An Ayurvedic Approach to Mental Health: Does Ayurveda Help with Depression?
By: Alice Moore
Mental health defines how we humans act and react to situations. Our thought processes are but a reflection of our mental health. It helps us in being successful as we make the best use of our capabilities. The resulting confidence helps navigate us through stressful periods and allows us to contribute to the organization and the society we are a part of.
How does Ayurveda differ from modern medicine?
Modern medicine more often than not treats and cures the symptoms of the disease rather than the cause of the disease itself. Medications employed by modern medicine could have the following issues when used over a period of time:
• Interference – Some modern medications like sedatives may affect the functioning of the body thereby hampering normal activities like driving or work.
• Tolerance – this occurs when a particular dose of a medicine fails to elicit significant benefits after a period of usage, requiring an increase in dosage to elicit the same results.
• Dependence – Or habit formation when the body is so used to the drug, it cannot do without it
• Withdrawal symptoms – When you finally decide to stop taking the medication the body protests in the form of insomnia, fever, dry tongue, irritable behavior, lack of hunger, etc
The advantage of Ayurveda is that it goes about treating the cause of the disease which not only eliminates the symptoms but also strengthens the body and the mind. Ayurvedic medicines usually do not interfere with the standard body functions allowing an individual to go about his or her daily routine. Other than exceptional cases, tolerance, dependence and withdrawal symptoms are never encountered.
Indications of poor mental health:
Although we are physically alive and active, it may just be possible that our mental health is poor. Anyone of the following signs is a warning signal that you need to pay attention to a dormant problem that is lurking around somewhere in the inner recesses of the mind:
• Forgetfulness and a lack of clarity in thoughts
• Mood swings that end up causing problems in relationships
• Inability to discuss rationally and ending up yelling at people
• Avoiding people and companionship
• Loud and argumentative, or being meek
• Gorging on food, or eating less
• Feeling of tiredness and despondency
• Abuse of alcohol, drugs or cigarettes
• Feeling of aches and pains with no underlying cause
• Inability to perform daily chores or work
• Harbor suicidal tendencies or entertain thoughts of violence
Ayurveda has long understood the complexities and the frailties of the human mind, so much so that around 500 BC, the Charaka Samhita, an Ayurvedic treatise recommended that illness of the mind be treated by an expert in the field of mental health. Imagine this, 2500 years ago, when much of the modern world we know today was inhabited by nomads and barbarians, an Indian medical treatise recommends people with mental illness to be treated by specialists? Is it any wonder that with the advent of the internet and the resultant knowledge boom, people are turning towards Ayurveda for improving their quality of life?
What is good health?
"Samadoshah samagnishcha, malakriyah samadhatu,
prasannatmendriya manah, svastha abhidyiyate dad"
This is a popular definition of good health and essentially means that a person whose tridoshas are well-balanced, whose metabolism and elimination processes are in harmony, whose sensory organs and mind are balanced and calm, such a person is healthy, full of joy and can enjoy a contented life.
Ayurveda believes that the mere absence of a disease or its symptoms is not good health by itself. Good health is that ideal combination of a healthy body, a healthy mind, clear senses and a pure soul. Any individual who might be having issues with at least one of these four states is not healthy. This is because the fine balance between these four states would be affected which in turn affects the balance of the body.
The foetal body itself was believed to develop the manas (psyche or the part of the human body that is responsible for the thought process) by the end of the 5th month of pregnancy. The belief here is that negative emotions would be transferred to the foetal body and thus the path to good health for an individual began even before conception, with parents-to-be being advised to think about the qualities they would like to have in their child. To further aid this, pregnant mothers were advised to remain happy and not be subject to negative elements like anger and grief.
