The ancient Indian medicinal system, Ayurveda, has a focus on many healing herbs. Read on to learn about the most popular, which have been used for centuries to promote holistic well-being.
Ayurveda looks at holistic human health, combining the mental, physical and spiritual.
Photo by iStock/bradleyhebdon
Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medicinal system, has been used for thousands of years to naturally support human health. Many of its main components focus on a healthful diet and the use of medicinal herbs. Read on to learn about some of the most popular Ayurvedic herbs, all of which have been used for centuries to promote holistic well-being.
The ancient medicinal system known as Ayurveda looks at human health holistically, combining the physical with the mental and spiritual to create a sophisticated picture of health that encompasses all parts of a person. Some of the most critical components of Ayurveda include diet, meditation and exercise — all of which are used to achieve balance in the body. Health is optimized when a person finds balance among the three doshas, or energies: vata, associated with respiration, circulation, elimination, movement, creativity, enthusiasm and the nervous system; pitta, associated with transformations including metabolism, digestion, vision, body temperature, intellect, courage and cheerfulness; and kapha, associated with growth, lubrication, patience, fluid balance, compassion and understanding.
According to Ayurvedic theory, all people are made up of some combination of the three doshas. Most people have a dominant dosha, although some may be tri-dosha, or a fairly even combination of the three. To discover your own dosha, look for an entertaining online quiz such as the ones available from Nature’s Formulary or Maharishi Ayurveda. To seek medicinal advice based on Ayurvedic theory, consult a trained Ayurvedic specialist.
Used alongside diet, meditation and exercise, the primary form of medicine in Ayurveda is herbs. Ayurvedic herbal medicines have been used to balance the doshas and promote health for thousands of years. Many people find these herbs’ tonic effects beneficial — and they’re especially relevant today as many are helpful for managing or reducing stress, regulating blood sugar and hormones, and aiding in proper digestion. It is a credit to the deeply holistic nature of Ayurveda that many of its primary objectives are equally or more important today as they may have been thousands of years ago. Read on to learn a bit about some of the premier herbal medicines recommended in Ayurveda. All of these herbs are generally safe and have been used for centuries — however, as always, exercise caution in the use of medicinal herbs, especially if you have chronic medical conditions, take prescription medications, or are pregnant or nursing.
Trikatu, translated to “three pungents,” is a blend of black pepper, long pepper and ginger. Considered medicinal and culinary, trikatu is said to be stimulative in nature, good for the liver, spleen and pancreas, and to increase bile production, aiding digestion. Because it contains piperine, it’s frequently used in Ayurvedic formulations to help increase absorption of other medicines and is suggested for weight loss, to boost metabolism, and for diabetics. Trikatu is often used in concert with triphala; triphala is said to benefit the lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract, while trikatu is said to enhance digestion in the upper GI.
To use: Combine powdered trikatu with honey, then take straight or add to green tea. Or add it to tomato juice. You can also find capsules. A typical dosage is 125 to 500 mg twice daily, with food. Dosages beyond 1 gram daily may cause heartburn; do not exceed 1,000 mg a day.
Triphala is considered by many to be the most important treatment in Ayurvedic medicine, triphala is a combination of three fruits: Amalaki, also called Indian gooseberry, is full of vitamin C, supports healthy metabolism and digestion, and may help lower cholesterol; haritaki, known as the Tibetan “king of medicine,” is anti-inflammatory and laxative, but can also relieve diarrhea; and bibhitaki, which is said to be a rejuvenator and detoxifier for the blood, muscles and fatty tissues in the body. In Ayurveda, triphala is recommended for all dosha types and is considered something of a panacea. Triphala is most well-known for its abilities to improve digestion and elimination. According to Ayurvedic medicinal theory, all health begins with healthy digestion, and triphala is effective at treating various gastrointestinal disorders. Studies over the past two decades have shown triphala an effective free radical scavenger that’s anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, adaptogenic and anticancer. While human studies in many of these areas are lacking, animal studies have found triphala capable of treating infections; managing gastrointestinal problems; controlling inflammation, cholesterol and other markers associated with obesity; strengthening the immune system; and, in lab studies, treating cancer.
To use: In Ayurveda, triphala is considered a useful herb for everyone. For maintenance, herbalist Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa recommends taking 2 grams daily; as a short-term laxative, take 6 grams daily.
