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Ayurvedic Medicine: In Depth

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Is Ayurvedic Medicine Safe?

Some Ayurvedic preparations may contain lead, mercury, or arsenic in amounts that can be toxic.

Is Ayurvedic Medicine Effective?

A few studies suggest that Ayurvedic preparations may reduce pain and increase function in people with osteoarthritis and help manage symptoms in people with type 2 diabetes, but most of these trials are small or not well-designed. There is little scientific evidence on Ayurveda’s value for other health issues.

How much do we know about Ayurvedic medicine?

Although Ayurvedic medicine and its components have been described in many scholarly articles, only a small number of clinical trials using these approaches have been published in Western medical journals. About 240,000 American adults use Ayurvedic medicine.

What Is Ayurvedic Medicine?

The ancient Indian medical system, also known as Ayurveda, is based on ancient writings that rely on a “natural” and holistic approach to physical and mental health. Ayurvedic medicine is one of the world’s oldest medical systems and remains one of India’s traditional health care systems. Ayurvedic treatment combines products (mainly derived from plants, but may also include animal, metal, and mineral), diet, exercise, and lifestyle.

What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of Ayurvedic Medicine

Few well-designed clinical trials and systematic research reviews suggest that Ayurvedic approaches are effective. 

  • Results from a 2013 clinical trial compared two Ayurvedic formulations of plant extracts against the natural product glucosamine sulfate and the drug celecoxib in 440 people with knee osteoarthritis. All four products provided similar reductions in pain and improvements in function.

  • A preliminary and small NCCIH-funded 2011 pilot study with 43 people found that conventional and Ayurvedic treatments for rheumatoid arthritis were similarly effective. The conventional drug tested was methotrexate and the Ayurvedic treatment included 40 herbal compounds.
  • Outcomes from a small short-term clinical trial with 89 men and women suggested that a formulation of five Ayurvedic herbs may help people with type 2 diabetes. However, other researchers said inadequate study designs haven’t allowed researchers to develop firm conclusions about Ayurveda for diabetes.
  • Turmeric, an herb often used in Ayurvedic preparations, may help with ulcerative colitis, but the two studies reporting this were small – one, published in 2005 included 10 people while the other, published in 2006, had 89.

What the Science Says About the Safety of Ayurvedic Medicine

  • Some Ayurvedic preparations include metals, minerals, or gems. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that the presence of metals in some Ayurvedic products makes them potentially harmful.
  • A 2015 published survey of people who use Ayurvedic preparations showed that 40 percent had elevated blood levels of lead and some had elevated blood levels of mercury. About one in four of the supplements tested had high levels of lead and almost half of them had high levels of mercury.
  • A 2015 case report published in the Center for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report linked elevated blood lead levels in a 64-year-old woman with Ayurvedic preparations purchased on the Internet.
  • Although rare, Ayurvedic products may cause arsenic poisoning.

NCCIH-Funded Research

NCCIH is funding research that:

  • Builds on earlier investigations in breast cancer survivors that found a positive effect of integrated Ayurvedic medicine on improved quality of life; new research will evaluate ways to make this intervention easier to incorporate into peoples’ lives. The proposed Ayurvedic intervention includes diet, lifestyle, yoga, and pressure point treatment.
  • Studies the mechanism by which an extract from Butea monosperma (BME) flowers may protect against joint destruction from osteoarthritis (BME is widely used in Ayurveda for arthritis and other inflammatory diseases in India).

More to Consider

  • Don’t use Ayurvedic medicine to postpone seeing a conventional health care provider about a medical problem.
  • If you have a health condition, talk with your conventional health care provider before using Ayurvedic products.
  • There is no significant regulation of Ayurvedic practice or education in the United States, and no state requires a practitioner to have a license. For more information on credentialing complementary health practitioners, see the NCCIH fact sheet Credentialing, Licensing, and Education.  
  • If you’re pregnant or nursing, be sure to consult your (or your child’s) health care provider as some Ayurvedic products may contain products that could be harmful.
  • Tell all your health care providers about any complementary or integrative health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

For More Information

NCCIH Clearinghouse

The NCCIH Clearinghouse provides information on NCCIH and complementary and integrative health approaches, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.

Toll-free in the U.S.: 
1-888-644-6226
TTY (for deaf and hard-of-hearing callers): 
1-866-464-3615

PubMed®

A service of the National Library of Medicine, PubMed® contains publication information and (in most cases) brief summaries of articles from scientific and medical journals. For guidance from NCCIH on using PubMed, see How To Find Information About Complementary Health Approaches on PubMed.

NIH Clinical Research Trials and You

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has created a website, NIH Clinical Research Trials and You, to help people learn about clinical trials, why they matter, and how to participate. The site includes questions and answers about clinical trials, guidance on how to find clinical trials through ClinicalTrials.gov and other resources, and stories about the personal experiences of clinical trial participants. Clinical trials are necessary to find better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases.

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews

The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews is a collection of evidence-based reviews produced by the Cochrane Library, an international nonprofit organization. The reviews summarize the results of clinical trials on health care interventions. Summaries are free; full-text reviews are by subscription only.

Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools Expenditures & Results (RePORTER)

RePORTER is a database of information on federally funded scientific and medical research projects being conducted at research institutions.

Key References

Other References

  • Darvesh AS, Aggarwal BB, Bishayee A. Curcumin and liver cancer: a review. Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology. 2012;13(1):218-228.

  • Patwardhan B. Bridging Ayurveda with evidence-based scientific approaches in medicine. EPMA Journal. 2014;5(1):19.

  • Pinto B, Goyal P, Flora SJ, et al. Chronic arsenic poisoning following Ayurvedic medication. Journal of Medical Toxicology. 2014;10(4):395-398.

  • Singh HK. Brain enhancing ingredients from Ayurvedic medicine: quintessential example of Bacopa monniera, a narrative review. Nutrients. 2013;5(2):478-497.

Acknowledgments

NCCIH thanks Dr. David Shurtleff, Deputy Director of NCCIH, and Dr. Craig Hopp, Deputy Director of NCCIH’s Division of Extramural Research for their review of the 2019 update of this fact sheet.

This publication is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. Duplication is encouraged.

NCCIH has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCIH.

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NCCIH Pub No.: 
D287
Last Updated: 
January 2019

This page last modified January 14, 2019