Mind-Body Health

Ask Dr. Sheila: What Is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda Purple Flower

Every month, Dr, Sheila, Chopra’s Chief Medical Officer will be answering questions from our followers. If you have a general question for her around health and wellness, please send us an email to askdrsheila@chopra.com, and your question may be the one she answers next month.

This month, Dr. Sheila answers questions about one of our most trusted healing systems—Ayurveda and how it keeps you healthy.

What Is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is a complete healing system that is focused on giving you tools and practices to create health on a daily basis by using your innate healing ability. In doing so, it allows you to thrive physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Ayurveda originates from ancient Eastern philosophies that describe the nature of reality, the 'laws' of the natural world (of which we are part of) and how we can use the principles of nature for healing. Although some religions are based on these same philosophies, Ayurveda is not based on any religion, and people of all religions (or no religion) can benefit from an Ayurvedic lifestyle to achieve optimal health.

Ayurveda is rooted in several foundational principles that explain its effectiveness, principles that are increasingly being validated by modern science. First, it is a holistic mind-body-spirit approach to health and well-being, so it gives you tools for thriving in all aspects of your life—physical, emotional, and spiritual. Research is confirming that when you address all these aspects of your life, you maximize your well-being. Secondly, it is whole-systems medicine, as it addresses the entire system and not just one part of the whole. While you are healing one part of the system, you are also doing things that keep the rest of the body and mind healthy. In addition, it looks for the root cause of disease and teaches you how to reverse the disease process by dealing with the factors that created the disease in the first place rather than just put a Band-Aid on the problem.

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Ayurveda is a complete healing system that is focused on giving you tools and practices to create health on a daily basis by using your innate healing ability. "

Over my 23 years in medical practice, I have been privileged to experience the benefits of both modern medicine and traditional healing systems. Early in my practice, I worked in situations where I witnessed the miracles of acute care and life-saving treatments. However, it struck me that there was also something else at play, something other than just the medications and procedures. People had very different responses to the same treatments. In addition, I found that despite the tools of modern medicine, chronic illness was on the rise and the medications I prescribed didn’t always work, or even caused harm.

In order to heal, the body had to be able to utilize the medicines that were being given and know what to do with them without creating harm. That involves a process of self-healing, an ‘inner intelligence’, that is actually always there, but sometimes isn’t supported by the choices you make or the acute traumas that you may experience. As a primary care physician, I became fascinated by the resiliency of the human mind-body system and wanted to learn more about how to activate this innate healing ability, or self-regulation, that you all have. In fact, I found that by using the lifestyle tools of Ayurveda, you can often eliminate the need for medications altogether. As I learned more, I found that you can use the teachings and practices of these wisdom traditions while also accessing modern medicine when needed. These two systems can be complementary

So How Can the Ancient System of Ayurveda Help Keep You Healthy in Modern Times?

Ayurveda is a traditional healing system that originated in India around 5,000 years ago but is very applicable to the modern world because it is based on the principles of nature, which haven’t changed over time. The word Ayurveda means “the science of life” and is a practical approach to creating a healthy lifestyle. This system teaches you that when you align your daily habits with your natural cycles, support your digestion, eat the right food, move your body regularly, and get good natural sleep, your physiology can work optimally. You can think of Ayurveda as the original lifestyle medicine, as most of the recommendations revolve around creating healthy lifestyle practices to enhance digestion and metabolism, create a healthy immune system, and optimize the body’s ability to heal. In doing so, you can prevent, and even reverse, disease. In addition, you can increase your well-being on a daily basis to reach your full potential for health and happiness.

One example of how Ayurvedic principles are being validated by modern science is that Ayurveda recognized that “most disease begins in the gut,” a concept you are just beginning to understand through an exploration of the microbiome, as well as the intricate connection between the gut, the immune system, the neurological system, and the brain. Many Ayurvedic practices help to balance gut health, and by doing so, can treat the root cause of many issues.

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You can think of Ayurveda as the original lifestyle medicine."

Lastly, Ayurveda is the original personalized medicine, by recognizing that we are all different, and that daily practices should be personalized for each individual and their unique mind-body type. This is also being confirmed with the modern concepts in genomics, which can identify individual variations in genes and gene expression, including tendencies toward certain diseases. This supports your life experience that health practices are not “one size fits all.” In fact, many practices for health that people are familiar with have roots in Ayurveda and are seen and practiced in many Eastern traditions and cultures, as well as in the roots of Western medicine. Most of these practices have been shown to calm the nervous system, support normal tissue and organ functioning, strengthen the immune system, and optimize digestion and metabolism. Specific examples include:

  • Practices that improve digestion such as oil pulling, tongue scraping, drinking warm water, spices to aid in digestion, intermittent fasting, walking after meals, and eating seasonally
  • Practices that nourish the tissues and skin such as oil pulling, self-massage with oil, and ingestion of healthy oils in amounts appropriate for each mind-body type
  • Aligning with your daily rhythms by waking and sleeping with your circadian rhythms, eating the largest meal at lunch, and reducing activity in the evening to prepare for sleep
  • Practices that calm the mind such as meditation, restorative yoga, and deep breathing.
  • Periodic detox at season change and times of stress to clear the system of accumulated toxins and boost the digestion
  • Using healthy herbs and spices to activate your own digestive enzymes and digestive processes

Modern medicine and science are poised to begin integrating Ayurvedic principles and practices into healthcare, now having the scientific validation for many of the practices as well as a modern language that describes these principles. In addition, Ayurveda doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It simply involves small shifts in daily behaviors and uses the kitchen as your pharmacy. I have been integrating Ayurveda into my practice for many years and have found satisfaction in having more tools and practices to help people achieve their health goals, using both modern medicine as well as the time-tested teachings of Ayurveda. I look forward to answering your questions and empowering you with self-care and healing practices that teach you to heal yourself.

Discover your dosha type here.

Sheila Patel, M.D., is the Chief Medical Officer for Chopra Global and a board-certified family physician who is passionate about bringing holistic healing practices into the Western medical system. She earned her M.D. at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and completed her residency in family medicine at the Ventura County Medical Center in Southern California. For more than a decade, she practiced full-spectrum family medicine, from prenatal care and deliveries to ER coverage and primary care for all ages. In addition to her work at Chopra Global, she sees patients in an outpatient family medicine setting bringing integrative mind-body practices to her patients to help them achieve their best health.