Ayurvedic Medicine Primer

Ayurveda is derived from Sanskrit and is the combination of Ayu (life in Sanskrit) and Veda (knowledge in Sanskrit).

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Ayurveda is a form of medicine that is native to India. The name Ayurveda is derived from Sanskrit and is the combination of Ayu (“life” in Sanskrit) and Veda (“knowledge” in Sanskrit). Literally, Ayurveda translates to “knowledge of life.” Ayurveda is largely based on two general principles in the journey to achieve your personal harmony:

Balanced state (Prakruti): In Ayurveda, each person has a natural constitution that determines their normal state and natural tendencies. These tendencies affect the skin, body, and mind. Understanding your skin's tendencies allows you to maintain its health by taking actions to keep your tendencies from becoming imbalanced. Each person has a unique constitution, and as a result, each person's skin is unique.

Imbalanced state (Vikruti): Imbalances move you away from your skin’s natural state and lead to disharmony, symptoms, and disease. Most of the time, a person's natural tendencies (constitution) determines the type of imbalances that develop. But, this is not always true. Influences due to your natural tendencies, lifestyle, diet, and environment can lead to imbalances. Identifying these imbalances is essential to develop therapies that can correct them. Any imbalances are known as the Vikruti. Understanding your Vikruti allows for developing therapies, diet, and lifestyles changes that can help to correct the imbalances.

The goal of Ayurveda is to restore the natural state of your skin by correcting any imbalances that are present. By doing so, your body and skin will be in harmony. You will still have your tendencies (Prakruti), but they will not be causing an imbalance (Vikruti).

So the key is to understand how states are defined in Ayurveda. They are defined according to three functions. Each function is called a dosha. Understanding this is essential to understanding the Ayurvedic approach. There are three doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha

  1. Vata = this dosha refers to the “movement of the body” and represents motion and sensation in the skin.
  2. Pitta = this dosha refers to the energetics of the skin and represents metabolic activity, such as the production of vitamin D. It also represents heat such as the warmth produced by the body.
  3. Kapha = this dosha refers to the “substance of the body” and represents skin structure and moisture.

The best way to understand these three doshas is to look at some examples of what they represent in the skin and its cells. 

 

In a skin cell

Dosha Vata Pitta Kapha
Overall effect MOTION AND ENERGY METABOLISM AND TRANSFORMATION STRUCTURE AND SUBSTANCE
Examples
  1. Cellular movement
  2. Cell division
  1. Metabolic activity of the cell
  1. Cell membrane
  2. Water content

 

In the skin tissue

Dosha Vata Pitta Kapha
Overall effect MOTION AND ENERGY METABOLISM AND TRANSFORMATION STRUCTURE AND SUBSTANCE
Examples
  1. Skin’s ability to stretch and be pliable
  2. Refers to movement of water through the skin
  3. Sensation
  1. Heat generated in the skin
  2. Metabolism of the skin such as production of vitamin D
  3. Radiance of the skin
  1. The amount of collagen in the skin
  2. Water content in the tissue
  3. Antioxidants present in the tissue
Overall effect when out of balance DRYNESS, STRESS, AND AGING INFLAMMATION TOO MUCH OR TOO LITTLE SUBSTANCE AND STRUCTURE
Example when too high
  1. Too much loss of water through the skin, such as dry skin
  2. Deficient oil production results in dry, cracked skin
  3. Too much loss of collagen, thin skin, and the development of wrinkles
Too much inflammation, leading to red bumps such as seen in acne or rosacea Too much collagen production, such as keloid scars
Example when too low Not enough movement to the skin; this is seen in conditions that lead to stiff skin that is not as elastic Not enough metabolism; leads to dull skin Not enough collagen production; this is seen with poor wound healing

 

The examples shown above are just a few examples, and there are many examples of how the three doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha) are important in describing the skin’s function and activity.

Each person’s natural state is a blend of the three doshas and the tendencies that are related to them. This is what makes each person’s skin unique.

Two very important concepts in Ayurvedic medicine that drive how the doshas interact with the body and the skin are the concepts of Ojas and Agni.

