Ayurveda, the holistic healing system of India, is in the news often these days, but it is actually one of the oldest continuing healing systems on the planet. Best of all, it can help you live a longer, healthier life.
Translated from Sanskrit, Ayurveda means “the science of life.” Ayurveda is a huge collection of interrelated practices that encompass literally every aspect of a person’s health and lifestyle. This health system emphasizes the science of longevity, in particular, while focusing on promoting good health throughout that lengthened life.
Ayurveda is sometimes called “the mother of all healing.” According to scholars of Ayurveda, this system is the origin of most of the world’s healing systems — all Asian medical systems evolved from the core of Ayurveda. Although historians debate the dates, some authorities maintain there is evidence for written records of Ayurveda going back 5,000 years and an oral tradition going back thousands more years.
Recently Ayurveda has been popularized in the West by Deepak Chopra, M.D., and, to a lesser degree, by a handful of other authors. Yet the system is not well understood in the United States.
Mind, body and spirit are utterly entwined in Ayurveda. The practice looks to create a balance between all aspects of our being, including emotion and environment, and it places emphasis on the ability of the human body to heal itself, with the assistance and support of a variety of nontoxic therapies, including medicinal foods, dietary programs and herbal medicines.
Ancient people experienced the world through their senses. These sense experiences were coordinated into a systematic way to predict the effect of therapies. For example, if an herb made you feel hot, it was designated a “hot” herb. Expanded to include all possible metabolic actions, these concepts form the basis of an extensive system of energetics.
Ayurveda assigns all matter/energy interactions in the world to a scheme of five primal elements, metaphorical concepts that describe physiological processes and environmental interactions: earth, water, fire, air and ether. Ayurveda considers it necessary to know only the proportionate balance of the elements in all parts of the body to shape an accurate diagnosis. Ayurveda does name diseases, but only for the convenience of discussion; all diagnoses are based on the energetics of each individual case.
For ease in using and understanding the actions of these energies, and to simplify diagnosis and treatment, the five elements, as they manifest in the body, are further condensed into three primal metabolic forces called doshas. These forces underlie the theoretical foundation of Ayurvedic diagnosis and therapeutics. The doshas are characterized by the energies intrinsic to each master force. These energies include such factors as temperature, moisture, weight and texture.
Discover the Doshas
The kapha dosha (water and earth) maintains structure, solidity and lubrication in the body, forming connective and musculoskeletal tissues. It is wet/oily, cold, heavy, slow and stable, and manifests those qualities in the body. Its function is anabolic (tissue building). This energy predominates in the chest and stomach, areas where mucus concentrates.
The pitta dosha (fire and water) maintains digestive and glandular secretions, body heat and metabolism, including digestive enzymes and bile. It is wet/oily, hot, light and intense. Its function is metabolic (tissue fueling). Pitta predominates in the small intestine, the region of the body with the highest metabolic rate.
Dry, cold, light and irregular, the vata dosha (ether and air) maintains movement in the body, such as respiration and joint mobility. Its function is catabolic (eliminative). Vata predominates in the large intestine.
These master forces of well-being are responsible for promoting and sustaining balance in the daily and lifelong health of the individual. Ayurveda defines disease as an imbalance in the doshas.
From the Ayurvedic point of view, all functions occurring in the body at any moment are a result of the doshas. Every action affects their balance. The three doshas are ebbing or flowing in the body at any given time.
In the human body, the predominant dosha (the one most likely to overpower the other two) defines a person’s constitution, or body type. Therefore, the doshas not only represent specific symptoms and disease tendencies, or “leanings” (such as hot or cool, dry or moist), they also identify the body types that manifest those doshas.
For example, pitta, as the name of a master force, refers to a specific set of energy properties or symptoms, but the term pitta also is used as the name of a constitutional body type — one in which the body is most likely to demonstrate pitta-type strengths, deficiencies and inclinations. The pitta body type will be most likely to overemphasize pitta trends and tendencies and develop an overabundance of pitta, resulting in typical pitta diseases.
The fundamental concerns when looking at health from an Ayurvedic approach are the relative balance of the doshas at a given moment (the short-term issue, such as symptoms and disease), as well as the constitution, defined by our primary dosha, and what it will tend to do over the rest of our lives (the long-term issue).
Determine Your Body Type
Ayurveda teaches that the constitution is determined at birth. Characteristics of a particular constitution are already evident in infancy. There are endless possible body types because not all bodies manifest the tendencies of one primary dosha. There are dual-dosha types and even a tri-dosha type, in which all three doshas are about equal. Ayurveda commonly divides body types into seven categories:
There is no such thing as a best body type. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, its own strengths and weaknesses. Single-dosha constitutions tend to have fewer, but more serious, health problems. Dual-dosha types and the tri-dosha type tend to have a wider variety of less severe problems.
