Ayurvedic healing herbs are making waves in the Western world.
Fads in healthcare are everywhere we turn. Ayurvedic medicine, however, is not one of them. This ancient practice—with roots in Indian culture dating back more than 5,000 years—is here to stay (1). And since the early 1990s, this timeless form of medicine has been making waves in the Western world, too.
Ayurveda’s Core Principles
The core principles of Ayurveda include wellness through dietary changes, massage, meditation and even yoga (1). This form of medicine is holistic with the belief that the body and mind are connected as one. Ayurveda is revered as a multifaceted practice, meaning that it may offer relief from physical ailments and helps address unhealthy lifestyle practices which may, in turn, offer improved health benefits (1).
Ayurveda’s five elements of nature (air, earth, fire, space and water) are combined in the body as three components or Doshas, also known as Vatta, Pitta and Kapha (1). Doshas are closely related to certain body functions, according to Ayurvedic tradition. Maintaining a balance of these elements is believed to be the center of wellness. By the same token, malady occurs when the Doshas are not properly aligned.
Let’s delve further into Doshas:
• Air and space represent Vatta, which is responsible for breathing, heartbeat and muscle and joint movement. Vatta also controls functions of the nervous system such as anxiety, fear and pain (1).
• Fire and water symbolize Pitta, which is credited with controlling bodily functions such as digestion, intelligence, metabolism and skin tone. Pitta also regulates emotions of anger, hate and jealousy.
• Kapha, represented by earth and water, is the physical structure of the body and the immune system. Emotional responses believed to be controlled by Kapha are calmness, forgiveness, love and greed (1).
Plain and simple, Doshas, are thought to be set into motion during the time of conception and also affect one’s body and personality type (1). For example, a person with a Vatta makeup may have a small and thin body type.
The Pitta body type consists of a medium, muscular frame. Kapha’s appearance is most always larger and well-developed. But, nearly everyone’s body is composed of one dominant Dosha.
Herb Your Enthusiasm
Since Ayurvedic medicine burst onto the scene in the United States, it has heightened the awareness of the vast uses of herbs for natural healing according to this tradition. Now for a closer look at how these herbs can be used by your clientele. The following is only a partial listing of Ayurvedic herb offerings, as space does not permit a full list.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is known for its euphoric or calming effects on the body (2). It also contains alkaloids, choline, fatty acids, amino acids and sugars, which offer several medicinal properties. Says herbalist David Winston, RH, ”It is a calming adaptogen and nervine used to reduce stress, stimulate libido and male reproductive functioning” (3). Ashwagandha also is high in iron content and is used to treat anemia and the fatigue that accompanies it. This herb also doubles as an antispasmodic and is beneficial for fibromyalgia pain.
Amla (Emblica officinalis) is one of the most viable sources of vitamin C known to mankind, according to herbal experts (3). It is also a solid antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and is helpful as an anti-aging cosmeceutical, for digestive support, as a diabetes aid and for liver support. Interestingly, it also strengthens hair follicles, muscles, skin cells and connective tissue. Amla may be helpful to those worried about heart health as it helps ward off atherosclerosis (fatty substances that form plaque deposits on the arterial walls). We may be seeing much more of Amla in the near future, as superfruit specialists are actively integrating this berry into their formulations.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum) is commonly used to give food that special zest. But, it also is effective for improving peripheral circulation, especially with respect to small capillaries. Cinnamon can be used for spider veins and Raynaud’s disease (a vascular condition that is marked by recurring episodes of blanching and numbness of the extremities). This herb also is important in the diabetes support category for type-2 diabetics who want to improve their insulin sensitivity. Cinnamon accomplishes this feat, says Winston, because it “increases the beta cells of the pancreas’ ability to utilize endogenous insulin, thus benefiting insulin resistant diabetes and Syndrome X” (3). Cinnamon also bears antibacterial, antiviral and astringent properties, making it helpful for common digestive issues such as diarrhea, stomach upsets and intestinal viruses.
