ALOPECIA AREATA and AYURVEDIC MEDICINE: Treating female hair loss with Panchakarma.
by Jay Stafford.
In January of 2019, my wife Shelby and I went to India for a Panchakarma. If you don’t know what that is, that’s okay, I will attempt to explain it here. I’ll tell you about our journey and share excerpts from Shelby’s journal she kept during our stay. The main things that I want to share on this blog post is that 1) The Panchakarma worked 2) why I believe it worked 3) Shelby’s experience. Ayurveda is a very beautiful and intricate medical practice. It can also be quite daunting to grasp. But, there are a couple of key concepts to keep in mind: The purpose of Ayurveda is to bring the body into harmony with itself and nature, or medically stated, to bring the body to homeostasis. When there is a “dis-ease” in the mind or body, Ayurveda says there are three general actions to take: 1) Remove that aspect which is causing the dis-ease 2) change the external environment in which the disease exists. 3) change the internal environment in which the dis-ease exists. A Panchakarma changes both our external and our internal environments.
While I greatly benefited from the Panchakarma, it was the desire to treat Shelby’s alopecia areata that was the catalyst for us traveling to India. Shelby was twenty-one when her hair loss started. It was mild at first, but over the years it got worse. When we left for India, she was twenty-nine years old and her hair had almost completely fallen out. During those eight years, every doctor had prescribed the same thing: steroid shots in her scalp. They couldn’t diagnose the cause as to why her immune system was attacking her hair roots. One can imagine the relief she felt when our ayurvedic doctor said to her, “We’ve seen this before, we know what to do.”
Our place of treatment was Vaidyagrama, an ayurvedic hospital specializing in Panchakarma. The place felt more like a retreat center though, with a private room, bathroom, patio, and maid and laundry service. We stayed for 23 days of treatments with ayurvedic medicine.
Shelby’s treatments consisted of a sattvic diet, internal herbal medicines, and daily external herbal treatments. Simply put, she went through a coordinated series of treatments, where the primary actions were either to pacify or purify her aggravated bodily systems.
Here’s some excerpts from Shelby’s journal entries.
1/28/19: I’m looking forward to this reset. A time to slow down and let go of my responsibilities & to be held in my healing by people with a deep perspective of what I’m experiencing with my autoimmunity.
1/29/19: Shelby writes about her first treatment, “Kashaya dhara”: I just got out of my first treatment. You lay on your back on a wooden table with a drain – 2 girls pour warm water on you that is infused with plants and simultaneously and in sync do a smoothing hand motion down your body. Very soothing.
Kashaya dhara is a treatment to aid in the opening up of the body’s channels. She received many daily treatments of Kashaya Dhara.
2/2/19: Shelby: I had my ghee treatment this morning – second one. Hunger is coming on much sooner than yesterday and so is tiredness. At home, if I was tired, I would probably drink caffeine or go to the fridge. This is a space to just be held. To not have to wonder if I’m taking care of my body correctly. Someone else is monitoring that for me and I trust them in the process. So I lean into the tiredness and I let myself be still…Jay said that it’s nice to be here to witness his thoughts more. That’s because there’s space to witness and let them be, instead of constantly stimulating ourselves.
Mya is one of my therapists who performs the Kashaya Dara on me daily. I have had her everyday, but the other ones shift day to day. She is young, 19 years old, she told me on the first day. I like her youthful, spunky energy and she brings that out in me. When I’m around her, I feel more like a schoolgirl. She smiles and sticks out her tongue a lot in a joking kind of way, when she’s saying “hi” or says something a little funny. It’s endearing. Today she asked me if my marriage was arranged and I said “no.” She responded, “love marriage.”
Shelby had to pause her ghee treatment, because her cycle started. She still received Kashaya Dara everyday.
2/6/19: A little bit of unease this morning. I was on edge last night waiting to tell Dr. Harikrishnan that my period is almost done. I found this to be important info because I wanted to continue with the ghee (treatment) today if possible. I told the therapist and thought she said the doctor was coming, but language barrier so not totally sure. So I waited up – in a holding pattern at night when I wanted to unwind. Didn’t come, so when I woke up this morning I felt rushed to find one before a.m. prayer. I didn’t know if the only window to drink the ghee for the day was very early in the a.m. like we’ve done before, so I didn’t want to miss it if possible.
