Ayurveda, the holistic science of life, offers the promise of healing our body and mind naturally i.e., by following the laws of nature.
It uses the gifts of nature, the Ayurvedic herbs, to heal a disease rather than producing synthetic medicines in a laboratory. In fact, nature is itself an Ayurvedic laboratory where medication in the form of plants & minerals are created now and then for everyone and every purpose.
Herbs have been the prime medicinal agent of any traditional and holistic healing system. Ayurveda has developed this concept of herbal medicine through its vision of knowledge and thousands of years of experience.
Ayurveda is probably the oldest medical science who have recognized and appreciated the great remedial properties of herbs. It has detailed knowledge of over 600 herbs, compiled by various Ayurvedic scholars in their respective treatises.
Ayurveda encompasses all the knowledge of herbs like identifying medicinal herbs, their classification, their energetics, collection & storage, preparing medicines out of them and finally a method of employing them in various conditions.
You may have heard a lot about the benefits and uses of herbs in day to day life, but do you know the science of herbs as explained by Ayurveda? Let’s understand herbs in an Ayurvedic manner.
Which herbs does Ayurveda use?
You must be wondering that there are innumerable plants on the earth but how to know which herb to use and which one to avoid? Ayurveda says that there is no such plant on this earth which can’t be used as medicine.
To understand the Ayurvedic approach of herbs, one must understand the basic system of the working style of herbs. Ayurveda describes health and disorder in terms of Tridoshas. Balanced doshas mean good health while an imbalance results in illness.
Therefore, herbs must work on the same rationale with an aim to correct bodily imbalances. Ayurveda classifies and understands herbs based on their actions on Tridoshas.
Herbs may pacify, purify, aggravate or maintain the doshas thereby bringing a much-needed balance of doshas for attaining health.
Several Ayurvedic seers have classified herbs either according to their therapeutic action or their common characteristics. Based on their activities and properties, herbs are chosen accordingly to the patient’s body constitution and nature of the disease.
On the same concept, herbs are classified under a range of 50 to 114 categories in different Ayurvedic texts. Herbs are classified on the basis of family, morphological similarities, properties, actions on the body, the specific action on the disease, etc. Amongst them following are the most important ones:
- Digestive stimulants – long pepper, ginger, leadwort, celery fruit, asafoetida
- Strength enhancers – asparagus, winter cherry, country mallow, Abutilon indicum
- Cardio-tonic – Garcinia pedunculata, pomegranate, tamarind, Citrus li mon,Carissa carndes
- Curing piles – tree turmeric, Piper chaba, chebulic myrobalan, Holarrhena antidysenterica
- Relieving skin disorders – Acacia catechu, Emblica officinalis, turmeric, cassia
- Improving the quality of reproductive tissues – Teramnus labialis, asparagus, jatamamsi
- Anti-emetic – Zizyphus jujuba, mango, Indian blackberry, licorice
- Anti- diuretics – Albiziz lebbeck, Ficus lacor, Ficus religiosa
- Cough relievers – raisin, Solanum xanthocarpum, Phyllanthus niruri, Fagonia cretica
- Asthma relievers – holy basil, Acquilaria agallocha, cardamom
Herbal energetics – Understanding how herbs work
Ayurvedic approach to herbs can be understood through a science of energetics. The actions and properties of herbs are related to their taste, heating or cooling effects, post-digestive effect, and unique features.
Ayurveda explains the basic properties of herbs through this simple concept of energetics. It makes it easy to use herbs as per the individual constitution (Prakriti). Understanding herbal energetics is essential for Ayurvedic treatment.
In Ayurveda, the taste is known for therapeutic property rather than an enjoyment. The Sanskrit word ‘rasa’ means essence i.e., it indicates the nature of a plant.
Thus, rasa is essential to understand the qualities of a plant. Here rasa reflects the energies which operate the actions of a particular herb.
Ayurveda accepts six tastes – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. As each substance is composed of five essential elements (pancamahabhuta), each taste is dominant of two elements.
Tastes are responsible for many actions in the body. It,
- builds up or reduces bodily tissues
- increases or decreases digestive fire
- facilitates or inhibits the movement of waste material
- cleans or clogs the body channels
- pacifies or aggravates doshas in a regular manner
Vipaka (post-digestive tastes)
When we take an herb, digestive fire acts upon it to reduce these six tastes to three. This post-digestive effect is known as vipaka. Sweet & salty tastes have sweet vipaka; sour has sour vipaka while pungent, bitter & astringent have pungent vipaka.
Vipaka is the final outcome of digestion of the ingested material. It relates to the process of absorption and elimination. Even though vipaka is explained in terms of tastes, they cannot be perceived by the tongue.
Vipaka could be understood in the body by its effect on the doshas. Herbs, when used for a long time, tend to aggravate the doshas due to its post-digestive effect.
Sweet vipaka herbs stimulate kapha dosha, sour vipaka herbs promote pitta dosha, and pungent vipaka herbs aggravate vata dosha.
