Like yoga, chana masala, and Bollywood musicals, Ayurveda is merely the latest in a line of Indian imports to receive a warm welcome from Americans interested in health, wellness, and the occasional catchy song-and-dance number.
But while Ayurveda may be relatively new to our shores, this “science of life,” as the Sanskrit term means, has been guiding healers on the subcontinent for millennia. And it’s been doing it with the help of botanical ingredients that Western science is finally beginning to vindicate. Just consider the breakout success that’s greeted turmeric over the past several years; with research expanding, it’s only a matter of time before its companions in the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia get their turn in the spotlight, too.
None of which surprises Aparna Trikha, PharmD, BCPS, Natreon Inc. (New Brunswick, NJ). Traditional Ayurvedic botanicals “have seen so much growth because many clinical studies on their health benefits show significant efficacy with minimal adverse effects,” she says. And it’s about time. “Contemporary science is definitely ‘catching up’ with Ayurvedic principles,” she believes. “This is what Western consumers are searching for, and we’re now providing this.”
From Yoga to Ayurveda
Western consumers are indeed searching for Ayurvedically inspired products—and drumming up impressive growth for the sector in the process. Ramon Luna, marketing coordinator, Ecuadorian Rainforest (Belleville, NJ), points to a TechSci Research report predicting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for Ayurvedic products of up to 16% from 2016 through 2021. “This, along with our own internal data, supports a view that Ayurvedic is going to be a growing trend for the upcoming years,” he says.
But if you assume that the typical purchaser of these products is driven by either family tradition or the buzz that celebrity yogis like Jennifer Aniston, Uma Thurman, and—who else?—Gwyneth Paltrow generate, there’s a good chance you’re thinking too narrowly about today’s Ayurvedic adherent.
“Yogis are definitely one reason for the rise of Ayurvedic products,” Luna concedes. “With the permeation of yoga throughout Western culture, Ayurveda has become more ubiquitous than it once was.” However, he adds, they’re not Ayurveda’s only fans. “Those looking for the ‘newest’ health trend are also interested in Ayurvedic products and what they can do that other products can’t,” he says—a cohort that includes young adults aged 18 to 35 as well as older consumers 40 to 65 years “looking to prevent or assuage the problems of old age.”
What’s Your Dosha?
Trikha agrees. “Baby boomers especially are searching for natural supplements for preventing chronic disease and promoting healthy aging,” she says. “But everyone from weekend warriors to serious weightlifters and athletes is also interested.” As more evidence for Ayurvedic ingredients emerges, “this attracts more Western consumers from many different demographics.”
To understand what they seek—and how Ayurveda supplies it—it helps to know a little about what this ancient form of medicine actually involves. Practiced since 3500 BC, Ayurveda follows two main precepts, Trikha explains: “that the mind and body are connected, and that the mind has the power to transform and heal the body.”
Guided by these beliefs, Ayurveda takes a “personalized approach to health” that “emphasizes a balance between body, spirit, and mind,” she continues. Ayurveda holds that there are three basic types of energy, or “universal principles known as doshas,” and that the ratio among these three energies within each of us “has a significant influence on our individual physical, mental, and emotional character traits.”
So, for example, someone whose dosha is primarily of the vata type will reflect the qualities of space and air, and thus be generally quick and lively; by contrast, the kapha dosha echoes elements of water and earth and tends to present as a solid, calm temperament. And those with the pitta dosha—the fire and water sign, if you will—are typically fiery in mood and, oddly enough, oily of skin.
First Line of Defense
Whatever one’s prevailing ratio, Trikha says, “Dietary modifications and herbal supplements are critical to balancing the doshas and attaining optimal health”—an emphasis that resonates well with the health-and-wellness industry’s own “alternative” take on improving health.
As Trikha says, “The first line of defense in combating illness is to remove the cause of the problem, rather than just treat the symptoms—as is done in allopathic medicine. For this reason, Ayurveda’s approach makes it a natural fit for the supplement and wellness space. Consumers in this space are interested in preventing chronic disease, not just in treating the symptoms.”
And judging by the science and developments in R&D labs worldwide, they have a continually increasing number of ingredients with which to do just that. According to Trikha, “There are nearly 1,500 herbal products in this system of medicine,” and many of them have already developed a reputation with both scientists and consumers.
Take that blockbuster botanical, turmeric (Curcuma longa), which was the top-selling herbal dietary supplement in the natural channel for the third year in a row in 2015, logging total sales of more than $37 million and sales growth of over 32.2% vis-à-vis the preceding year, per the American Botanical Council’s (ABC; Austin, TX) annual HerbalGram report of top-selling herbal dietary supplements in the U.S. market.
Prized for the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of its active component curcumin, turmeric and curcumin have been the subject of research into their potency in relieving everything from rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease to neurodegenerative disorders. Brien Quirk, director of R&D, Draco Natural Products (San Jose, CA), adds that the botanical may also play a role in sports nutrition, “as animal studies have found that curcumin can increase the production of the mitochondrial ‘energy power plants’ of muscle cells.”
Also attracting attention is ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), which “is becoming one of the fastest-growing products in the brain health category,” says Deanne Dolnick, science director, TR Nutritionals (Alpharetta, GA), as “early research shows that it may improve brain function and memory.” Ayurvedic practitioners regularly deploy ashwagandha against inflammation, stress, fatigue, and immune issues.
An eight-week randomized controlled trial published in December 2015 found that an ashwagandha root extract increased strength and muscle mass in 57 males undergoing resistance training, notes ABC’s HerbalGram report. Trikha says that Natreon is already conducting new studies on the role its branded ashwagandha ingredient may play in sports nutrition. No wonder ashwagandha had the highest percentage growth in the natural channel—40.9% from 2014 to 2015—according to HerbalGram.
Shaheen Majeed, president, Sabinsa Worldwide (East Windsor, NJ), notes that the seeds of fenugreek (Trigonella foenum graecum) have not only long been used in kitchens as culinary ingredients, but in Ayurvedic medicine in the management of diabetes, as well. “Apart from blood sugar management,” he adds, “fenugreek seeds are also known to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, enhance breastmilk production in nursing mothers, aid digestion, help with weight loss, and more.”
And don’t forget boswellia (Boswellia serrata). Though ranking only 39th on HerbalGram’s most recent list of top-selling herbal supplements in the mainstream channel, boswellia saw a whopping 673% leap in sales in that channel from 2014 to 2015. Long an Ayurvedic anti-inflammatory in its resin form, the ingredient today appears in supplements aimed at inflammation and shows promise in preparations studied for their effects on osteoarthritis, asthma, and inflammation of the colon, or colitis, per HerbalGram.