Health Benefits of Ayurvedic Leech Therapy

02/05/2024 | 7 min. read

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There is a concept in Ayurveda of Rakta Mokshana (bloodletting). It is not as available in Ayurvedic facilities today as it was in the past due to the psychological aversion of most modern patients to the idea of voluntarily removing blood from the body. But Rakta Mokshana is a well-documented ancient Ayurvedic treatment that results in instant and profound improvements in physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual health.

What Is Rakta Mokshana?

Rakta Mokshana is categorized under the surgical system in Ayurveda and Siddha Medicine. Just like surgery is required under severe, acute conditions as well as certain chronic, refractory diseases, Rakta Mokshana is utilized under the same types of circumstances. These treatments remove the ama, or toxins, that accumulate in the blood, which are not easily removed through behavioral changes, yoga, diet, or mineral or herbal therapies.

When all else fails, Rakta Mokshana is considered in specific conditions. But because the therapy also helps to improve overall circulation, cleanses the blood, reduces inflammation and stimulates the production of new red blood cells, it is also part of the anti-aging, rejuvenating therapies for slowing the signs of aging and improving overall wellbeing.

Leeches for Health

One of the therapies that falls under Rakta Mokshana is leech therapy. Leech therapy came about somewhat accidently when sages and yogis that lived in the forests noticed improvement in their health after leeches attached to their bodies. Because of these serendipitous events they began to look into the value of leeches and why they had the ability to heal such a wide range of conditions.

Over time, these sages identified close to 700 different types of leeches, although not all of them could be used medicinally. Today, only a few species of leeches are readily available for therapeutic usage, and they are identified based on the coloring of their skin. The main one used in the Sri Naryani Holistic Centre in south India, where I go for my Panchakarma therapies, is Hirudo medicinalis.

Leeches not only remove stagnant blood and increase local circulation; they also secrete over 100 proteins in their saliva. Many of these proteins have been identified by scientists as bioactive substances with well-known health benefits. Leeches are part of nature’s pharmacy.

Bioactive Proteins in Leech Saliva

Scientific studies reveal that many of the proteins in leech saliva have clinically demonstrated activity in the human body. Mechanisms of these bioactive constituents include:

  • Extracellular matrix degradation. Leeches release enzymes such as hyaluronidase and collagenase to break down the skin and blood vessels in the local area. This triggers the release of growth factors that promote healing and tissue regeneration.
  • Antimicrobial activity. Enzymes with antibacterial properties, which help protect against local infection, are also released.
  • Analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects. Leech saliva contains compounds that reduce pain and inflammation. In addition to numbing the skin, these compounds provide pain relief and anti-inflammatory effects that benefit the entire body.
  • Increased blood flow. Leeches secrete histamine-like molecules and acetylcholine, which cause vasodilatation (widening of the blood vessels) and increased blood flow, both locally and throughout the body.
  • Inhibition of platelet function and coagulation. Bleeding activates platelets and triggers coagulation to stop blood flow. To keep blood flowing, leeches secrete hirudin and other bioactive molecules that inhibit platelet function and blood clots. This is yet another key to leech therapy’s circulatory and cardiovascular benefits.

Stunning Improvements with Leech Therapy

My first experience with leech therapy was through happenstance. I was with a patient of mine in India, who was getting Panchakarma therapy for the resolution of 10 years of severe, chronic eczema that at one point covered much of her body. She had weeping, painful wounds for a decade. When she arrived for her treatments in India, much of the eczema on her body had resolved after many years of various treatments, but there were still some patches of dry, hyperpigmented skin on her lower extremities that simply would not heal.

After her first leech treatment, 50% of her hyperpigmented skin had resolved, and she noticed overall improvement in her mental clarity and digestion. After 4 treatments, her skin was completely normal and she had a pinkish hue to her complexion that she hadn’t seen since youth. I thought she looked at least 10 years younger following leech therapy.

I was stunned with how quickly my patient improved and how global the benefits were. I started learning more about leech therapy and some of the modern scientific studies done on this ancient modality. The more I learned, the more I came to respect leeches as an integral part of the treatment of certain chronic, refractory conditions. Because blood is directly related to skin and hair health in Ayurveda, it made sense why these conditions in particular resolved so quickly with leech therapy.

