The ancient healing system that can relieve modern ills
Proponents say that Ayurveda, an ancient Indian philosophy based on the idea that good health depends on harmony between mind, body and spirit, is proving a help to many, writes Fiona McBennett
Ayurveda is the buzz word amongst beauty and wellness experts these days. However, while there is an array of Ayurveda-inspired massages and beauty products out there, truth be told, not many of us know what Ayurveda actually is.
Ayurveda literally means: the science of life. Established almost 6,000 years ago in India, it is one of the oldest healing systems in the world. Based on the belief that health depends on harmony between mind, body and spirit, the Ayurvedic approach encompasses all aspects of lifestyle - from diet and exercise to sleep patterns.
According to Ayurveda, each of us is made up of a combination of "doshas", or energies, called vata, pitta and kapha. When these three elements are in balance, a person's health can flourish. However, when one dosha is out of balance, problems can arise.
Ayurveda encourages a person to live their life in a way that will keep these doshas balanced. This may mean getting up at a certain time, cutting down on certain foods or doing yoga and meditation.
Dr Donn Brennan, a former GP, has been an Ayurvedic practitioner for the past 24 years. He feels that Ayurveda is the way forward in the fight against disease.
"The onslaught of diabetes and heart problems facing us in the next few years means that there will be even more pressure on our already struggling medical health services," he says.
"The only solution is for people to take personal responsibility for their health."
According to Dr Brennan, Ayurveda can help treat a number of health problems.
"There are many conditions that can benefit from an Ayurvedic approach. Even when people need medication, there isn't any conflict, as the doctor treats the disease and Ayurveda teaches people how to understand themselves personally. Everything, from stress and hormone-related conditions, to digestive disorders, can be successfully treated."
Anne Gallagher went through a difficult time 15 years ago, at the age of 46. Her marriage broke down and she was involved in a car accident, all in the one year.
Dublin-born Anne was a regular at her local gym until one afternoon, when she knew something was wrong.
"I was on the treadmill when I noticed my legs felt achy and wobbly and I thought I was getting flu. It went on for days and I started to get worried."
Anne was referred to hospital by her GP and after a series of tests, was diagnosed with both fibromyalgia and trigeminal neuralgia. Her symptoms then continued to develop and dramatically affect her life. "I had to leave my job, I was in so much pain. I was so weak that I had to move in with my mother. I had no energy to go out and lost a lot of friends as a result."
Anne was prescribed a cocktail of medication but found they made her sick, so she decided to look for other ways to manage her conditions.
"I did a lot of research online and came across an Ayurvedic herb that sounded like it would help with the constant exhaustion I battled against. That's what got me interested," she said.
Anne has followed an Ayurvedic lifestyle for the past two years and swears by the herbal supplements she takes. Exercise, healthy food and daily meditation means that Anne is now fighting fit again.
"I felt much better within a week of starting Ayurveda," she says. "My energy has definitely improved and I am full of hope and positivity for the future."
Dr John Fleetwood, a GP at Carysfort Clinic, Blackrock, says that while some alternative medicine is questionable, Ayurveda has stood the test of time.
"Unfortunately, there are many alternative treatments out there with no science behind them. However, with Indian medicine, there is science behind it. It has been around for so long, that it has to work otherwise it wouldn't still be here," he says.
Dr Fleetwood has a special interest in the scientific basis of alternative treatments and says that they work differently for everyone.
"Fibromyalgia is one of those conditions where no one knows what causes it and there's no real cure. However, if, having tried all the medical treatments, a patient finds an alternative cure that works for them, then great."
Jennifer O'Sullivan (29) began suffering with cramps and abdominal discomfort in 2007 when she was studying for a degree in college.
"I'd had a stomach bug but then the symptoms wouldn't go away. I was also practising for my driving test at the time, so I was under a lot of pressure," she says. After an endoscopy and colonoscopy, Jennifer was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). She was advised by her doctor to take a laxative, but she found her symptoms got worse over time.
She began looking for natural ways to treat her condition and came across transcendental meditation, a form of meditation associated with Ayurveda and favoured by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Hugh Jackman.
"I knew a lot of my condition was stress-related and so I thought meditation would help."
Jennifer was taught how to meditate by Dr Donn Brennan's wife, Ann Brennan, a transcendental meditation teacher, and this, coupled with an Ayurvedic diet, meant that Jennifer was soon on the road to recovery.
"Within weeks I started noticing benefits," she says. "I had always been thin and could eat what I wanted but I was actually eating too much and putting my digestive system under strain.
"Now if I do have symptoms, I'll know exactly what caused it. I'm more connected to my body as a result of Ayurveda."
The benefits of Ayurveda and meditation soon began to spread into all aspects of Jennifer's life.
"I gave up drinking and moved from Dublin to the countryside in Wexford with my husband, Ciaran.
"We grow our own vegetables and have a slower pace of life.
"I feel like my symptoms were my body's way of warning me that things needed to change."
Dr Gavin Harewood, Gastroenterologist at Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, says that while the exact cause of IBS is not entirely clear, it is a very common condition.
"About 15 to 20pc of people have IBS in some shape or form," he explains.
"As best as we can tell, it's probably down to the fact that some people have a more sensitive lining of the stomach and bowel than others and can feel bloated and uncomfortable as food is being digested."
Dr Harewood says that while certain foods can aggravate symptoms for IBS sufferers, stress has a huge part to play.
"Patients will definitely say stress aggravates their symptoms and a large component of treating IBS effectively is related to stress management.
"My advice to patients is always to start off with lifestyle changes and work at stress reduction."
Gretta O'Connor says that following an Ayurvedic lifestyle has helped her to control an auto-immune condition she has suffered from for the past 20 years, called lichen planopalaris.
"The skin on my head would be dry and scaly and often get infected. I lost some of my hair and my scalp used to feel like it was burning up," explains the 59-year-old Cork woman.
Gretta's condition was treated as psoriasis until four years ago when she had a biopsy taken and was correctly diagnosed. She was prescribed creams and medication but nothing worked.
It seemed that there was no hope for Gretta, until she met a friend who recommended Ayurveda. "I remember telling her that I'd take poison if I thought it would make me feel better. I was desperate," she says. After following an intensive Ayurvedic programme and taking herbal supplements, Gretta began to notice a difference.
"It was hard getting used to the life changes at first but when you start to feel good, it encourages you," she says.
Gretta credits Ayurveda with bringing joy back into her life at a time when her health problems were getting her down.
"I was told to enjoy life and have fun. I love set dancing and it encouraged me to do it more. It really helped, as I was in better form and it took my mind off things."
Gretta is now feeling on top of the world. "The next step at the time was to get steroid injections into my scalp but I'm currently feeling the best I've felt in years. My hair has even grown back, which doctors told me wouldn't happen."
According to Dr Fleetwood, Gretta's condition is an auto-immune disease that falls into a grey area in the medical world.
"There is no real treatment for lichen planopalaris and we are not completely sure what causes it. All that can be done medically is to reduce the inflammation. A lot of patients end up having a hair transplant."
Dr Fleetwood says that, whatever the ailment, the alternative approach is always worth a try.
"If someone is travelling on the medical treadmill and has tried everything with no success, then there's no reason why they shouldn't try alternative treatments. I'd certainly recommend it to people."
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