Other Traditional Medical Systems

Key Points

  • Ayurvedic medicine’s key concepts include universal interconnectedness, the body’s constitution, and life forces and biologic factors.
  • Ayurvedic physicians prescribe individualized treatments comprised of compounds of herbs or proprietary ingredients and  lifestyle recommendations for diet, exercise and other aspects.
  • Very limited evidence of Ayurveda’s effectiveness against cancer and symptoms is available.
  • Some Ayurvedic products and practices may be harmful if used improperly or without the direction of a trained practitioner.
  • Although Ayurvedic practitioners are not licensed in the United States, the National Ayurvedic Medical Associaion (NAMA) has developed regulatory standards recognizing three professional practice categories.
  • Traditional Tibetan medicine methods include balancing the body and mind using herbal pills and spiritual practice.
  • Homeopathy is based on the theory that "like cures like"—a very small dose of a substance that causes a symptom in a healthy person may cure the illness.
  • Very limited evidence supports the effectiveness of homeopathic therapies in relieving a small number of symptoms from radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

In addition to traditional Chinese medicine, other traditional medical systems that some people practice in their cancer care include Ayurvedic medicine from India, Tibetan medicine and homeopathic medicine.1

Ayurvedic Medicine

Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient medical system originally from India. Ayurvedic medicine’s key concepts:2

  • Universal interconnectedness among people, health and the universe
  • The body’s constitution (prakriti)
  • Life forces and biologic factors (dosha)

Based on these concepts, Ayurvedic physicians prescribe individualized treatments comprised of compounds of herbs or proprietary ingredients and  lifestyle recommendations for diet, exercise and other aspects.3 Ayurvedic practice can include many types of treatments and therapies, including these:

  • Dietary advice and special diets
  • Ayurvedic medications
  • Herbal medicines
  • Massage
  • Meditation
  • Yoga, breathing and relaxation techniques
  • Bowel cleansing

Ayurveda and Cancer

Reviews of individual Ayurvedic therapies show anticancer properties and preliminary effects in treating cancer, as well as efficacy in treating symptoms.

Very limited evidence of Ayurveda’s effectiveness against cancer exist, although reviews of individual therapies show anticancer properties and preliminary effects, as well as efficacy in treating symptoms, as these examples show:

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Cautions

Ayurvedic products have the potential to be toxic, as some contain lead, mercury and/or arsenic:

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The International Society for Ayurveda and Health (ISAH), a professional society of Ayurveda in the United States, makes these recommendations regarding safety of Ayurvedic medicine:17

  • Like any other medical system, Ayurvedic therapies have contraindications and potential for adverse effects or side effects. This is of particular concern when therapies are prescribed by unqualified practitioners, are not used correctly, and are abused by self prescription.
  • Panchakarma (detoxification) should be performed only by qualified Ayurvedic practitioners who are trained in this subspecialty.
  • Consumers bear the responsibility to check the credentials, training, and experience of the practitioners.
  • Consumers must communicate with their conventional and Ayurvedic practitioners and practice full disclosure about the therapies they are using.
  • Partner with a practitioner who holds a doctoral degree (for example, MD, PhD, or PhysD) and has completed training at a recognized Ayurvedic medical school.

Similarly, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) cautions that some Ayurvedic products and practices may be harmful if used improperly or without the direction of a trained practitioner. They also encourage patients to inform all their healthcare providers about any Ayurvedic products and practices or other complementary and integrative health approaches in use.18

Ayurveda in the United States

According to NAMA: "under the current legal paradigm in the United States, Ayurvedic professionals are not always able to legally practice Ayurveda to the full extent it is practiced in other countries. Each state has laws prohibiting the unlicensed practice of medicine. These laws often restrict the services that Ayurvedic professionals can offer their clients."19

Although no government-defined licensing or credentialing is in place in the US, the National Ayurvedic Medical Associaion (NAMA) has developed regulatory standards recognizing three professional practice categories:

  1. Health counselor
  2. Ayurveda practitioner
  3. Ayurvedic doctor

A scope of practice has been defined for each category, as described on the NAMA website.

Traditional Tibetan Medicine

Traditional Tibetan medicine methods include balancing the body and mind using herbal pills and spiritual practice. Closely connected with Buddhism, Tibetan medicine seeks to understand the vital life force and its connection with the cosmos, working to minimize or purify karmic influences through meditation and other spiritual practices.20

A 2014 review of Tibetan medicine in three cancer case studies “found TM to be safe and have positive effects on quality of life and disease regression and remission in patients with cancer and blood disorders.”21

Homeopathic Medicine

Founded in the late 1700s in Germany, homeopathy has been widely practiced throughout Europe. Homeopathy is based on the theory that "like cures like"—a very small dose of a substance that causes a symptom in a healthy person may cure the illness. In theory, a homeopathic dose enhances the body's normal healing and self-regulatory processes.22

Homeopathic remedies are made from plant, mineral and animal substances diluted in water repeatedly until there is little or none of the original substance left. Homeopaths believe that the original substance leaves a molecular blueprint in the water that triggers the body's healing mechanisms. The water is used to make drops, pills or creams.23

Homeopathic Medicine and Cancer

Reviews of homeopathic treatments with cancer patients in 2006, 2009 and 2010 have generally concluded that insufficient evidence is available to support clinical efficacy of homeopathic therapy in cancer care, although the 2009 review found preliminary data in support of the efficacy of topical calendula for prophylaxis of acute dermatitis during radiotherapy and Traumeel S mouthwash in the treatment of chemotherapy-induced stomatitis.24

Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on June 28, 2018.

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