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Ayurveda is the ancient healing system that is believed to have originated on the Indian subcontinent some 5,000 years ago. In Sanskrit, the word Ayurveda translates to “life-science” and it is strongly based on the philosophy that human beings are a part of nature. As such, the elements air, ether, fire, water and earth comprise everything in the universe, including human beings. Each individual is governed most strongly by two of the elements, referred to as their dosha. Balance of the elements within each individual is the key to optimal health and, conversely, imbalance causes disease. Changes in weather, society, economy, lifestyle, diet, work, finances, emotions and relationships can easily upset the balance of elements and influence an individual‟s well-being. Herbs are at the root of the Ayurvedic healing system, and practitioners today use around 850 different herbs. Here in the United States we are seeing an increased interest in the Ayurvedic system of medicine and with it more access to many Ayurvedic herbs. Traditionally Ayurvedic herbs are recommended to an individual by a practitioner in accord with the individual‟s unique needs, but modern research has helped us to understand and apply these herbs more broadly, making them more accessible for Western populations.
Also called amalaki and Indian gooseberry, the small round fruit from this deciduous tree that is native to tropical southeastern Asia is sometimes referred to as the “nurse” in Ayurveda. Considered one of the most potent rejuvenating herbs, it contains five of the six essential tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent, lacking only salty. This is a highly prized trait in Ayurveda since including a balance of the six tastes regularly in the diet is a key to creating balance and optimal health.1 Today we recognize amla as being one of the foods highest in vitamin C, containing 450 milligrams per 100 gram serving;2 that‟s nine times the amount found in an orange! It is also a rich source of antioxidants, especially gallic and ellagic acids, which help to fight bacteria and fungi, modulate inflammation throughout the body, and perhaps help to inhibit the carcinogenic action of some compounds.3 Amla is a main ingredient in both Triphala and Chyawanprash.
The bark of this tree has been traditionally used as a cardiovascular tonic. Growing research continues to support the use of arjuna for numerous conditions of the cardiovascular system and as a general cardiovascular tonic. Studies on arjuna confirm its ability to support healthy blood pressure4 and cholesterol levels as well as healthy blood clotting.5 Arjuna contains flavonoids and oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), which are antioxidants that support the vascular system.6 It also appears to help support healthy blood sugar balance, possibly by inhibiting enzymes that break down carbohydrates.7 All in all, arjuna appears to support many aspects of the cardiovascular system, and its reputation as a cardio tonic seems well deserved.
Roughly translated, ashwagandha means “strength of a horse” and it has been traditionally used to promote intellect and cognition, increase strength and recovery and promote relaxation and sleep. In its most widely recognized role, it is considered a rejuvenator and tonic.8 Modern research on ashwagandha helps to explain many of its traditional uses. As an adaptogenic herb (one that is supportive of the adrenals without being overly stimulating), ashwagandha may help to balance cortisol levels9 and have a calming effect by mimicking the effects of the amino acid GABA.10,11 It also supports exercise tolerance and strength, not just for athletes, but for those who are sick or recovering.12,13
Bacopa is an important Ayurvedic herb for helping to maintain a balanced state of mental health. It has been used most commonly to enhance memory and learning, as well as for relaxation of the brain. Modern studies on bacopa have been somewhat mixed, although the majority seem to support the traditional uses, showing improvements in cognitive processing, attention and working memory.14 It is thought to work through a variety of different mechanisms including by increasing the body‟s production of its own antioxidants as well as by enhancing the way the neurotransmitter acetylcholine works.15,16 Bacopa may also offer protection against potentially damaging exposure to chemicals like neurotoxic herbicides.17 While short term supplementation may offer some benefit, to get the full extent of bacopa‟s cognitive enhancing effects, up to three months of use is recommended.
This fruit is a common food eaten throughout Asia, South America, India and East Africa. In Ayurveda, and other traditional healing practices, its primary use is in supporting healthy blood sugar regulation. While human trials need to be done, there are extensive animal studies supporting this traditional use. Bitter melon appears to work by improving glucose tolerance and insulin signaling as well as by supporting the pancreas‟ output of insulin.18 Some studies have shown that bitter melon may also help to support healthy weight, by increasing thermogenesis and decreasing fat formation.19
There are many different species of boswellia trees grown in the dry mountainous regions of India, North Africa and the Middle East. Some boswellian species are the source of Frankincense, used mainly as an essential oil and incense. The species used in Ayurveda for medicinal purposes is sometimes called Indian Frankincense. The gum resins are obtained by tapping the trees, somewhat like the process for getting maple syrup. While traditionally used as a remedy for everything from hair-loss and boils to dysentery and irregular menses, boswellia‟s most popular use by far is for pain and conditions of the joints. The boswellic acids in boswellia are thought to be responsible for its inflammation modulating effects. It is believed to work by inhibiting certain inflammatory chemicals without disrupting glycosaminoglycan synthesis. The degradation of glycosaminoglycans accelerates damage in arthritic conditions and is an unfortunate side effect of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Studies on boswellia have used it for a variety of inflammatory conditions and in some cases relief was observed in as little as seven days.
