Did you know that Ayurvedic cancer treatment dates back to seventh century BC? Atreya (one of the great Indian sages) and Dhanwanthari (the God of Ayurveda) used herbal medicines as cancer treatments (1). Studies show these herbs are still used today for rejuvenating the body and restoring health. Although Ayurvedic medicine is ancient in origin, scientific studies and human experience demonstrate its modern, effective approach in managing illness, including cancer treatments.
Cancer is one of the most devastating diseases to occur in the body. As one of the leading causes of death worldwide, cancer caused a mindblowing 8.2 million deaths in 2012, and the numbers aren’t decreasing (2). New cases are expected to rise from 14.1 million in 2012 to 23.6 million in 2030 (2). Western medicine can effectively diagnose cancer in its early stages, but cytotoxic treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation often further diminish health. More of us are turning to alternative medicines like Ayurveda for natural cancer treatments, and scientific studies demonstrate their efficacy. Not surprisingly, we’re discovering a more holistic approach to wellness that not only supports vitality; it actually helps prevent the growth of cancer.
How Ayurveda Views Cancer
The stress-quotient is high in the modern world. We’re inundated with conveniences that place stress on the body, everything from cellular phones to the nitrates that preserve much of our food, not to mention voluntary consumption of harmful substances like nicotine and alcohol. Studies show that mental stress is at an all-time high and treatment for depression and anxiety is becoming dangerously common. When the body experiences prolonged stress, low-grade, chronic inflammation occurs–the basis for all human diseases. This stress response to our environment interferes with and weakens the body’s normal functioning. Eventually, illness invades one or more of the dhatus (seven body tissues) and diminishes ojas–our vital life force and the essence of our health. When ojas is depleted, the body must struggle to survive.
According to Ayurveda, all pathology in the body, including cancer, is caused by an imbalance of the tridosha (vata, pitta, and kapha). An indication of health in Ayurvedic science is whether or not the body can adapt to a changing environment and maintain homeostasis necessary for clear communication between three body control systems: the nervous system (vata), the venous system (pitta), and the arterial system (kapha). When there is an imbalance of one or more of the body’s three subtle energies, these body systems struggle to communicate. Toxins accumulate in weak parts of the body and disease ensues, now with visible symptoms. Two classic Ayurvedic texts, Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas, describe cancer as an inflammatory or noninflammatory swelling that causes either granthi (minor growth) or arbuda (major growth). Like other diseases, cancer is considered a derangement of all three doshas, with one causal dosha eventually implicating all three.
According to researchers in the United States (3) and Vaidya Atreya Smith (4), the director for the European Institute of Vedic Studies in Switzerland, cancer can be classified through the tridosha.
Cancers caused by the vata dosha share its qualities of communication, movement, and coordination. They can be volatile, variable, and migrating, and they’re aggravated by an excess of astringents, bitters, pungents, dry foods, and stress.
Pitta cancers affect the body’s transformative functions, such as metabolism and enzyme activity. They grow at a moderate rate. Pitta aggravating factors include excessive anger and sour, salty, and fried foods.
Cancer that evolves slowly relates to the kapha dosha, which controls lubrication and structure. It manifests as tumors or congestive disorders. Factors that aggravate kapha are excessively sweet and oily foods and a sedentary nature.
Ayurvedic cancer treatments should be specific to the type of carcinoma but also the unique qualities of the individual body in which it grows. Cancer that involves more than one dosha makes diagnosis and treatment more difficult.
Stages of Tumor Development
Like all living things, cancer has a life cycle. Sushruta, an ancient Indian doctor and one of the earliest surgeons in recorded history proposed six stages of pathogenesis, including cancer. Sanchaya marks the earliest stage of cancer with localized changes in cellular tissue. In prakopa, the second stage, primary growths transform into metastatic tumors. The third stage is metastasis when the disease spreads to other areas of the body. In the fourth stage of sthana samsraya, metastasis is complete and secondary growth occurs. Vyakti is the fifth stage and when we see clinical signs and symptoms of the disease. Finally, stage six cancer or bheda, is signaled by the differentiation of tumor growth.
