Ayurveda, which translates from Sanskrit as “knowledge of life,” is a system of medicine that began in India more than 5,000 years ago.
At its root, Ayurvedic medicine seeks to bring the body into balance using a tailored set of tools that include oils, dietary changes, herbs, massage and mind-body practices, according to board-certified dermatologist and Ayurvedic medicine practitioner Dr. Raja Sivamani, who is adjunct associate professor of clinical dermatology and director of clinical research at the University of California, Davis.
“In the Ayurvedic system, each person has a set constitution that defines what kind of physiologic tendencies they have to develop imbalances. The constitution and imbalances are described by three ‘doshas,’ or types: vata, pitta and kapha,” Sivamani explained.
Ayurvedic practitioners use these tendencies to describe how your body functions and how it might react to different factors, such as what you eat or what you put on your skin.
How practitioners use Ayurveda to manage eczema
Eczema is caused by imbalances in the skin and immune system. Ayurvedic medicine emphasizes a holistic, personalized approach to restore balance. An Ayurvedic practitioner will look at everything from your diet to what kind of topical you use to how you work out and manage stress.
“Using this evaluation, the practitioner can then prescribe specific foods, oils, exercise and mind-body practices that help bring the body and mind back into balance,” Sivamani said.
“This might mean prescribing massage with oils that are directly helpful to the skin, while the process relaxes the mind. With diet, it might mean not only what to avoid, but what kind of herbs and spices you could add that may help with both gut and skin health.”
Sivamani integrates both Western therapies and alternative medicine practices like Ayurveda into his care of people with eczema and other skin conditions.
“Western medication works well to bring an eczema flare under control, while Ayurveda comes in when you think about long-term management and improving other areas of physical and mental health,” he said. “Ayurveda should be used as a complement to — not a replacement for—Western medicine.”
Does science prove Ayurveda can help eczema?
There are limited studies of Ayurveda and eczema or other skin conditions – largely because it’s difficult to implement Western research methods on a non-Western wellness practice, Sivamani said.
“Often, these trials take an Ayurvedic therapy and study its effect on people who haven’t been grouped according to their type, or dosha,” he said. “That said, recent studies show that clusters of genes in individuals match up well with Ayurvedic dosha assessments.”
The bottom line, he said, is that science supports a genetic basis for Ayurveda, but more and better-designed research is needed to figure out how well the practice works for specific conditions.
What’s the best way to try Ayurveda?
As with Western medicine, Ayurveda is not a do-it-yourself practice. First, you need to find a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner who will collaborate with your physicians.
The National Ayurvedic Medical Association has a tool for finding vetted practitioners and is a good resource for more information about Ayurveda, said Sivamani.
He noted that one common misunderstanding about Ayurveda and other alternative practices is that they offer a “cure.”
“That’s not how Ayurveda — or any alternative medicine — works. Instead, Ayurveda for people with eczema is a way to create lifestyle habits that match individual tendencies to minimize flares and maximize control of the condition,” he said.