Prounounced chah-vahn-prash, this formula is also sometimes spelled chyavanaprasha, chyavanaprash, chyavanaprasam or chyawanaprash.21 Chyawanprash is one of the oldest known Ayurvedic formulations and today it is probably the most widely used formula. Chyawanprash is considered a rejuvenating tonic, one that is beneficial to nearly all people, in every stage of life. It is a jam-like spread with a sweet, spicy, tart taste. It is said that the flavor an individual picks 3 up on strongest is the one their body is in particular need of, so it can taste slightly different to different people. The formula can consist of anywhere between 25-80 different fruits, herbs and spices in a base of sugar or sometimes honey, depending on the brand. In all formulations the amla berry is the main ingredient. Its antioxidant properties, which come from a wide variety of phenolic compounds, are thought to be responsible for the benefits, but the synergy of the blend is likely to offer a wide range of benefits that have yet to be formally studied.22 Its traditional use is to increase vitality and vigor and delay the aging process as well as support digestion and metabolism and aid those under stress.23,24 In modern animal studies it has been shown to improve the cognitive function of aging mice, possibly by enhancing the effects of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter important for the transmission of nerve impulses in the brain.25 One human study found that chyawanprash positively influenced blood cholesterol levels and glucose tolerance.26 Chyawanprash can be taken straight, used like jam or mixed into milk or other liquids.
While native to India, forskohlii is used in Africa and Brazil as well. In Ayurveda it was traditionally used for diseases of the heart, intestines and respiratory tract. Today we believe forskolin to be the constituent responsible for most of forskohlii‟s benefits. Forskolin increases concentrations of cyclic AMP (cAMP), which is an important regulator of cellular function throughout the body. Through its actions on cAMP, forskolin relaxes smooth muscles and has a positive effect on the blood vessels of the cardiovascular system as well as the lungs and respiratory system. It also helps to inhibit the release of histamine and may help to support healthy skin cells.28 Forskolin is often touted as encouraging the breakdown of fat cells, but the research on this effect is less clear.29
Gotu kola grows in tropical swampy areas and has been used throughout India, China and Indonesia for thousands of years as both a food and a medicine. Traditionally Ayurveda recommended gotu kola for wound healing, skin conditions of all sorts and to support the mind and intellect as well as the spirit. In China, gotu kola earned its reputation as a longevity herb when an ancient Chinese herbalist taking it supposedly lived more than 200 years.30 Today gotu kola is largely known as a brain and nerve tonic, supporting memory and cognition. In preliminary studies it appears to reduce anxiety31 and it may help to protect the brain from the damage that is associated with the formation of beta-amyloid masses.32 Gotu kola also appears to support healthy blood vessel elasticity as well as improve circulation, especially to the legs.33 Its use for skin conditions is also well supported by research; it is used topically to support wound healing from minor burns and abrasions as well as conditions such as psoriasis.34 While some people may notice improvements rather quickly from taking gotu kola, full benefits are usually noticed within three to four weeks.35
Guggul, sometimes known as Indian bedellium, is a small thorny bush. What we use as guggul is the resin from this bush, which is a close relative to myrrh and has been used in Ayurveda for 2,000 years. Guggulsterones are compounds found in guggul that are believed to be the active constituents. Although the research is somewhat mixed, guggulsterones appear to exert their benefits by improving the overall lipid profile, but also may specifically enhance the body‟s processing of LDL cholesterol.36 They may also protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation.37,38
Used in India since the sixth century for problems as varied as eye complaints, snake bites and as a feeding deterrent for caterpillars, it is best known for its ability to support healthy blood sugar levels.39 In fact, gymnema‟s Sanskrit name means „sugar destroyer‟.40 When in contact with the tongue, gymnema leaves fill sugar receptors on the taste buds, blocking the taste of sweet and possibly helping to curb sugar cravings.41 A similar action is thought to happen in the intestines, possibly blocking the absorption of sugar molecules.42 Gymnema is believed to enhancing insulin, by helping to regenerate the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas.43 Although much of the research done so far has been on animals and in vitro, two small human trials did find improvements in glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA(1c)) after administration of gymnema.44 Today gymnema is also used to support healthy weight management and to protect against the oxidative damage caused by elevated blood sugar.45,46
Holy Basil is the “Queen of Herbs” in Ayurvedic medicine. Hindus worship holy basil as the incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi and believe it balances and tones the chakra system.47 Traditionally it has been used to support the respiratory system and to promote good health and longevity. Today in the West, holy basil is most often used to support a healthy stress response and shows promise for both anxiety and depression.48 49 Holy basil is also rich in antioxidants, among which are certain flavonoids that may help to protect the cells of the body from the damaging effects of radiation through their antioxidant capabilities.50 51 Finally, preliminary research suggests that holy basil may help to support cardiovascular health as well as healthy blood sugar balance.52 53 54 No wonder this herb is the “Queen”.
