How to Talk to Your Doctor About Alternative Medicine

Recently, I presented a talk on Ayurveda to a group of Tulane Medical Students. I’ve given this talk in one form or another for more than ten years. The students are in an elective class that introduces different forms of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (kind of an outdated term). The talk takes a different feel now as I approach the end of my medical studies. This year’s group was particularly engaged, making for a lively discussion. We pondered the questions of how practices originating from the East, like Acupuncture, Yoga and Ayurveda fit into the Western medical model. 

The intersection of Eastern and Western medicine lies at the heart of my future practice. Eastern practices such as yoga, ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine permeate our cultural landscape. They are especially prominent over the internet and on social media. Sadly, many of those touting miraculous cures are simply trying to get clicks to sell their products or gain ad revenue. Yet there are many qualified practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine who help many in need of a different approach. 

In today’s post we’ll explore 

- Origins of Ayurveda
- When NOT to use Ayurveda
- Where Ayurveda excels
- How you can talk to your physician about your decisions
- How to find qualified practitioners

Origins of Ayurveda

Ayurveda is considered one of the oldest healing systems in the world. The term "Ayurveda" is derived from the Sanskrit words "Ayur," meaning life, and "Veda," meaning knowledge or science. Ayurveda is translated as "science of life" or the "knowledge of life." Ancient Ayurvedic texts provide guidelines on how to use diet, lifestyle and herbs to maintain health and treat disease. 

Charaka is often referred to as the "father of medicine" in ancient India. He is believed to have lived around the 6th century BCE. Charaka Samhita is one of the earliest and most influential texts in Ayurveda. Over seven volumes, it covers a wide range of topics, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, diagnosis, and treatment.

Sushruta is another important figure in the history of Ayurveda, believed to have lived around the same time as Charaka. Sushruta Samhita focuses extensively on surgery and is considered one of the earliest texts on surgery in the world. Sushruta is credited with the development of various surgical techniques and instruments. His understanding of human anatomy was quite advanced for his time, and he described various anatomical structures and surgical procedures in detail. Interestingly, many of the beliefs about the development of disease are similar in Greek and Indian history.  Understanding that Ayurveda developed a couple thousand years ago informs how we think about its best uses.

When NOT to use Ayurveda

Though Ayurveda has many fantastic uses, it is not good for acute problems. Anything that needs immediate fixing should be taken care of by your local ER, Urgent Care or Clinician’s office. Some examples are chest pain, difficulty breathing, broken limbs, bleeding and loss of consciousness. Any problem where you need immediate attention – go to your closest ER or urgent care. If you’re rapidly losing or gaining weight, your Primary Care Physician is the best place to start. If you need to be stitched up, again, your ER is the best place. 

When you’re taking prescription medications, never stop taking them without first consulting the prescribing doctor.  

Basically use your common sense. 

Where Ayurveda Excels

Ayurveda is great when you aren’t quite sure of the cause of your problem. Ayurvedic practitioners spend time digging into your past history, the symptoms and and using all available data to uncover the cause of your problem. This can be challenging in Western Medicine when the doctor’s time is limited. In ayur we connect the dots – sometimes seemingly disparate problems are related. For example, experiencing a high level of stress, e.g. excess sympathetic nervous system activity, can cause problems such as leaky gut or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). 

It’s been my experience that many physicians understand and acknowledge the connection between the mind and the body, yet they may not have ideas on how to treat the mind. We learn a lot about giving medications, but we learn less about simple stress management techniques. Ayurveda is effective in treating diseases of excess stress because of its focus on the Mind-Body Connection. 

Yoga postures, breathing and meditation are part of  ayurvedic treatment protocols. These practices engage the vagus nerve and bring us into parasympathetic nervous system dominance,, slowing down your heart rate, calming your breath, and decreasing stress hormones. Learning techniques of relaxation can also help with anxiety and insomnia. Often in western medicine we lack  the tools to combat anxiety without medications. And the medications for anxiety are often ineffective or addictive. 

Ayurveda also excels in diseases related to diet and lifestyle. Heart disease and diabetes, two of our most prevalent diseases, are often related to excessive intake, smoking and lack of movement.  Remembering that Ayurveda was developed before refrigeration and large scale food processing, the ayurvedic diet consists of simple, whole foods meals. Depending on your specific constitution eating more or less of certain foods. For example, someone who has a kapha constitution, and needs to lose weight would eat a lighter diet – vegetables, legumes and grains. Eating a minimally processed diet of protein, whole grains and vegetables. 

Through the writing of Michael Easter in his new book The Scarcity Brain, I learned about the Tsimane diet. The Tsimane people of Bolivia have the world’s healthiest hearts. Their diet doesn’t fit into one diet “mold.” It's not vegan, low fat, low carb or keto.  It’s interesting to note that the Tsimane diet has many similarities with an Ayurvedic diet – minimal processing and simple meals consisting of one-ingredient foods. 

Ayurveda has helped me and other women with hormonal imbalances. Many ayurvedic herbs are effective in regulating hormones over the long term. I used the combination of ayurvedic herbs and yoga to treat my PCOS years ago. The approach worked. After a couple years of herbal therapy, my menstrual cycles returned. I have two beautiful children. 

How to Talk to Your Doctor About Ayurveda (Or Another Therapy)

If you decide to see an Ayurvedic Practitioner (or another complementary medicine practitioner), explain why you’re taking this approach. It’s helpful to express your understanding of the limits of this therapy and your intentions. You can also ask if your MD has recommendations or thoughts. Hopefully your MD will respect your choices and listen to your reasons. 

How to Find a Practitioner 

Finding a qualified practitioner can be challenging. Some modalities have centralized databases of practitioners, yet this may not be the best way to find one. If your primary care doctor is open to alternative therapies, definitely as them for a recommendation. Hearing about success stories with other patients is a great validation. Word of mouth can be another way to find a practitioner. If neither of these methods are fruitful, you can of course use internet searches. I recommend looking at their bio to see where they trained and for how long they’ve been practicing. You can also reach out to the practitioner before making an appointment to see if they’ve treated your condition. For Ayurveda, the National Ayurvedic Medical Association has a list of practitioners. I was a member up until five years back when they began to require continuing education from particular schools. I had been practicing for longer than most people offering the classes. It appeared to be a money-making scheme, so I let my membership go. Sadly most alternative medicine modalities lack standard regulatory boards. Membership in professional organizations may not determine a practitioner's qualification. 

In Closing 

Alternative therapies can work harmoniously with western medicine. They are especially helpful for chronic conditions and conditions that western medicine doesn’t treat. It’s important to find the right practitioner for your particular condition. I encourage you to talk to your primary care physician if you decide to try a treatment. 

p.s. If you'd like to book a session with me email me at jessica (at) or book a session here.


About the author

You know how people feel stressed, fatigued, and overwhelmed —and they have no idea how to sift through all the health advice to help them feel better? Jessica Blanchard uses yoga, Ayurveda and nutrition to fix the root causes of their problems, so they get fit, and feel calm and energized.

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