Ashwagandha is an anti-inflammatory tonic used to help relieve stress and improve stamina. Animal studies have found ashwagandha to relax the central nervous system, making it useful for reducing stress and improving sleep quality. In one human study, eight weeks of use decreased stress, as well as food cravings and overall body weight. Ashwagandha also shows promise in fighting cancer. In lab tests, ashwagandha kills cancer cells and enhances immune cells; it may also enhance the effectiveness of radiation therapy. Human studies are needed. Ashwagandha has also been used to treat arthritis pain. In one study of 86 joint pain sufferers, treatment with ashwagandha and the Ayurvedic medicine Sidh Makardhwaj produced significant reductions in swollen joints and pain assessment scores. Finally, ashwagandha may aid in cognitive disorders including Alzheimer’s disease. In lab studies, researchers have found ashwagandha to inhibit formation of beta-amyloid plaques, neurotoxic plaques that accumulate in the brains of people with neurodegenerative disease. In studies on mice with Alzheimer’s disease, treatment with ashwagandha significantly improved cognitive performance and reduced the presence of amyloid plaques.
To use: Standardized extracts should include 2.5 to 5 percent anolides. Dosage varies — consult a medical professional, or choose a high-quality supplement and follow dosage instructions. Pregnant women shouldn’t take ashwagandha.
Holy Basil/Tulsi Known as “the incomparable one,” tulsi is considered sacred in the Hindu faith, and a large body of research supports the many traditional uses of the plant. Holy basil contains a variety of beneficial constituents, including ursolic acid and rosmarinic acid, both of which are also found in rosemary, as well as carotenoids, vitamin C, calcium, iron, zinc and chlorophyll. Holy basil is known as a tonic herb, used to help our bodies manage stress, and several studies back up this use. Holy basil is useful for promoting improved resilience to stress, recovery from chronic stress, and avoidance of chronic stress-induced physiological changes. Holy basil is highly antioxidant, cancer-protective and cardioprotective — the herb has been shown to improve cardiovascular risk factors including, in one animal study, reducing fasting blood glucose by 60 percent in the treatment group compared with 10 percent in a control group. Also useful for pain relief, holy basil has been shown to reduce arthritis swelling by up to 73 percent after 24 hours of treatment. It’s recommended for skin health, helping restore skin’s collagen structure and elasticity, as well as for wound healing. Holy basil is also recommended for diabetics, and several animal studies have found reduced fasting blood sugar, as well as glycemic-lowering properties.
To use: Holy basil is often sold in tea form, and it can also be taken in capsules. A typical dose is 500 mg of leaf extract taken twice daily.
Shatavari is considered the premier women’s herb in Ayurveda, and it’s used to balance hormones, reduce symptoms of menopause and menstruation, increase lactation, reduce inflammation of sexual organs, and increase libido. Shatavari is a relative of the asparagus plant, and its name translates into either “having 100 roots” or “having 100 husbands,” a name said to reference its benefits for all women. Although modern science has not investigated shatavari in depth, it is considered a useful tonic for women at all stages of life, and particularly useful for irritability surrounding menstruation. Shatavari’s immune-modulating properties are its most well-researched — the herb has a measurable effect on the functioning of macrophages, important immune cells responsible for digesting potentially harmful organisms as well as cancer cells. Studies have also shown shatavari can enhance macrophages’ ability to fight the fungus candida. It is also an effective digestive aid.
To use: Shatavari is available as a powder or capsules. For PMS or menopausal symptoms, some experts recommend 500-mg capsules, up to 2 grams daily. To soothe digestion, try a teaspoon of powder mixed into milk after meals. Shatavari is also useful for those recovering from illness or surgery; however, always consult a physician before using it after surgery.
Eaten as a vegetable in Bangladesh and several other Asian countries, bitter melon is believed to be especially effective at warding off diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome, all of which are becoming epidemic in both developed and developing nations. Containing numerous vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals, bitter melon is nutritious. In several studies, bitter melon extract has been shown to be beneficial in preventing body weight gain and visceral fat mass in rats fed high-fat diets. Research also shows bitter melon to be effective in the treatment of diabetes — both clinical and animal studies support its ability to lower blood glucose levels, improve insulin sensitivity and improve glycogen synthesis in the liver. Bitter melon also demonstrates a protective effect against nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, mainly attributed to its antioxidant capacity to scavenge free radicals and reduce inflammation in the liver. The liver undergoes significant challenges during diet-induced obesity and diabetes, as excess fat intake overwhelms the organ’s capacity to metabolize fats, causing oxidative stress. This is a component of the process leading to metabolic syndrome — the combination of symptoms that are a precursor for obesity, type 2 diabetes and a number of other serious health concerns.
