Ayurveda isn’t just a buzzword or a trend — it’s a 5,000-year-old health system. Sanskrit for “life knowledge,” Ayurveda is a complex system of lifestyle therapies. But what are the roots of these techniques and how do they really benefit you? In the following slides, Ginger Schechter, M.D., a board-certified internist, and Deacon Carpenter, an Ayurveda practitioner, will shed light on some of the most popular Ayurvedic practices and explain their potential benefits from both Eastern and Western perspectives.
1. Oil Pulling: The Eastern Take
“Oral care in Ayurveda is nothing like modern dental care -- 5,000 years ago, Indians would eat cloves, chew on sticks from the neem tree and even use oil to remove toxins and inflammation from the oral cavity,” explains Ayurvedist Deacon Carpenter, who adds that traditional Ayurvedic toothpaste is a dark-brown powder, not the sparkling-white Western variety. When added to a regular brushing and flossing routine, Carpenter says the fairly simple act of oil pulling helps stop dry mouth, halitosis, poor digestion and gingivitis and can also help prevent receding gums, strengthen tooth enamel (by reducing the acidity in the mouth) and eliminate metals and environmental toxins.
Related: The Healing Power of Coconut Oil
1. Oil Pulling: The Western Take
Although the American Dental Association published an article last year that raised concerns over the scarcity of research on oil pulling, a 2014 Pharmcognosy Review study on the role of Ayurveda in modern dental health supports some of the ancient oral care methods cited by Carpenter when used in conjunction with modern dentistry. HOW TO DO IT: Before brushing your teeth or drinking water when you first wake, swish a tablespoon of sesame or coconut oil in your mouth for one to 20 minutes. Make sure not to swallow the oil! Then spit out the and go ahead with your everyday tooth-brushing routine.
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2. Neti Pot: The Eastern Take
The use of a clay neti pot to perform nasal saline irrigation (rinse out your sinuses) can soothe inflammation in the sinuses, prevent sinus infections and colds and is exceptionally good at alleviating the symptoms of seasonal allergies, says Ayurvedist Deacon Carpenter, who adds that regular neti pot use can also help moisturize the dry sinuses of city folks living in smoggy areas. “Nasal cavities are our first line of defense against allergens, viruses and bacteria. Allergens cause swelling and increased mucus production when they are perceived as foreign by the immune system in the nose. Rinsing the nasal sinuses with warm, mildly salted water will cleanse the tissues, thus removing the allergens,” says internist Ginger Schechter, M.D.
2. Neti Pot: The Western Take
A 2012 study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology states that there are some benefits to nasal saline irrigation, including reducing inflammation and relieving symptoms for those who suffer from allergies and chronic sinus infections. Another 2009 study from University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found patients with chronic sinus symptoms who rinsed with two-percent liquid saline daily along with routine get-well solutions had a 64-percent improvement in their symptoms compared with patients who didn’t. HOW TO DO IT: Ayurvedist Deacon Carpenter recommends using a neti pot made of clay. Have some tissues handy, and use only warm, sterile water. You can create saline mix too -- they’re easily found in drugstores. Lean over a sink and gently tilt your head into a horizontal position. Place the spout into your upper nostril and open your mouth to breathe. Pour until the solution streams out of your lower nostril. Swap sides and repeat. You can blow your nose or wipe drips between cleaning nostrils and spit out any solution that might make its way into the back of your throat. Be sure to clean and air-dry your neti pot after each use.
3. Tongue Scraping: The Eastern Take
Ayurvedic practitioners believe tongue coatings and bad breath can indicate the presence of digestive toxins. Ayurvedist Deacon Carpenter says removing any toxins on the tongue removes bacteria, helps stave off these toxins, stimulates internal organs and even improves digestion. “In addition to the removal of toxins and bacterial buildup that may have settled on the tongue overnight, tongue scraping helps improve the metabolic process and allows you to taste your foods better,” he says.
