How effective are ayurvedic therapies? Is there any scientific basis to them?

Research at IIT Madras has been looking into the ayurvedic relaxation therapy shirodhara, which is recommended for patients with stress (depression or anxiety or hypertension), insomnia, headache and several kinds of psychosis. The treatment involves the low-velocity impact of a medicinal liquid dropping on the forehead from a specific height, at a controlled temperature, for 30-60 minutes, for a defined number of days.

An IIT team from the Department of Applied Mechanics and Department of Engineering Design attempts to scientifically characterise the shirodhara therapy along two lines — the fluid impact and the neuro feedback.

The broad conclusion from the first is that, when fluid impact force is applied on the forehead, a very small displacement is observed. And the electromechanical response indicated that it does produce a current that is measured in microvolts.

This is in keeping with the principles of ayurveda, which holds that a falling liquid on the forehead produces a vibration, which generates electromagnetic waves. These are transferred to the cerebral cortex and hypothalamus, which has an impact on the brain and the central nervous system. This could reduce stress and, hence, hypertension.

The study included characterisation of shirodhara using electroencephalogram (EEG, which records electrical activity in the brain). Various physiological parameters like systolic and diastolic blood pressure and heart rate were studied. Psychological factors like depression, anxiety, and Stress Scale-21 index, Pittsburgh sleep quality index, WHO-5 wellbeing index and moodscale index were evaluated.

The EEG tests on four healthy female student volunteers of Chennai’s Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Ayurveda College and Hospital showed good results for alpha waves, which are mostly responsible for calmness and relaxation of the brain. Due to shirodhara, maximum EEG waves were produced between the alpha and theta band in the range of 6-10.5 Hz. This is considered to have a calming influence.

The physiological tests showed a decrease in heart rate by 6.75 BPM (beats per minute) and improved blood pressure (9.25 mmHg for systolic and 4 mmHg for diastolic). Psychological tests showed the respondents maintained quality sleep and depression levels were reduced.

Shirodhara is a non-invasive brain relaxation therapy, comparable to the effects produced by yoga and meditation. However, unlike the other two, it does not require any effort from the patient.

The IIT researchers plan to widen their research and have submitted proposals to the AYUSH Ministry and the Department of Science and Technology. They are hoping to receive funding for it.

The research team includes Swathika Meenraj, Lakshmana Rao Chebolu, Venkatesh Balasubramanian, Yogeshwar Dasari and Anita Teladevalapalli.