According to Ayurveda, every disease can be broadly classified into one of the three major groups which are:
1. Physical diseases: the examples being fever, skin ailments etc
2. Mental diseases: the examples being lust, jealousy, grief etc
3. Combination of both: the examples being epilepsy and psychosis
The sages opined that even though a disease might first afflict the body or the mind, it would eventually spread to the other, and any attempts at treatment would have to take into consideration both the mental and physical condition of the patient. Pariksha or the diagnosis of a physical disease might employ trividha (three types of clinical examinations), ashtasthana pariksha (eight types of clinical examinations) and dasevidha (ten types of clinical examinations). Similarly, for diagnosis of mental diseases, different examinations are suggested and some of them include anuman (inference), vijñāna (understanding) by various means of the patient's condition.
The treatment methods employed by the ancient sages can be categorized under three major branches:
Therapy using a combination of diet and drugs
Behavioral or occupational counseling
Of the three, the one using a combination of diet and drugs is predominantly practiced today. The dietary part mentioned in the treatises encompasses fruits, vegetables, and animal meats, milk, and honey, etc.
Once a problem has been identified, the physician would recommend a holistic approach to tackle it. The approach would involve adhering to a strict daily routine (dinacharya), a diet, medication, and meditation, and/or yoga.
The mind is deeply influenced by a fixed routine that is in harmony with nature. This involves waking up as the sun rises and purging the body of ama or toxins1. Meditation and yoga help in purging out negative feelings and emotions and promotes a sense of wellbeing in both the body and the mind. The pursuit of a healthy mind involves not only good food but good food habits. The tendency to gulp down food while concentrating on another activity like, say watching television may lead to both physical and mental ill health. The ancient texts mention an upright posture of the spine while having food in an atmosphere that is relaxing and free from any distraction. Food prepared with love and devotion, and eaten with an appreciation for the taste and texture of the meal leads to contentment and proper digestion. Snacking and meals at irregular times are frowned upon and thought to be a cause for many ills that afflict the body. An interval of two to three hours after dinner is mandatory before retiring to bed. An ideal prelude to sleep would be to listen to some soft music or read a few pages of a book. Avoid anything that excites the mind. A significant reason for insomnia and improper sleep today is the tendency of individuals to watch television, or use electronic devices with bright screens usually just before retiring to bed. Make sure you switch off the tv and stow away your electronic gadgets at least an hour before retiring to bed. A soft bed and a well-ventilated room that is free of distracting noises at a comfortable temperature are prerequisites for proper sleep.
After air and water, food is perhaps the most essential requirement of the human body. The food that we eat could also harm the body. No wonder that the ancient sages believed that, "when diet is wrong, medicine is of no use and when diet is correct, medicine is of no need". There is a deep relationship between the food we eat and our mental health. An ayurvedic physician would, depending upon the dosha of the patient, suggest a diet to be taken during the course of treatment and beyond. The diet comprising of fresh fruits and vegetables and easily digestible cereals and dairy products would ideally be cooked in clay pots on a wooden fire. To promote harmony between the body and nature, vegetables and fruits would be chosen based on the season.
The herbal medicines would roughly be categorized into two categories – rasayanas and medicines. Rasayanas are tonics which strengthen the body, those which aid the mind or intellectual processes are called medhya rasayanas. Rasayanas are employed to strengthen the body and mind rather than treat a disease. An ayurvedic physician would help the patient identify the correct rasayana depending on the dosha type of the patient and the season prevalent at the time. Ayurvedic medicines, on the other hand, are meant to treat specific conditions and need to be taken for a specified period. The medicines may be in the form of tablets, powders, capsules, oral liquids, jams, or may involve ayurvedic procedures like dhara, nasyam, and sirovasthi therapy all of which would involve herbal ingredients. The procedures themselves would be performed by trained therapists supervised by qualified Ayurvedic physicians.
Some of the herbs employed in Ayurveda when it comes to mental health include:
Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri)
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus)
Sarpagandha (Rauwolfia serpentina)
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
Jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi)
Shilajit – a mineral-rich tar-like substance
To conclude, Ayurveda believes in warding off potential threats to health through the use of appropriate measures. Tested and trusted for over 5000 years, Ayurveda holds promise for the treatment of mental health issues including depression. The key to a successful treatment would be in identifying the right doctor employing the correct treatment procedures and following the guidelines.