Benefits of An Ayurvedic Approach to Cancer Treatment
Studies of Ayurvedic Cancer Treatments
Rasayana, literally the path (ayana) of essence (rasa), is an Ayurvedic rejuvenation therapy that uses blood-cleansing herbs, a detoxifying diet, and regimens that promote longevity by preventing diseases. Rasayanas have multidimensional health benefits, including anti-aging, restoring power, and improving vitality to nourish the dhatus and restore balance to the whole body. A variety of recipes are used to treat different health conditions so the type of cancer being treated through rasayana will have its own formula.
Many studies demonstrate the positive effects of rasayana therapy on cancer. Of these studies, one in particular, conducted by researchers in India, looked at the effects of a specific rasayana therapy in reducing the adverse effects of chemo and radiation. Divided into two groups, 36 cancer patients received chemo and radiation. One group received the Ayurvedic rasayana, which proved to mitigate the side effects of chemical treatment. Ingredients included amalaki, ashwagandha, guduchi, yashtimadhu, jivanti, tulasi, and pippali (5). Indeed, several studies have investigated the efficacy of ashwagandha as a cancer treatment. Learn more about how this potent Ayurvedic herb can rejuvenate your entire body.
Another of several studies was conducted at the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Cancer Biology Center in Texas. Researchers investigated the impact of Ayurvedic herb triphala on pancreatic cancer (one of the most aggressive and lethal cancers) and found a reduction in growth when administered orally five times per week at a dose of 50-100 mg/kg (6).
Ayurvedic expert and author of Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide, David Frawley outlines five categories of herbs used in Ayurvedic cancer treatments:
Blood-Cleansing Herbs destroy toxins and reduce infections. Some of the most popular herbs include dandelion, burdock, sarsaparilla, and red clover. These are best for lymphatic or skin cancers of the kapha and pitta varieties.
Blood-Moving Herbs promote circulation and facilitate the healing of tissues. Herbs such as turmeric, saffron, safflower, myrrh, and guggul are helpful for treating breast, uterine, liver, or pancreatic cancers and are effective for all three doshas.
Immune-Strengthening Tonics include several Chinese herbs such as ginseng and astragalus, and Ayurvedic herbs like ashwagandha, shatavari, guduchi, bala, shilajit, and kapikacchu. Modern clinical research has shown that both categories of herbs can boost the immune system.
Phlegm-Dispelling Herbs are useful in the treatment of thyroid, neck, or lymphatic cancers, and cancers specific to the vata or kapha doshas. Herbs include kelp, seaweed, Irish moss, and bhallatak.
Bitter or Pungent Herbs with fat-reducing and toxin-destroying properties such as goldenseal, coptis, aloe, cayenne, black pepper, and calamus increase agni (digestive fire) and reduce tissues, which affect cancerous cells.
Preventative Cancer Treatment with an Ayurvedic Lifestyle
One of the primary ways to treat any disease is by preventing its occurrence in the first place. The goal of Ayurveda is to achieve balance in the body through a proper diet and lifestyle that is specific to each person. The difference between Ayurveda and allopathic medicine for treating cancer is its perspective of the cause of disease. While conventional medicine sees cancer as the growth of foreign, damaging cells in the body to be fought, Ayurveda sees cancer as the result of a major imbalance in the tridosha. Logically, the approach responds to the cause. For a deeper perspective of cancer, watch this short talk from Sadhguru, yogi and mystic: Take the Fight out of Cancer.
While several studies have shown the positive effects of herbal therapies used as cancer treatments, the focus of Ayurveda is prevention through a healthy lifestyle. The right diet, adequate sleep, and regularity in life are some of the main ways to prevent cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Including Ayurvedic health practices into your daily routine (click here for more info) and detoxifying the system with panchakarma are safe, natural ways to keep your body functioning optimally. Arguably, mind-cleansing is one of the most important ways to protect oneself from disease because it is with our mind that we make decisions about the way we live. Honoring our health means treating our bodies with love, care, and gratitude. Indeed, the best cancer treatments begin with prevention.
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For Satya, Ayurveda is an awakening, the voice of the divine speaking through our dhatus, telling us the right way to go (and good snacks to eat along the way). Her strong vata energy carries her to the tropics each winter where she studies Reiki and other alternative healing therapies. She’s vegan but believes that everyone should live according to what supports their personal expansion.