The roots, bark, leaves, gum, fruit, seeds and seed oil of the neem tree are valued throughout India for many different uses. In traditional Ayurvedic texts the neem tree was described as “that which keeps all diseases at bay”. 55 It was used for infections, fever, inflammation, skin diseases and dental disorders.56 In the West, our use of neem tends to remain mainly in the topical realm. Neem products are incorporated into soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lotions and toothpastes to take advantage of neem's bacteria and fungi fighting properties.57 In India neem sticks are chewed to promote dental health and studies have confirmed that neem does in fact inhibit plaque formation and the growth of bacteria.58 Internally neem may help to heal gastric ulcers,59 fight fungi, bacteria and viruses, protect the liver, support healthy blood sugar balance and support the immune system.60 The majority of the studies on internal use of neem have been done on animals and more research is needed to understand the full benefits and possible precautions. Neem is also commonly used as a natural pesticide and insect repellant.
There are many plants that are part of the Phyllanthus genus, which grows in tropical and subtropical countries. Ayurveda has traditionally used it for stomach, kidney, urinary tract and liver support. We know that phyllanthus contains many well researched compounds such as lignans, flavonoids and polyphenols. Many of its benefits appear to come from the antioxidant activity of these varied compounds. Currently phyllanthus is being investigated for its ability to modulate inflammation and to protect the liver from damage as well as from viral infections.61 62 63 Phyllanthus is sometimes recommended for short-term liver cleansing
Picrorrhiza grows at high altitudes in the Himalayan region. Ayurvedic medicine has traditionally used it for disorders of the liver and upper respiratory tract as well as for fevers, indigestion, chronic diarrhea and scorpion stings.64 Today, possibly due to its potent antioxidant activity65, picrorrhiza is mostly recommended to support the liver. In animal studies it appears to protect the liver from certain toxic chemicals and from the accumulation of fat associated with metabolic syndrome.66,67 Because picrorrhiza may have phototoxic properties it is sometimes recommended for vitiligo68 although more research is needed to fully support this claim. Due to a high demand for this herb its sustainability has been strained and it is considered endangered.
Shankhpushpi is extensively used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for different concerns of the central nervous system, including anxiousness, memory enhancement and sometimes for epilepsy. Unfortunately, in different regions of India there are several different plants that go by the name of Shankhpushpi, making research and use of this herb difficult. Of the four most common plants referred to as shankhpushpi, there appears to be great similarity in the plants themselves as well as the compounds they contain.69 The variety most commonly used in the United States has been found to exert positive effects on anxiety and to have the maximum memory-enhancing benefits of the various plants used as shankhpushpi.70
A close relative of the common vegetable asparagus, shatavari translates to “she who possesses 100 husbands”, suggesting its traditional use as a female tonic commonly used for a variety of conditions affecting the female reproductive system and to enhance fertility. It is also recommended to improve the production of breast milk in nursing mothers, although research has yielded mixed results. In India it may also be recommended for indigestion and digestive tract disorders and some modern research supports this use. In more recent times, the use of shatavari has focused on its immune-modulating effects and animal research suggests that it may in fact encourage the production and action of immune cells.71
Triphala is actually a blend of the fruits of three different plants: amla (Embilica officinalis), behada (Belleric myrobalan) and harada (Chebulic myrobalan). It is a key Ayurvedic formula recommended for many conditions as well as for overall balancing for everyone. It is a nourishing tonic that supports digestion and elimination. Its most popular use in the United States is to support healthy bowel function. Rather than being a harsh laxative as is commonly used, triphala works instead to tone the muscles of the bowel, helping the colon to contract on its own, to modulate intestinal inflammation and to remove mucus from the intestinal tract.72 73 While it is sometimes used as part of a cleansing program, it is safe for long term use not only to support digestion and elimination without creating dependency, but also as an antioxidant and balancing tonic.