3. Tongue Scraping: The Western Take
“Removing excess food waste from the surface of the tongue removes excess bacteria that can lead to inflammation, which can encourage gum and tooth disease,” says internist Ginger Schechter, M.D. Studies of tongue scraping are limited, but one study published in the International Journal of Dental Hygiene examined the effectiveness of mechanical tongue cleaning on breath odor and tongue coating. Tongue scraping can help with bad breath, but the study didn’t show whether it helped chronic halitosis. HOW TO DO IT: After brushing your teeth first thing in the morning, gently scrape your tongue from back to front for seven to 14 strokes. Rinse off the scraper between strokes if there’s a lot of buildup. If your gag reflex is stimulated during scraping, try being more gentle or begin slightly more forward on your tongue.
4. Sattvic Cooking: The Eastern Take
Sattvic cooking is a way of preparing food that Ayurvedists believe promote overall health and well-being. The word sattvic comes from the Sanskrit word for “pure,” so foods that are considered sattvic are foods free of preservatives, additives and sugar and haven’t been sitting around for a long time. “Think of sattvic foods as coming from the ground rather than from a box -- even if that box says the product is organic,” says Ayurvedist Deacon Carpenter. He says eating sattvic foods can provide a multitude of benefits, including a reduction of the signs of aging, a better night’s sleep, increased metabolism, better digestion and a stronger immune system. Spices like turmeric and black pepper are considered sattvic, since they are believed to contain various healing properties. “Many modern medicines have an organic root, and some of the most popular and potent spices in Indian cooking have medicinal properties,” says Carpenter.
4. Sattvic Cooking: The Western Take
Numerous Western studies have proven the benefits of eating unprocessed foods and cooking with turmeric and black pepper. A 2009 study published in BMC Medicine found a correlation between "processed meat consumption and mortality, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases, but also to cancer.” And another 2009 study from the University of Michigan suggests turmeric and black pepper may limit the growth of stem cells -- the cells that fuel cancer growth. They also benefit digestion and boost immunity. “Using spices such as these improves absorption in the GI tract and allow for adequate and more complete elimination of waste products. Black pepper boosts the immune system and also provides gentle scraping of the GI tract to remove possible food buildup left over from previous meals,” says internist Ginger Schechter, M.D. HOW TO DO IT: Quite simply, cooking sattvic is cooking with fresh, organic meats, fruits and vegetables, says Ayurvedist Deacon Carpenter. Look for recipes that use turmeric and black pepper for an added Ayurvedic boost.
5. Yoga Practice: The Eastern Take
Yoga and Ayurveda go hand in hand, as both are integral components of the same practices that originated in India thousands of years ago, says Ayurvedist Deacon Carpenter. Not only does yoga help keep joints, ligaments and muscles strong, but the meditation and breath-work exercises in yoga are particularly helpful in managing stress, lowering blood pressure, increasing blood circulation and stimulating metabolism. “Cortisol is our stress hormone -- too much of it promotes weight gain, fatigue, inflammation and even anxiety. Yoga, with a focus on breath, allows for improved oxygenation of tissues and a decrease in cortisol levels,” says internist Ginger Schechter, M.D.
5. Yoga Practice: The Western Take
Modern medicine extols the benefits of yoga -- and not just as a way to stay in shape. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center was recently granted $4.5 million to study how yoga benefits women with breast cancer. In a 2006 study they conducted, women who practiced yoga while receiving radiation treatment reported significantly increased physical function, a better mental outlook and lowered cortisol levels. HOW TO DO IT: You can do yoga anywhere and find classes in just about every American city -- but one type of practice doesn’t fit all. Types of yoga range greatly in terms of physical challenge and meditative practice. Try Vinyasa, Hatha, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram or whichever you may gravitate toward to find a practice that suits your physical abilities and lifestyle, says Ayurvedist Deacon Carpenter.