Virya is the energy or potency by which the action of an herb takes place. Ayurveda speaks of the energy of herbs as primarily heating or cooling.
Herbs with their energy tend to heat the body or cool it. Herbs of sour, salt & pungent taste have a heating effect on the body. Herbs having sweet, bitter & astringent taste show cooling effect on the body.
Heating herbs stimulate digestive fire and aggravate pitta dosha and decrease vata and kapha dosha. On the other hand, cooling herbs calm pitta dosha and increases the other two doshas.
Precisely speaking, heating and cooling effect refer to the energies of fire and water, respectively.
An herb devoid of virya becomes inactive. Often we see that a drug loses its potency after a particular time. This can be owing to the effect of time or because of improper processing or storage.
Prabhava (special action)
Some herbs, along with general herbal energetics, possess special potency known as Prabhava. Some herbal properties transcend our understanding, and no valid cause is known of such exclusive action. Any Basic Ayurvedic principle can’t explain such specific actions.
Herbs sharing the same energetics may differ in special actions like; one may show an excellent effect on the heart while others may not. Although it is complicated to explain the exact reason for Prabhava, it may be due to specific elemental combination or action on a particular site.
Herbal therapeutics – what do ayurvedic herbs do?
The therapeutic action of herbs in Ayurveda is related to its effect on the doshas, tissues, waste materials, and organs of the body. All herbs under the influence of digestive fires get converted to their smallest forms i.e., five essential elements, in the body.
As the body is also made of these five elements, herbs in their elemental form influence the respective dosha, tissues, and waste materials. This action can be localized or systemic as needed.
Herbs perform several different actions to treat the disease or maintain a healthy body. Herbs as per their energetics show following types of activities in the body:
- Blood purification
- Digestive stimulant
How to use Ayurvedic herbs?
Ayurveda mentions many methods to take in herbs in a different form. They are made in such a way so that they adjust in our body.
These herbal preparations are made differently to maintain their potency and therapeutic effect. The traditional preparation of herbs includes fresh juice, paste, decoction, infusions, powder, oils, ghee, and poultice.
Other varieties of herbal preparations like tablets & pills, jellies, syrups, milk preparation, resin preparation, fermented preparation, mineral & metal preparations, ointment, salts, sugars, ash, and alkalis are widely used.
Now, these preparations are not to be taken alone. The herbal medicines are taken along with a medium to facilitate easy intake and also to enhance the therapeutic effects of herbs. These mediums or vehicles for taking herbs are known as ‘Anupana.’
Anupana can be simply understood as a catalyst which enhances the action of herbs on doshas. It is also used to add the flavor or to conceal the taste of herbs and increase the palatability.
Water is considered as the simplest anupana in Ayurveda. Other commonly used anupana are honey, ghee, sugar, jaggery, herbal decoction or infusion, buttermilk, coconut water, milk, herbal or fruit juices, meat soup.
Many herbs are used externally in the form of paste, poultice, washes, oils, and ointment, especially to treat wounds, sores, pain-relievers, or skin problems.
It is to be noted that generally, herbs are not used alone; they are preferably combined with other herbs or minerals to make a compound formulation. Ayurveda believes that the right combination of herbs multiplies the healing powers of those individual herbs.
A combination of herbs work on different sites of the body simultaneously, show multiple actions, compensates for each other’s ill-effects to maintain balance, and increases the chances of curing the disease without any side-effects.
Some famous Ayurvedic herb combinations are:
- Triphala (3 fruits)
- Trikatu (3 spices)
- Pancakola (5 digestants)
- Dashamula (10 roots)
Why should we use Ayurvedic herbs?
Herbs are the extraordinary gifts of nature to humanity. These nature’s remedies are for every disease that afflicts our body. Herbs are used not only to improve our physical health, but we may find their spiritual use as well.
Ayurveda accepts the law of uniformity in nature. It believes that medicinal substances & living bodies are similar in composition, both being products of the same cosmic forces. Hence, herbs influence the body according to their nature and qualities.
Herbs eliminate excesses in our body while fulfilling our deficiencies. Moreover, Ayurveda prescribes herbs concerning our body’s nature, which is a valuable asset of the Ayurvedic system of healing.
Many Ayurvedic herbs are common spices and plants easily available around us. Other significant and unique Ayurvedic herbs can be incorporated in our daily lives as per our needs, Prakriti, and environment.
Herbs do their work to restore the health but don’t forget that they usually don’t give quick results as drugs do. As they treat the disease from its root, they take time to show its benefit and long-lasting effect.
Also, taking herbs in the proper dose is of very great importance for one’s health. Use herbs after having full knowledge about your body and disease.
Nowadays, it is essential to know that a medicinal product labeled herbal does not always mean safe. An herbal supplement may contain dozens of chemical compounds, and all of its components may not be known.
This can prove dangerous if they are not recognized and used without due attention.
It must be understood that both experience and knowledge of herbs are needed to gather and preserve them correctly. Lack of these two factors may render the herbs of little or no medicinal value.