The constitution verifies not only the characteristics of the body. The mind is also a part of the whole person, and the constitutional type also predicts personality characteristics. The fire type, pitta, tends to be fiery. Pitta types are likely to be leaders — passionate, colorful, argumentative, competitive, decisive and convincing. The air type, vata, is the creative, nervous type. They are restless and disorganized (some might say “spacey”). The earth type, kapha, is destined to be down-to-earth: conservative, loyal, slow, calm and steady. The very descriptions — fire, air, earth — evoke ideas that influence our perceptions of people to a large extent.
Ayurvedic practitioners believe a roughly equal number of the constitutional categories is present in the Earth’s population.
The Six Tastes of Ayurveda
In Ayurveda, foods and herbs are classified as to pharmacology based on several factors. Important characteristics include taste (biochemical composition), qualities (physiological action) and potency (effect on metabolic rate).
Taste is perhaps the key factor in understanding the qualities of a plant. Ayurvedic philosophy says taste directly affects our nervous system through the prana, or life force. Taste makes us lively by stimulating the nerves, mind and senses. Through stimulating the gastric nerves, taste enhances digestion.
Ayurveda predicts physiological effect by the biochemical makeup of the food or medicine, which can be identified by taste. Ayurveda recognizes six tastes — sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.
Sweet-tasting plants’ active compounds are often carbohydrates or amino acids (proteins). These foods are builders, promoting tissue mass and health.
Sour-tasting foods produce their action through organic acids. This category cleanses the body of toxins and promotes digestion. Acidic foods tend to be high in vitamin content, such as vitamin C in lemons.
Salts are mineral compounds that help the body retain fluids and improve digestion and bowel action. Salty foods and herbs, such as kelp, act to control gas and are given for coughs.
Substances with “bite,” or pungent herbs, increase digestive secretions. These foods (such as ginger) usually contain volatile oils.
Bitter foods and herbal preparations often contain alkaloids and glycosides as components. Polyphenols, including those found in grapes and green tea, often contribute to bitter taste, too. Leafy greens are mildly bitter. These medicines are cleansing and can remove toxins from the tissues. Bitters can help to balance a rich diet high in sweets and fats.
Ayurveda for a Balanced Diet
Diet is the first and most basic building block of good health in Ayurveda and can be an effective treatment for disease, even when used alone. It is the safest therapy and can be used by anyone as self-care. The results can materialize more slowly than more direct methods, so patience is important.
Improper diet is the main underlying physical factor that induces disease. When we modify the diet, we also get at one of the underlying problems. Ayurveda recognizes that each of us is unique and emphasizes the correct diet for each individual. Ayurveda primarily evaluates the diet based on the food’s energy and its effect on the doshas, not necessarily on the chemical (vitamin and mineral) content.
To achieve balance, the diet for treating each dosha will have the opposite characteristics of the dosha that is dominating and causing the problem.
Usually, the diet that’s best for you will be the same as the diet for your constitution. But remember, any dosha could be out of balance at any given time, so treat how you are now.
For example, if you are a thin-framed, always-cold person with dry skin, you have a vata constitution and should eat a vata-balancing diet as your lifetime program. However, if this week you are retaining water, feel sluggish and have a chest full of mucus, you are experiencing a kapha imbalance and should use a kapha-balancing diet until your body is again balanced and healthy.
Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine
The herbal blend triphala is beneficial for all doshas.
Herbs are the primary medicine of Ayurveda. When dietary adjustment is not enough, herbs are the next step. Herbs are categorized just as food would be — by their energy effects. Each herb can be matched to the needs of the person at the particular time.
Ayurvedic herbal medicine may begin by addressing the current collection of symptoms — your current dosha imbalance. Later, you work with your true constitution. To begin with, you may be dealing with symptoms of a body very much out of balance, and the symptoms you are experiencing may not be symptoms normally associated with your const
Even when you are generally balanced and healthy, conditions may crop up that are representative of any dosha. “Treating pitta” doesn’t always mean treating a person with a pitta constitution. It may mean treating a pitta condition in any person. A kapha constitution person, for example, with a fever (a pitta condition of excess heat) will need an anti-pitta remedy temporarily, though that person may return to a kapha-balancing treatment for the long-term management of the constitution. Once the body is healthy and the symptoms have been dealt with, the core conditions the person most likely will have to deal with will be those of the constitution. Once the symptomatic imbalances obscuring the true constitution are cleared out, the goal is to head off the most predictable dysfunctions.
Ayurveda’s Famous Herbal Blend
Triphala, which balances all doshas and contains all six tastes, is the most widely used herbal blend in Ayurveda. The name means “three fruits” in Sanskrit. The formula contains the dried, powdered fruits of amla (Emblica officinalis), bibhitaki (Terminalia bellerica) and haritaki (Terminalia chebula). This blend is the most compatible medicine for all the doshas and will benefit literally anyone who takes it.