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) has won bragging rights for being a great tonic. It is a mild adaptogen, yin tonic and female reproductive trophorestorative (an herb, food or other substance that acts as a nutritive restorative for the body). Winston notes, “It is especially useful for treating decreased fertility and libido in women, menopause-induced vaginal dryness, and for tired, deficient, and/or anemic women (it can be used with Amla for this last problem)” (3). Shatavari may also enhance the flow of milk in lactating mothers and soothe dry and ticklish coughing spells. But, the uses of Shatavari do not end there; it is an immunity aid, protects the stomach against irritation caused by aspirin, helps provide relief from gastric ulcers and acts as a therapeutic for GI- and GU tract irritation (3).
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a root that increases circulation in the blood and improves digestive function. It can be used for relieving nausea, flatulence and motion sickness, and is an anti-inflammatory, an expectorant and a diaphoretic (3). Its anti-inflammatory properties make it beneficial for those experiencing osteoarthritis; in addition, its warming qualities can be helpful for impaired peripheral circulation, Raynaud’s Syndrome and certain lung afflictions (3). Albert Leung, a pharmacognosist and expert in Chinese medicine, has recently discovered a use for gingerroot. “The juice of fresh, crushed gingerroot is an excellent treatment for minor burns and skin inflammations,” he says (2).
Gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre) is known in Ayurvedic tradition as “Gurmar” or sugar destroyer (3). Gymnema is used as a therapeutic to treat glycosuria (sugar in the urine) and diabetes mellitus. Research suggests that Gymnema increases insulin sensitivity in beta cells, making it beneficial for blood sugar control. Therefore, those who are trying to improve satiety or have hyperinsulinemia (excess insulin in the blood) may find this herb helpful. Adding to Gymnema’s list of benefits is its potential use as an astringent, diuretic and as a source to treat colds and fever symptoms (3).
Boswellia (Indian frankincense) may decrease inflammation and function as a therapeutic for bursitis, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis symptoms. Backing this claim is a 2004 study that was conducted for knee osteoarthritis. Researchers recruited 30 subjects and gave half the group 333 mg of Indian frankincense daily, while others received a placebo. Subjects who took Indian frankincense reported less knee pain, better mobility rates and the ability to walk for longer distances than those who received the placebo (4).
Guggul (Commiphora mukul) is said to improve circulation, lower cholesterol levels, stimulate thyroid function and act as an anti-inflammatory agent (3). It is also used for hyperlipidemia, hypothyroidism, acne, circulatory problems, obesity and arthritic conditions. And, this herb taken in the form of guggulsterones may help reduce abdominal discomfort and diarrhea (5).
Triphala (Triphala rasayana) is made up of three fruits (amalaki, bibhitaki and haritaki) and is recommended for acne, obesity and constipation (5). Studies show that Triphala slows down the production levels of cholesterol in the liver. This herb has also been associated with lowered serum cholesterol levels. Certain reports from India reveal that using Triphala for a few weeks may induce weight loss in people who suffer from chronic constipation (5).
Turmeric’s/Curcumin’s (Curcuma longa) claim to fame is that it may stop blood cells from fusing together, thus preventing potentially fatal blood clots (2). It may also quell inflammation, which may be partly responsible for obesity and type-2 diabetes. Drew Tortoriello, M.D., research scientist at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University Medical Center, and his team studied the effects of turmeric on diabetic mice (6). It was discovered that the mice given turmeric were less likely to develop type-2 diabetes and had reduced inflammation levels in their fat tissue and liver (6). Adding to turmeric’s benefits is that it is great for relieving symptoms of other inflammation-related conditions like arthritis, colitis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and bursitis. Turmeric also has anti-hepatotoxin, anti-protozoal, antibacterial, antioxidant and anti-fungal qualities. WF
1. “Ayurveda Overview,” www.webmd.com/balance/tc/ayurveda-topic-overview, accessed June 30, 2009.
2. E. Mindell, Earl Mindell’s Herb Bible (Fireside, New York, NY, 1992).
3. D. Winston, Herbal Therapeutics, 9th Edition (Herbal Therapeutics Research Library, Broadway, NJ 2009).
4. “Supplement Guide: Indian Frankincense,” www.arthritistoday.org, accessed July 2, 2009.
5. P.A. Balch, Prescription for Herbal Healing (Avery, New York, NY, 2002).
6. Columbia University Medical Center, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, Sept. 2009