Most westerners have adopted Ayurveda into their lifestyle. But have western medicine practitioners/researchers? To really help them understand and appreciate this traditional medicine, it needs to be explained in terms of modern medicine.
Ayurveda originated in the ancient Vedic times of India. Splitting the word, Ayus means life and Veda is Knowledge or Science. So it is the Science of Life. Ayurveda uses the principles of nature to distinguish and define different body types or constitutions, each with unique characteristics and response to the environment, and with predispositions to diseases and reactions to drugs. Ayurveda promotes constitutionally dependent guidelines for maintaining balance and protecting against disease.
Current medical research engages in understanding the cellular and molecular processes and with the current technology, we are able to look at each molecule and its characteristics that are involved in a cell’s normal process or in a disease state. Ayurveda dives deeper and looks at the complexity of intra tissue interactions and environmental responses.
Looking at a disease and relieving one of the symptoms is not enough because ecological homeostasis is not completely attained. When an individual is healthy, the equilibrium between the individual and the environment is in perfect balance. There are imbalances in a disease state. According to Dr Hari Sharma, from Ohio State University, Ayurveda can be understood using the science of epigenetics. What is Epigenetics? Epigenetic changes can switch genes on or off and determine which proteins are transcribed. Now imagine DNA as two strands of thread that are wound together. Each strand contains tiny balls stuck on it and these two strands are in a densely coiled state. This is exactly how DNA looks and the balls are called histones. When a gene has to produce a protein, the two strands need to uncoil so that the gene of requirement is visible. For this uncoiling to happen, these histones need to be chemically modified by the cell.
These modification patterns are passed on to a child from a parent and are vital to human growth and development. Uncoiling of DNA is required for many processes such as protein production, replication of DNA, and to repair any damages in DNA.
However, sometimes these modifications can silence genes that cause tumours. There is a great interest in understanding these processes to control the cancer progression. Epigenetics deals with virtually everything that happens to the expressed genes in the phenotype (observable characteristics in an individual) during stages of the lifespan, for example, prenatal, postnatal, childhood, lifetime social experiences, diet, nutrition, exposure to toxins, lifestyle, behaviour, stress and environment, and how these impact the expression of genes. Now phenotype is different in every person and this depends on which part of the gene in their DNA is expressed and also very importantly,
● Lifestyle changes,
● Diet, digestion, nutrition,
● Environment around us.
These factors will keep the expressed phenotype in good health if the proper principles of life and living are followed. If the proper principles are not followed, alterations in health occur and disease manifests. These principles are addressed in detail in Ayurveda.
According to Ayurveda, there are five Mahabhutas- Fire, Air, Water, Earth and Space and these five elements combine to form the three doshas- Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Doshas are forces or energies in one's body and they govern various processes in the body. Vata regulates movement and communication, including blood flow, contraction of the heart, breathing, movement of food through the digestive tract and communication of cells through nerve impulses. Pitta regulates digestion, metabolism, and transformation, including energy exchange, appetite and endocrine functions. Kapha regulates structure and cohesion of the body, including strength, stability, fluid balance and weight.
Vata types tend to be thin and lanky. They are very mentally and physically active and enjoy creative endeavors, meeting new people, and traveling to new places. Kapha types have strong frames and are naturally athletic as long as they are exercising regularly to manage their tendency to gain weight. The influence of the earth and water elements makes them innately stable, compassionate, and loyal. Pitta types are dominated by the fire element, which makes them innately strong, intense, and irritable.
Each individual has a unique ratio of Vata, Pitta and Kapha. This is known as their psychophysiological constitution and correlates with the individual’s phenotype.
Ayurveda prescribes the right principles to follow for the four factors that were mentioned above. Let's tackle each one by one:
1. Lifestyle Changes
Ayurveda has instructions for daily and seasonal routines that include the time to wake up and sleep, time to eat, exercise, study, and meditate. Behavioural instructions are also given which include how to treat youngsters, older people, attitude control like anger, sadness, harsh speech. These behaviors affect health at the physical level through the release of neuropeptides. Negative emotions release neurochemicals that strain and damage the organs, whereas positive emotions release health-promoting chemicals.
2. Diet, Digestion and Nutrition
The concept of Agni or fire in Ayurveda is the very basis of digestion and therefore good health. When agni is weak in the body, it leads to improper digestion of food and this is what we term as indigestion that leads to toxic build-up in the body and this is termed as Ama. This ama accumulates in intercellular spaces, in tissues and macro/micro nutrient energy channels and causes a block. This block triggers the immune system and subsequently causes inflammation. These factors govern digestion:
● Taste of the food
● Qualities of the food
● Time of the day, season of the year, and age of the individual
● State of the physiology of the individual
● Geographic location
Ayurveda realizes that stress, also known as Sahas, is the root cause of several diseases. Due to one or many of the causes mentioned above, stress is created, which leads to loss of immunity of the body, or Ojakhsaya, rendering it susceptible to diseases. According to Ayurveda, depression is the result of an overpowering presence of Kapha that drives the brain's electrochemistry out of balance (i.e., Vata) and triggers and drastic loss of enzymatic activity in the body's metabolism (i.e, Pitta). The body having witnessed this sudden imbalance in Vata and Pitta, goes to repair mode by unleashing an excess of Kapha. As a result, the body descends into heaviness, gloom and hopelessness, culminating in depression. To manage stress, Ayurveda recommends proper living and proper knowledge of life, Yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, whole-body massage, Ayurvedic psychotherapy, and herbs.
Ayurveda addresses the effects of near and far environments. Near environment refers to the place of residence and the effects of the physical structure of the house and workplace. There are recommendations regarding areas to live, the architecture of the house, effects of the house where you live and the building where you work, avoidance of toxic exposure, and how to maximize beneficial effects. Far environment refers to the cosmic bodies – the planets, moon, and stars. Recommendations address their influence and how they affect physiology.
Homeostatic factors are ingrained in the blueprint for life. Meddling with the laws of nature can result in detours on the path to optimal health. Ayurvedic therapies can affect both the genetic and phenotypic expression of life. Research efforts into Ayurvedic herbal preparations should include how epigenetic mechanisms are altered in target tissues or in the immune cells. Potential new pathways of cellular and molecular functioning may be discovered in the process of evaluating Ayurvedic approaches.
Ayurveda can be appreciated through the science of epigenetics, covering the manifested expression of life, and how to maintain and improve the health of the individual. The epigenetic factors in life affect the phenotype in a positive or negative way, and indirectly affect the genetic expression in a positive or negative way, which can be transmitted to the progeny. Ayurveda covers both aspects of life – genetic and phenotypic – and is a comprehensive, holistic, and personalized system of health care.
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