The uses for triphala fill volumes in the Ayurvedic literature. Besides being a general tonic, it is a light laxative, a skin, eye and liver nourisher, and a general detoxifier. It is used as both a cleansing throat gargle and dry massage powder. Amla is the best single herb for controlling pitta. This famous Ayurvedic herb is one of the most useful medicines in Asia and is considered one of the strongest rejuvenatives, particularly for the blood, bones, liver and heart. It is an exceptionally rich source of vitamin C.
Amla is also a great anti-inflammatory herb, used for a wide variety of inflammatory conditions, including hemorrhoids, gastritis and colitis. It is considered to be the prime general herb for the eyes and is said to treat premature gray hair. As a long-term, slow-acting remedy for chronic inflammation, use 1 to 2 grams per day in capsules.
Bibhitaki is the best herb for controlling kapha. This herb nourishes the lungs, throat, voice, eyes and hair. It excels at removing stones and accumulations of toxins (mucus, cholesterol and mineral deposits) in the digestive, urinary and respiratory tracts. It is unique in being both laxative and astringent, so it purges the intestines while simultaneously toning the tissues.
Haritaki is the best herb for controlling vata and is considered by some to be the single most important Ayurvedic herb. Widely used in Tibetan medicine, it is called the “king of herbs” there. Because vata promotes constipation, the gentle laxative qualities of haritaki are perfect for balancing that dosha. It nourishes the brain and nerves. It is strongly astringent, contracting tissues, and therefore is used for ulcers, prolapses and fluid discharges. In Ayurveda, haritaki is called “the mother” and is thought to increase mental and spiritual awareness.
As a general lifelong tonic, take 1,000 mg of triphala daily. For a light laxative effect, increase the dose gradually to up to 5,000 mg per day, as necessary.
More Herbal Help
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica), known as brahmi in Ayurveda, is another herb that balances all three doshas. It is a bitter/cold/sweet herb and an excellent nerve nutrient. Gotu kola is used in the repair of neuromuscular disorders, nerve tissues from crushing trauma (including spinal injury), and to increase general brain function, memory, concentration and mental acuity. These qualities support gotu kola in its reputation as the most used herb for enhancing meditation.
Recently, several good Asian studies have shown gotu kola to be effective in the prevention and healing of surgical adhesions and scarring. It generally supports connective tissue, so it helps to heal inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis and eczema.
As a long-term memory and nerve aid, use 1,000 mg per day over several years. For skin conditions, the dose can be quite high, working up to 2 ounces dry weight of herb, brewed as tea, daily.
Turmeric contains the most potent anti-inflammatory substance ever studied. The herb truly is a medicine cabinet in a jar.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a remarkable herb. It reduces kapha while increasing pitta and vata. Its tastes are bitter, astringent and mildly pungent. Turmeric is related to ginger and has similar effects but is only mildly warming.
This herb is truly a medicine cabinet in a jar. It effectively treats arthritis, ulcers, colic, jaundice, hemorrhages and toothaches. The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, is the most potent anti-inflammatory substance ever studied; it’s stronger even than cortisone. Its action is nonsteroidal, which makes the herb extremely safe. In addition to its excellent anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric is a potent antioxidant, a blood detoxifier and a cholesterol normalizer.
As a digestive remedy, this herb reduces gas, soothes ulcers and kills parasites. Its properties make it ideal for skin diseases, such as dermatitis, and it is also a well-known herb for promoting bile flow in the liver. For chronic conditions, as little as 1,000 mg per day in capsules often will work well; for acute inflammation, up to an ounce of powder per day (4 tablespoons) may be necessary.
Ashwaganda root (Withania somnifera) is the premier Ayurvedic tonic for men. It reduces vata and kapha while increasing pitta. Recently nicknamed “Indian ginseng,” it has properties and uses similar to Asian ginseng but is not as hot or as “zippy” as a short-term energizer. Rather, its action is slow, and it enhances stamina over time — approximately several months. A typical dose is 1,000 mg in capsules per day, over several years, but much larger doses sometimes are used to quicken the rejuvenation process.
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) is the main general tonic herb for women in Ayurveda. It reduces pitta and vata while raising kapha. As a long-term hormone-balancing herb, it is used in doses of 1,000 mg per day, in capsules. To treat a wide variety of female hormonal symptoms (PMS, menstrual cramps, mood changes, menopausal hot flashes, etc.), higher doses can be used. Work up gradually to the dose that is effective, to about 7,000 mg per day.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health, is an adjunct faculty member in the botanical medicine department of Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. He has more than 25 years of experience with medicinal herbs and specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese and North American healing traditions. He currently is writing a book on Ayurvedic herbalism.