2/7/19, 6AM: Just took ghee treatment – medicated 120ml. Three more days working up 30mls each day. Can’t imagine taking 210mls. It’s starting to get pretty rough – a whole glass of warm, thick, bitter ghee. I see why people throw up.
After the tenth day or so of treatment, both Shelby and I start to notice the benefits of the detox from technology. The clearer thinking, smoother writing. Better dream recall.
715AM: Some dreams came through during prayer. There was one with grandad. He was on a beach, standing under some kind of structure. Some fire rained down from it and lit the back of his head on fire. He didn’t seem to know. I put it out for him with my hands. Symbolism = the part of me that has been overly hard on myself has caused the ‘fire’ in my head that has burned out my hair. I am putting out the fire.
10AM: Just saw Dr. Harikrishnan. It was a big one. He told me my condition is systemic and they have to cleanse the system first. Then, they will do a localized treatment to my head and that shaving it would be best because then they could apply the medicine best to the entire scalp. He said if the medicine doesn’t go to the spots they won’t be treated and it is still spreading to them. So let’s do it then. I asked him if there’s an emotional component to the shaving the head – like a letting go. He said, “Don’t think like that. Be confident. It will grow back.” I’m to apply this medicine when I go home too, “everyday for three months.” I asked if he foresaw the results to start pretty soon. He said, “yes it will take some time, but it will happen.” So: Shave my head, it will grow back, be confident. I feel excited. Excited to have someone say ‘it will grow back.’ Excited to find the path to recovery. Shaving the head is like taking a leap – one I’ve been tiptoeing on for years now. Now it’s a leap towards something. It’s the rush of finally saying ‘yes I’m going to do it.’
Throughout her 22 day stay at Vaidyagrama, Shelby ate a Sattvic diet, had ample rest and minimal stimulation, and daily Kashaya Dhara. Neither of us set foot off the grounds the whole time. We were patients.
For Shelby, there were two specific treatments she had that I didn’t that we believe helped her significantly. 1) Purvakarma: this is a purification treatment where the toxins of the body are moved to the gut and then purged. It is simply drinking a daily dose of medicated ghee first thing in the morning, with the dose increasing daily. 2) Direct treatment to Shelby’s scalp. Towards the end of our stay, with about one week remaining, Shelby’s head was shaved in preparation for direct treatments to her scalp. It sounds rough, (well rough was the point) but the staff vigorously rubbed banana leaves on Shelby’s scalp causing abrasions. They then applied a black-colored medicine to her scalp. This was repeated a few times.
Flash forward a year and Shelby’s hair has grown back significantly. It was almost completely filled in, but at the same time we got pregnant and there was some hair loss at the beginning of her pregnancy. It eventually stopped falling out though.
The Panchakarma experience was amazing for the both of us. It was challenging at times, but so worth it. Ayurveda treats the person truly holistically.
“The preferred method of treatment according to the Ayurveda texts is “sodhana”, for the complete expulsion of the accumulated toxins would mean that the root cause is being treated and would ensure that the problem does not recur provided the patient takes sufficient care. Both these treatments are very elaborate and need to be done with utmost care – this is especially true of the purificatory treatments. It is partly due to the intensity of the purificatory treatments that the pacificatory treatment is greatly preferred today where the risks are far less and the restrictions are more relaxed as compared to the purificatory treatments.” — Vaidyagrama.com
All these treatments work at a very deep level within the human body and psyche and thus, to experience the actual benefit of these treatments, it is important that one go through it for the prescribed period. Even as a major surgery in the western medicine hospital demands a preparatory stage initially and is followed by a recuperative phase post-surgery, similarly these intensive treatments also have three phases namely a preparatory phase, the main treatment phase and the post-treatment or recuperative phase. Unless these are strictly adhered to, one cannot be assured of any real benefit and in fact, one cannot be sure whether there may be any side effects too.” — Vaidyagrama.com