How far can ayurveda go in treating mental health issues?

As a complementary medicine, it is helpful in treating behavioral symptoms effectively

Sudha, a 22-year-old arts student has been an anxious person all her life. But what was manageable anxiety soon became debilitating. After experiencing extreme bouts of shortness of breath, sweating and dizziness, she approached a general physician. The physician referred her to a psychiatrist who then diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder and prescribed medicines to keep the symptoms at bay. Though Sudha was happy to have found a cause for her symptoms, she wasn’t quite sure about the medication. She expressed her concerns to her psychiatrist who recommended that she could consult an ayurveda practitioner to see if they could help in reducing her dependence on allopathic medication.

Much as Indians know ayurveda as ancient science, its use as a Complementary and Alternate Medicine (CAM) is fairly recent. Complementary therapies are often used in additional to conventional forms of medicine (allopathic treatment) and ayurveda is becoming increasingly popular with psychiatric patients as a method to reduce drug dependence. Though ayurvedic medicines are administered to complement medication prescribed by psychiatrists, we found that psychiatry or the science of the mind is embedded in very definition of ayurveda.

According to ayurvedic texts, a person is said to have good health or swasthya (in Sanskrit) when they enjoy a balance of physical and psychological elements (samadosha), of energies produced in the body (samagnischa), and of tissues in the organs (samadhatu) combined with proper elimination of wastes (malakriya), a happy soul (prasannatma), a happy, functioning mind (prasanna-manaha) and proper functioning of the five senses (sama-indriya).

To put it simply, allopathy treats specific symptoms with quick results, while ayurveda works on the premise that all disorders (whether physical or mental) result from an imbalance of one of more of the factors mentioned above. Effective treatment, practitioners believe, lies only in the holistic approach. It is this approach that leads psychiatrists to believe that ayurveda may hold the possibilities of a complementary, if not alternative treatment, for mental health issues.

Ayurveda, ayu (age) + veda (science) is the science of life. A science that encompasses the mind, body and soul with health. This ancient medicine has become the go-to treatment in several parts of India, because the absence of side effects. But while it is common knowledge that ayurveda is used to treat physical ailments, it is also being used as an alternative and complementary therapy in the treatment of mental health issues.

Ayurveda and mental health

“Ayurveda produces significant results as a complementary treatment method to allopathy in disorders such as depression, anxiety and OCD. There have been studies conducted where the dependency on allopathic medicine was reduced with a simultaneous increase in the ayurvedic dosage,” says Dr D Sudhakar, assistant director of the Advanced Centre for Ayurveda in Mental Health at NIMHANS. He adds that there have also been cases where dependency on allopathic medication has been completely eliminated.

Ayurvedic drugs provide for a holistic change in the patient while allopathy deals with specific symptoms of the disorder. Ayurveda recommends traditional dietary and lifestyle habits along with yogic exercises and herbal treatment. It has proved to be an alternative form of treatment, which not only includes treating the disorder – physical and psychological – but also bringing in a change in the lifestyle of the person to prevent future illnesses.

Ayurveda stands by its definition of health, in which a healthy mind plays an important role. Being a holistic science, ayurveda explores the symbiotic relationship among the mind, body, soul, the senses and their workings. It approaches mental health in the following way:

  • The human being is a constitution of the mind, body, soul and senses, also called Manas, Sarira, Atma and Indriya respectively. This includes psychological senses (Gyanendriya) and physical organs (Karmendriya). The dynamics of these primary constituents govern the health of a person.

  • Manas is a constitution of three operational qualities: Satva, Rajasand Tamas. Also called gunas, these define the character or tatva of a person. Satva gunais an amalgamation of all things good – self-control, knowledge, power to determine right and wrong in life. The qualities of Rajas gunaare to be in motion, violent, envious, authoritative, desirous and confused. The characteristics of Tamas are being dull, inactive, lazy, sleepy or drowsy. Of these gunas, Rajas and Tamas are referred as Manodoshas. The imbalance of Satva, Rajas and Tamas are responsible for mental illness, known as Manovikara.

On the other hand, the body, which is believed to be formed from nature is comprised of three psycho-biological elements: Vata (air element), Pitta (fire element) and Kapha (earth element). These elements are also known as the tridoshas. Dr Raghuram, MD (Ay), a consultant ayurvedic physician in Bangalore, who has been practicing ayurvedic medicine for more than a decade, states that the tridoshas are essentially negative in nature, (in Sanskrit, doshameans fault) but they are actually protecting the body. He adds that when the three doshasgo awry, they attack the body and cause illness to either one part in the body or the whole. This also affects the mind, causing mental disturbances and even illness. Therefore, the treatment in ayurveda focuses on treating both the mental illness and physical because they are inter-related.

Studies being conducted by ayurvedic practitioners on the effects of the treatment or specific medicine on disorders such as depression, anxiety have shown visible results.

“Ayurveda has been regarded an alternative treatment for physical illnesses, but it is only now that it is being considered an alternative/complementary care for mental illnesses,” says Dr Sudhakar.

 

References

1- Draft of reference document on “Ayush in mental health”, prepared by Dr D Sudhakar, Dr Srinibhash Sahoo, Dr BCS Rao, for Advanced Center for Ayurveda in Mental Health and Neurosciences, NIMHANS campus, Bangalore

2- Dr Raghuram, MD (Ay), Ayurvedic Rheumatology, Consultant Ayurvedic physician, Bangalore