My First Personal Experience With Leech Therapy

Of course, I had to try it firsthand and after just one treatment, I noticed profound changes in my physical, mental and emotional health. My legs felt lighter, I had more endurance in my legs, and I was able to resume yoga postures I hadn’t done in 15 years. My skin looked more youthful, my mind had greater clarity and my emotions were more even. What surprised me the most was that my meditation practice became much deeper overnight.

I attribute these global changes from the leech therapy to the different bioactive substances they released into my bloodstream. I did indeed feel like my biochemistry went through an instant overhaul. My Siddha physician explained that the leeches analyze the blood, and in response to the imbalance that they sense in the patient’s blood they secrete certain chemicals that help them to digest the blood. At the same time, these chemicals remove impurities in the blood of the patient. Fascinating!

Who Can Benefit from Leech Therapy?

Patients are chosen for leech therapy based on their history and pulse diagnosis. Leeches are used mostly for Vata and Pitta imbalances that don’t have corresponding excess Kapha. They are selected when all other therapies have failed in specific chronic conditions. The wounds left by the leeches are quite small and heal completely within one week.

There are certain patients who should not get leech therapy. They include women who are pregnant or on their menstrual cycle, very small children, elderly patients in frail health and patients who have an active pneumonia infection, anemia, leukemia, hemophilia, hepatitis or are HIV-positive.

Conditions Treated with Leech Therapy

Leeches are used for a large number of chronic conditions that have not responded to other treatments. Conditions that are treated most commonly with leeches in Ayurveda and Siddha Medicine include:

  • Joint and musculoskeletal disorders (to increase blood supply locally as well as reduce overall inflammation)
  • Chronic skin diseases
  • Acute skin infections
  • Blood disorders and circulatory problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Digestive ailments (low appetite, poor digestion, indigestion, hyperacidity nausea, vomiting, reflux)
  • Eye disease
  • Hearing issues
  • Alopecia
  • Lower back pain/sciatica
  • Gum disease
  • General detoxification
  • Cosmetic uses (acne, diffuse hyperpigmentation, cystic acne, melasma; improves hair growth on the scalp and skin tone and reduces wrinkles/fine lines)

Revival of Ancient Ayurvedic Leech Therapy

I was surprised to find that many countries have incorporated leech therapy into allopathic medicine. It is used in conjunction with reconstructive and cosmetic surgery as well as severe skin conditions such as gangrene. Leeches have also been studied by physicians and scientists around the world for treating osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetic ulcers, migraine headaches and a variety of skin diseases.

This ancient therapy has been embraced in modern medicine through the same scientific investigation methods used to study pharmaceutical drugs. In fact, proteins in leech saliva are now being studied as drug leads for future pharmaceutical therapies. According to a scientific article entitled “European Medicinal Leeches—New Roles in Modern Medicine,” medicinal compounds in leeches are especially promising for the treatment of diseases associated with pain, inflammation or blood disorders.

Seeds of Wisdom

I was genuinely stunned by the global improvement in my physical and mental health as a result of my first leech therapy. My only regret was that I hadn’t done it sooner. Now, leech therapy is a part of my annual Panchakarma routine and, surprisingly, a tool to deepen my meditation practice.

Participating in the therapy challenged my own ideas of the “primitive” nature of using leeches for health. After researching the modern science conducted over the past several decades on leech therapy, I was humbled to find that the saliva in leeches is so complex that we humans have yet to identify all its constituents and are still struggling to understand its full therapeutic potential.

It was a good reminder to my own “Western medicine” ego that even though a therapy may seem simple, it doesn’t mean that the results aren’t profound. The full spectrum of nature’s intelligence cannot be comprehended by the human mind—even a single leech is beyond the grasp of our researchers.

Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary

Meet Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary

Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary is an integrative neurologist, Ayurvedic practitioner, and author of The Prime and Sound Medicine. Her combined expertise in both modern neurology and the ancient science of health known as Ayurveda gives her a truly unique perspective that has helped thousands of people to feel better and achieve health goals they never thought possible.

More About Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary