Ayurveda, an ancient Indian system of medicine, has been a cornerstone of wellness and healing for centuries. Its foundation lies in a holistic approach to health, emphasizing a balance between mind, body, and spirit. The practice has evolved over millennia, adapting to changing times while retaining its core principles. In recent years, Ayurveda has experienced a significant resurgence, both in India and globally, as people increasingly seek natural and holistic approaches to healthcare.
In India, Ayurveda has deep cultural and historical roots. Its practices and teachings have been passed down through generations, forming an integral part of Indian heritage and tradition. The industry’s growth in India is remarkable, with the market size expanding from USD 2.5 billion in 2014 to an impressive USD 18.1 billion in 2020. This growth is not just confined to India; the global market for the herbal sector, which includes Ayurveda, reached USD 657.5 billion in 2020, reflecting a widespread embrace of natural and traditional medicine (1).
In India, there are now 8,100 Ayurvedic factories and over 712,000 practitioners, supported by 780 Ayush colleges with nearly 63,000 students. Efforts to promote Ayurveda internationally include various agreements for cooperation, research, and academic exchanges. The establishment of Ayush Information Cells in 35 countries and an Ayush Export Promotion Council, along with WHO-GMP certification for 31 Ayurvedic manufacturers, supports the export of Ayurvedic products (1).
The recent news headlines regarding Ayurveda have been both promising and concerning. On one hand, there are innovative developments like the plant-based cancer treatment drug Capcan, derived from the Simarouba plant. This drug, co-invented by Dr. Vishal Rao, a reputed surgical oncologist from Bangalore, and Sreenivas H, a pharmacologist, and approved for human administration by the Ministry of Ayush, represents a significant advancement in integrating traditional knowledge with modern medical research (2). Similarly, the Tata Memorial Centre Hospital in Mumbai is exploring the combination of yoga and Ayurveda in improving cancer treatment outcomes (3). Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai is set to become India’s first cancer hospital to offer Ayurvedic treatment, with the development of a 100-bed facility in Khopoli. This initiative aims to blend Ayurveda with contemporary medicine and includes plans for cultivating medicinal plants for research. The project, bolstered by a funding of INR 300 crore ($39.8 million) from the Department of Atomic Energy, is slated for completion by 2026. In addition to Ayurvedic therapies, the facility will provide standard cancer treatments, including radiotherapy and chemotherapy (4). These initiatives highlight the potential of Ayurveda in contributing to contemporary medical practices.
However, Ayurveda also faces criticism and scepticism, particularly concerning its safety and efficacy. Hepatologist Cyriac Abby Philips from Kerala, for instance, has raised serious concerns about the safety of Ayurvedic herbs, emphasizing the need for rigorous scientific study and validation (1). This scepticism is partly rooted in history. For instance, the average life expectancy in India in 1800 was only 25.4 years, but it has since increased to nearly 70 years in 2020. This dramatic improvement raises questions about the effectiveness of traditional practices like Ayurveda in managing serious health conditions in the past.
The future of Ayurveda, both in India and internationally, is closely linked to how it adapts and addresses several key challenges, particularly in aligning with the scientific rigor akin to that of allopathic medicine. The journey to wider acceptance and credibility for Ayurveda involves a multi-faceted approach. Central to this is the establishment of the safety and efficacy of Ayurvedic drugs through rigorous, double-blind, randomized control studies. These studies should ideally be supervised by a diverse team of professionals including Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and allopathic doctors, ensuring a comprehensive perspective.
The findings from these studies are pivotal and should be published in peer-reviewed journals. This step is crucial for lending credibility and fostering trust among the global medical community and patients alike. Another important aspect is the avoidance of mixopathy – the practice of combining different systems of medicine. While integrative approaches can be beneficial, caution is necessary to prevent potential adverse interactions and ensure patient safety. This includes being vigilant against cross-prescription practices, where practitioners of one medical discipline prescribe drugs from another, to maintain the integrity and specialization of each medical system.
In addition to these measures, the proper labelling of all Ayurvedic formulations, akin to allopathic drugs, is essential. This includes providing detailed information on drug composition, potential adverse reactions, toxicity, and dosage instructions. Transparency in labelling is a significant step in building consumer trust and ensuring safe usage of Ayurvedic products.
Enhancing the credibility of Ayurveda in the global healthcare landscape also involves several other steps. Implementing standardized manufacturing processes is key to ensuring quality and consistency in Ayurvedic products. Achieving global certification and meeting international regulatory standards are essential for gaining worldwide trust. Transparency in the sourcing and quality of ingredients used in Ayurvedic products is another critical factor in building consumer confidence.
Furthermore, enhancing educational programs in Ayurveda to include modern scientific methods and research can prepare practitioners who are well-versed in both traditional and contemporary medical practices. Public awareness campaigns can play a significant role in educating both the public and healthcare professionals about the benefits and scientific basis of Ayurveda. Systematically documenting successful case studies and long-term treatment outcomes can serve as practical evidence of Ayurveda’s effectiveness.
By focusing on these areas, Ayurveda can make significant strides in solidifying its position as a credible and reliable system of medicine globally. These efforts would not only validate the traditional practices but also pave the way for a more integrated and holistic approach to health and wellness in the modern world.
Despite these challenges, Ayurveda’s holistic approach, emphasis on prevention, and natural treatment methods continue to appeal to a global audience seeking sustainable and holistic health solutions. The increasing international collaboration, as seen through numerous MoUs and the establishment of Ayush Information Cells in various countries, indicates a growing interest in traditional Indian medicine. This global expansion, coupled with scientific validation, can pave the way for Ayurveda to play a more prominent role in the future of healthcare.
To sum up, Ayurveda stands at a crossroads where tradition meets modernity. Its growth and acceptance depend on a delicate balance between respecting its ancient roots and adapting to contemporary scientific standards. As the world continues to evolve, so too must Ayurveda, to ensure its place as a valuable and respected component of global healthcare.
Prof. Dr. Prahlada N. B
17 November 2023