Within the past 100 years modern society has recognized and labeled neurodegenerative disorders and is currently investing in much research into diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease as a greater and greater number of people seem to be plagued by its onset. There is a significant amount of very valuable research that is underway both from a biomedical as well as a societal perspective and more ancient and traditional medical systems, including Ayurvedic Medicine, have begun to extend their classical treatises to encompass and shed light on these illnesses. Ayurvedic Medicine offers insight into how these illnesses develop and how they can be managed so that individuals can live an optimal life characterized by satisfactory quality and longevity.
However, before proceeding to highlight the progression and management of these illnesses from an Ayurvedic perspective, it is important to first note some misunderstandings and barriers that exist in understanding these illnesses, particularly in understanding Alzheimer’s disease:
- there is significant difficulty in determining if Alzheimer’s disease is different from “natural” brain aging and, if so, how
- there is no consistent biological profile of Alzheimer’s disease presentation
- it is difficult, if at all possible, to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease
- 90% of the brain is composed of glia and recent research demonstrates that glia may in fact control neuronal growth and communication rather than vice versa. While neurons have been researched extensively for the past 100 years there has been very little focus and research on glia, leaving a significant gap in our understanding of brain biology
- the most vast, interconnected, and primary communication pathway of the body is through the “living matrix” of the body, consisting of connective tissue and water. Like glia, this is an area which has remained more along the fray of research and has not received adequate attention.
- Parkinson’s disease is characterized by the degeneration of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra of the brain. However, it has been found that 90% of the body’s dopamine is produced in the enteric nervous system (the nervous system of the gastrointestinal tract). What this implies about Parkinson’s Disease and how this knowledge can be used to combat Parkinson’s disease is a subject that is currently under scientific scrutiny.
Ayurvedic Medicine describes most neurodegenerative disorders as being due to significant Vata (the humour of space and air) imbalance in the body and mind, particularly in one of the seven tissues of the body known as majja, or marrow, and of the brain. Imbalance can occur in many different ways and to various different extents. How it occurs is what differentiates one neurodegenerative disorder from the other and, within this, from one individual to another. That Vata is imbalanced in the brain means that brain “tissue” dries up due to lack of nourishment, whether from a physical or emotional perspective or both. Just as it is recognized that Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain health because they help to keep the myelin sheath of neurons intact and allow for effective insulation and communication between neurons, Ayurveda has likewise recognized the need for the brain to remain nourished and accomplishes this through preventative and responsive measures:
- physical and emotional factors such as a depleting diet which fails to nourish the body or excessive worry create imbalance in the brain which can then be further aggravating by more intensive physical or emotional trauma
- management of neurodegenerative disorders involves attention to adopting a diet that will nourish the brain and utilizing herbs and therapy which target this imbalance
- specific therapies which are utilized include a number of different types of head massage and oleation, all of which relax and rejuvenate the mind and brain by utilizing herbs and oils which are nourishing in nature
- the administration of oil or ghee formulated with specific herbs through the nasal passages is also used. This form of therapy, known as nasya, has been shown to be an effective route of administration for safely crossing the blood-brain barrier and targeting neuronal health. Ghee from cows in India has been shown to contain DHEA.
According to Ayurvedic Medicine, the body and mind are inextricably linked. Though it is the brain that is affected in neurodegenerative disease, the causative factor for imbalance may lie in the health of another physical area of the body or in emotions and emotional memories held in the body. The biological humour of Vata is located not just in the brain but in various other parts of the body and can be put out of balance by a variety of physical or emotional factors. For instance, two primary sites of Vata are the colon and the head region. Vata’s association with the colon is primarily physical while its association with the head is emotional and deals with the proper oxygenation through breathing and proper nourishment through maintaining a calm frame of mind. By ensuring adequate attention to the health of the body as a whole and tracking the root cause of the manifestation, it may be possible to manage neurodegenerative disorders with Ayurvedic care.