To use:Bitter melon is often recommended as a food or juice, although many people find its taste unpleasant. The traditional preparation in Bangladesh is to stir-fry bitter melon with potatoes, garlic, chilies and onion until some of the melon’s strong odor is reduced. It is also available as a tincture or capsules, but many factors determine the appropriate dose. Do not attempt to use bitter melon to control diabetes without the advice of a trained medical professional. Bitter melon should not be used by pregnant or nursing women, or following surgery.
An herb whose medicinal benefits have become increasingly famed in recent years, turmeric has long been prized as a beneficial food and spice in Indian and other Asian cultures. Turmeric is a powerful antioxidant, which benefits nearly all bodily systems. It is said to improve digestion; assist in the proper functioning of cells; support the brain and nervous system; maintain joint mobility; support healthy blood sugar levels and proper liver function; nourish the circulatory system; and boost immunity. Turmeric is highly anti-inflammatory, which is why it is often recommended for joint conditions including arthritis. Studies suggest turmeric may help prevent atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque that can block arteries, leading to heart attack or stroke. Preliminary research in test tube and animal studies suggests curcumin, a component of turmeric, may help prevent several types of cancers, including those of the prostate, breast, skin and colon. Yet some researchers say turmeric has been overhyped in recent years; in a recent review of the medicinal chemistry of curcumin published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, researchers found no double-blind, placebo-controlled studies (the gold standard for scientists) that supported the herb’s many health claims. One reason they believe curcumin may not live up to its hype is its low bioavailability — on its own, the body has difficulty with uptake of curcumin. This has long been known, however, which is why it is often recommended to consume turmeric along with black pepper and fat, both of which enhance its bioavailability. Certainly, consuming turmeric as food — such as in curries or golden milk — is beneficial, despite questions about its efficacy when used as a supplement.
To use: If possible, consume turmeric as a regular part of the diet in curries, golden milk, stews, soups, stir-fries, or even atop oatmeal or mixed into pancake batter. If you choose supplements, choose those in which whole turmeric is combined with piperine, a component of black pepper that helps increase curcumin’s absorption. Piperine can slow the elimination of some prescription drugs from the blood-stream, so consult a physician before combining a piperine-containing supplement with prescription medication. Pregnant women should seek a doctor’s approval before using turmeric supplements. Turmeric may also interfere with some chemotherapy drugs used to treat breast cancer.
Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri), also known as bacopa (and often confused with gotu kola, a similar herb also called brahmi in northern India), is prized for its cognitive benefits, said to improve mental performance and memory; stimulate the cerebrovascular system; and relax the nervous system, making it useful to calm anxiety and panic attacks. In one study, 76 adults age 40 to 65 saw a significant improvement in the retention of new information after taking brahmi. In several small studies on children, brahmi has been found to improve immediate memory, reaction time, logical memory and concentration. Studies also suggest brahmi may be useful in the prevention of oxidative stress, often linked with neurodegenerative disease. Because of its effects on the nervous system, brahmi is used to relieve stress and stress-induced insomnia. Recent research also suggests brahmi may be useful in treating ADHD. In one clinical trial, ADHD-diagnosed children who took brahmi for 12 weeks saw significant improvements on all tested parameters, including mental control, logical memory, word recall and more.
To use: To relieve stress/anxiety, take 50 to 100 mg three times a day (effects take two to three months). Studies on mental function have used 300 mg a day. Brahmi is fat-soluble and can upset stomachs, so take it with fat-containing food. Consult a medical professional before using it in children.
Diet and herbs are key components of health in Ayurveda. Equally critical are physical movement and stress management using yoga, breath work (also known as pranayama) and meditation. One Ayurvedic doctor explains the relationship between yoga and Ayurveda like this, says Babeeta Chhabra, a yoga instructor associated with The Art of Living Retreat Center: “Ayurveda is the science and yoga is the practice of the science.” Both yoga and Ayurveda advocate for the regular practice of pranayama and meditation. The benefits of yoga, breath work and meditation are all widely supported by modern research. Yoga is documented to improve body image; promote mindful eating, reducing emotional and distracted eating; support weight loss and weight maintenance; and enhance physical fitness, including muscle strength, endurance, flexibility and cardiorespiratory fitness. Breath work and meditation are well-documented to help mediate stress response, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain and headaches, improve sleep quality, and alleviate mild depression and anxiety. To experience these benefits, enjoy a guided meditation program for free on YouTube, or try a paid program such as those offered from Head Space. The best way to learn yoga is to attend a class with a qualified instructor who can guide you in proper form and technique. Many yoga classes incorporate breathing exercises. Guided breathing exercises are also available online.
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