Related: How to Get Started With Yoga
6. Self-Massage: The Eastern Take
Ayurvedists firmly believe in the benefits of getting the kinks out of your muscles. Massaging your own face, neck, shoulders, arms, torso or legs using oil on the skin is a common Ayurvedic practice used to relax muscles, increase circulation and calm nerves, says Ayurvedist Deacon Carpenter. “Self-massage promotes good circulation and a release of toxins from tissues, which then reduces inflammation and increases elimination, as well as removing dead skin and opening pores for improved sweat release,” says internist Ginger Schechter, M.D.
6. Self-Massage: The Western Take
Emory University in Atlanta is about to embark on a study to determine how massage benefits cancer patients. “We already know that frequent massage can enhance the immune system and reduce anxiety, and it has been reported that massage therapy can stimulate energy and reduce such symptoms as nausea and pain,” said Mylin Torres, M.D., associate professor in Emory’s Department of Radiation Oncology, in an Emory University press release. “We hope to prove that, among other biological advantages, massage may diminish the incapacitation that cancer-related fatigue can cause for our patients.” HOW TO DO IT: Abhyanga (Sanskrit term for self-massage) is traditionally performed in the morning before bathing, says Ayurvedist Deacon Carpenter. Apply some sesame, almond or coconut oil to your fingertips and massage each area of your body in a circular motion for 10 to 15 minutes every day if you can, using longer strokes on the arms and legs and tighter, more circular strokes on the elbows and knees. It’s best to massage toward the direction of your heart.
7. Drinking Hot Water With Lemon: The Eastern Take
Ayurvedist Deacon Carpenter says drinking hot water with lemon is a great way to rev up your metabolism in the morning and help remove toxins from the system. Hot water is said to absorb into the body at a faster rate than cold or ice water. As for the squeeze of lemon juice, lemons are high in minerals and help remove toxins from the liver and kidneys to help cleanse your lymphatic system.
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7. Drinking Hot Water With Lemon: The Western Take
A 2008 Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition study examined the effect of dietary lemon polyphenols (micronutrients that can prevent cancer) on high-fat, diet-induced obesity in mice and their lipid metabolism. The outcome? Their induced weight gain was significantly reduced with the diet containing lemon polyphenols. And the temperature of the water also plays a role. “Warm liquids are absorbed more readily through the GI tract, will quench thirst more quickly and encourage elimination of waste through urine, feces and sweat as it is absorbed in 45 minutes to an hour rather than possibly more than six hours for ice-cold water,” says internist Ginger Schechter, M.D. HOW TO DO IT: Warm some water in a kettle as if you were making tea. Pour the hot water into a mug and squeeze the juice of half a lemon into it, allowing it to rest for a minute to cool slightly. Sip slowly, as if it were tea.
Related: 12 Refreshing Spa Water Recipes
What Do YOU Think?
When you weigh both Eastern and Western perspectives, it turns out many Ayurvedic practices aren’t all that unusual or exotic. Many components have already been integrated into our vernacular and experience. Have you ever tried any of them? Will you give some of these Ayurvedic practices a try now? Which other Ayurvedic practices have you tried? What were the results? Let us know in the comments section below!
Related: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times
- Role of Ayurveda in management of oral health
- Is nasal saline irrigation all it is cracked up to be?
- Saline Nasal Irrigation for Upper Respiratory Conditions
- Effectiveness of mechanical tongue cleaning on breath odour and tongue coating: a systematic review
- Meat consumption and mortality - results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition
- Spices halt growth of breast stem cells, U-M study finds
- Therapeutic massage takes on cancer fatigue
- Lemon Polyphenols Suppress Diet-induced Obesity by Up-Regulation of mRNA Levels of the Enzymes Involved in β-Oxidation in Mouse White Adipose Tissue
Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a journalist, essayist, senior copywriter and rabblerouser who lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has been featured in Science of Us/New York magazine, The Week, DAME, US Weekly, CBS Watch!, Parents, Parenting, The New York Times and The New York Post.