Ojas: This term represents the body’s “vitality,” or its ability to take on stress and resist the development of imbalances and disease. Simply put, those with high ojas can take on more stress while those with low ojas are easily moved out of balance. This can be thought of as the body’s defense mechanism and the ability to return to equilibrium. An example of ojas in the skin is its natural antioxidant ability to fight against oxidative stress. Those with more ojas tend to age more slowly. Things that increase kapha can also increase ojas as long as kapha is not excessive.

Agni: Agni is the Sanskrit word for “fire,” and is the “fire” of digestion and metabolism.[1] Those with low agni will digest food slowly, while those with high agni digest food quickly. In the skin, agni is important in maintaining the right balance between growth and breakdown, as the skin is constantly turning over and replenishing. When agni is too high, the skin can become dry and irritated. One example of this is in atopic dermatitis (a form of eczema) where the skin can become too inflamed, red, and dry. On the other hand, when agni is too low, there is not enough breakdown which leads to toxin buildup and excessive tissue. One example of this is a low functioning thyroid when the skin can become dull and doughy. 

 

For those that want more information

The functions of vata, pitta, and kapha can be explained by the elements that make up each one. There are a total of five elements, and they represent certain characteristics. These elements were originally described in Sanskrit and have meanings that are both physical and metaphysical.  

Earth: Earth represents solidity and structure. In the skin, it represents the structure of the skin, including the cells and the collagen that make it up.

It also represents defense mechanisms (this is really a function of water). In the skin, this represents the structure of the skin and the natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant factors in the skin. It also represents chemicals that are made in the skin that contribute to the skin and body’s growth and development. One example is the production of vitamin D (this can create confusion as metabolic processes are due to pitta dosha).

Water: Water represents moisture and defense. The skin’s moisture depends on both the skin’s water and oil content. Water can absorb heat, and this element broadly refers to both the antioxidant and the anti-inflammatory properties in skin. 

Air: Air represents both motion and the energy contained in its motion. In the skin, it represents the movement of cells, tissue, and nerve impulses. It is responsible for the sense of touch. Another example is the communication of nerves with the muscles to stimulate them to contract and move.

Fire: Fire is the English word for "agni" which was described above. Fire represents light, heat, and metabolic transformation. Fire is the elemental force behind metabolism and the production of heat. In the skin, this represents the metabolic activity of the cells and the tissue. It also represents the heat, radiance, or inflammation of the skin.

Ether: Ether represents space, emptiness, and randomness. For example, water in a cup fills the space in the cup. This space has no inherent character or qualities except that it is defined by emptiness. In the skin, ether represents the space that is taken up by the skin. Ether is essential to understanding the Ayurvedic perspective on healthy tissue. When either is present in a balanced amount, it allows for motion to take place. However, too much ether is seen in oxidative stress and aging. Things that increase the presence of ether lead to a loss of tissue structure and function. For example, oxidative stress can break down collagen and lead to collagen loss, which leads to thinner skin and wrinkles that are more commonly seen with skin aging.

Each of the three doshas relates to the elements

Vata: Vata is composed of a balance of Air and Ether. This balance is why vata represents motion and energy of the skin (due to air element) and the space needed in the skin for that motion (due to ether element).

Pitta: Pitta is composed of a balance of Fire and Water. The fire portion of pitta represents metabolism, heat, radiance, and inflammation. The water portion acts to keep the fire portion in balance due to its ability to take on the heat of pitta since it represents the body’s defense mechanisms.

Kapha: Kapha is composed of a balance of Earth and Water. This balance is why kapha represents the structure of the skin (due to the earth element) as well as its defense mechanisms (due to the water element).

Want to learn more about Ayurvedic skin care? Download our eBook or take an eCourse.

 

* This Website is for general skin beauty, wellness, and health information only. This Website is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. The information provided on this Website should never be used to disregard, delay, or refuse treatment or advice from a physician or a qualified health provider.

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References

1. Van Loon G (2003) Charaka Samhita, Handbook on Ayurveda, Volume I