0ºC it is solid and above 100ºC it is vapour.

Ayurveda reduces all matter to five primordial elements (panch mahabhuta), which are the framework of nature: Space/ether, Air/motion, Fire/heat, Water/fluid, Earth/solid. They too are influenced by the natural forces of temperature, pressure and volume. These elements combine in different proportions to make up the material universe. In the science of Ayurveda, the quality of the elements form the substrata for the constitutional humours, tissues, channels and wastes, as well as the framework for determining tastes and properties of herbs and foods.

They differ from the periodic elements of modern chemistry that are the irreducible components of matter, indivisible by chemical intervention. The panch mahabhuta are more closely associated with ‘states’ of matter as opposed to the molecular elements. However, this Ayurvedic theory of matter does share some characteristics with the modern scientific understanding of how matter interacts.

Ayurveda and Physiology

Let us explore the concept of the three constitutional types (doshas) and modern physiology.

Ayurveda understands that health is a result of a regulatory system that maintains an internal homeostasis (balance). Every living organism must have functional control systems to maintain homeostasis. In order to remain healthy the internal world is in a continual state of change and adjustment, attempting to return to balance.

Every organism regulates information coming in and going out, controls energy metabolism and management, as well as overseeing energy storage within its physical structure. In Ayurveda the Vata dosha oversees the input-output function and carries food through the intestines, water in and out of cells, gases in and out of the lungs, and is responsible for information movement across cell membranes, regulating the nervous system and immune system. Pitta dosha manages this information by regulating digestion, controlling metabolism and overseeing the cellular generation of energy. Kapha dosha takes charge of the energy storage in the form of fats in the cell membrane and carbohydrates in the cell wall, giving lubrication and structure to the whole organism.

Vata

Vata is the master control system; the regulator that facilitates and guides the functioning of the cells just as the DNA holds the genes that regulate the organism’s evolution. Vata’s expansive nature is dominated by the elements of space and air, which promotes its messenger activity.
 
Vata’s nature also relates to the functioning of the nervous system, the communication network linking the mind and body.  The vata principle regulates the movement of information and feedback mechanisms around the whole system. The chemical transfer of messages in the brain is even known to involve a gas, nitric oxide (NO), drawing on the comparison with the element of ‘air’ that forms a part of vata.

Vata
disorders include diseases releasing gas, creating space and erratic movements: from digestive gases causing bloating, to osteoporosis causing holes in the bones, to nervous system disorders causing spasms and shaking. Parkinson’s disease is an example. Numerous Ayurvedic herbs treat these symptoms, from Pippali, assisting nutrient absorption and digestive function, to Ashwagandha, nourishing the nervous system and treating osteoporosis. The renowned herb Kapikacchu (Mucuna pruriens) is known to assist Parkinson’s disease through assisting the production of L-Dopa.

Pitta

Pitta is the manager and metabolizer. At cellular level, pitta manifests in the mitochondria that transform raw matter into energy. Pitta both releases and manages energy.

Pitta is implicated in the endocrine system where imbalances often manifest as excess or lack of heat; for example, menopausal hot flushes from an imbalance in the oestrogen-progesterone levels, displaying excessive heat, whilst low-thyroid function, due to low levels of thyroxin, causes feelings of coldness . Both conditions are treated with pitta balancing herbs, such as Shatavari and Brahmi.

Kapha

At a cellular level kapha gives structure to the cell, and is found in the fatty acid bi-layer that constitutes the cell wall. Kapha collects in all other lipid tissue, as it coats and protects the inner organs. Its predominance of the earth and water elements appears as moisture in the body; it also plays an important role as connective tissue.

Kapha is about creating, building and holding onto energy. Kapha diseases often involve an excess of ‘holding’: congestive heart disease, high cholesterol levels and obesity being examples involving accumulation and congestion.  They are effectively treated by herbs such as Arjuna, correcting heart disease and Guggul, reducing high cholesterol and obesity.

Treatment

In Ayurveda, excess pathologies (infections, fevers, growths) are treated using the principle of samanya-vishesika (equal-opposite) i.e. using substances with qualities that are opposite to the disease. This is an allopathic approach: for example, cold-inducing herbs (such as Andrographis) are used for treating infectious heat; dry-natured herbs (such as Guggul) for congestive damp; hot quality substances (such as Ginger) for cold, and moisture-enhancing herbs (such as Aloe Vera juice) for dryness.

Conversely, according to the principle that ‘like increases like’, deficient pathologies are treated with herbs of similar properties to the deficiency. This is a homeopathic approach: for example, plasma (the tissue responsible for nutrition) is nourished with juices like grapes or Aloe Vera juice, as juice nourishes juice; reproductive essence is increased with seeds such as Gokshura, as seeds increase seeds (sperm and ova). Gokshura also has a testosteronic effect.

Homeostasis

Both Ayurveda and modern physiology recognize that health is achieved through balance and regulation of the internal systems. Ayurveda describes this regulation via the humoural concepts of vata, pitta and kapha, whilst modern medicine determines it through chemical pathways and feedback mechanisms. They both have their place; it is knowing how and when to utilize each particular paradigm that is important.

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About Sebastian Pole

Sebastian Pole Lic OHM Ayur HC MAPA MRCHM MURHP is an Ayurvedic practitioner and Herbal Director of Pukka Herbs which offers 100% organic Ayurvedic remedies and teas, produced to high ethical standards, from herbs grown by farmers who are paid a fair wage. For more information, see www.pukkaherbs.com  or Tel: 0117 9640944. Sebastian's clinic is Tel:  01225 466944 or see his website for more information www.sebastianpole.com/

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