Ayurveda includes a vast body of knowledge about herbs, plant medicines and preparations. Early Vedic texts describe the energies within plants and their use as medicine. Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, the two classic Ayurvedic texts classified all medicinal substances into three groups: vegetable, animal and mineral origin. The Ayurveda material medica are articulated in Astanga Hrdaya and Astanga Samgraha.
Dravya is an herb, preparation, drug or substance taken internally or externally to maintain health, ease pain or treat disease. Herbal substances are uniquely administered to help restore or maintain balance using a thorough understanding of prakriti (constitution) and the doshas. For example, a person with a vata constitution may exhibit the same or similar symptoms as a person with a pitta dosha. However, they should not necessarily be given identical treatments. An Ayurvedic approach to herbology treats the whole person, not the symptom.
Preparations and Dosage
Herbalists learn preparations, including a knowledge of the parts of the plant used most effectively: roots, bark, trunk, gum, stems, juice, leaves, salt, pulp, fruit, flowers, ash, oil, spikes, rhizomes, seeds or in some cases, the entire plant. Flowers and leaves lend themselves to infusions in hot water, like the tulsi tea I am sipping. Medicines within roots and barks are released by boiling until most of the water has evaporated. This is known as a decoction. Other preparations include fresh juice, herbal pastes and powders, and medicated oils.
When choosing the right dosage, Ayurveda considers:
- Strength, metabolism, age and other conditions of the patient
- Strength and duration of the disease
- Season of the year
- Potency, energy, essence of the herb – known as virya
- Is it cooling – containing the energy of water?
- Is it heating – containing the energy of fire?
- Special potency or prahbava of the herb
The time of day dravya is administered also influences its efficacy. For example, most people should not ingest medicines on an empty stomach in the morning. Exceptions may include healthy people with a strong, kapha constitution. Dravya may be taken before a meal to increase the digestive fire and tone intestinal muscles.
Energetics, doshas, tastes and more
Ayurveda texts describe a set of specific plants, alone or in combination as rasayana (nourishing the essence of life). Each herb embodies energy vibrations that match an energy vibration in the human body. Nature uses the same materials when creating plants, minerals, and human bodies. According to the Vedic sages, the building blocks of nature (subtle vibrations) are universal. Due to this belief in the likeness within all of nature, herbs, sounds, gemstones, colors, aromas, and foods all act as medicine when used properly.
The taste or rasa of an herb is an indication of its properties. When we eat according to our constitution and by taste, we feel healthy and vital. Each taste is composed of two elements and effect doshas as follows:
- Sweet (earth and water) – increases kapha; decreases vata and pitta
- Sour (earth and fire) – increases kapha and pitta; decreases vata
- Salty (water and fire) – increases kapha and pitta; decreases vata
- Pungent (fire and air) – decreases kapha; increases vata and pitta
- Bitter (air and ether) – decreases kapha and pitta; increases vata
- Astringent (air and earth) – decreases kapha and pitta; increases vata
In addition to the taste we sense in our mouths, food and herbs are transformed by the digestive process. The first phase of digestion (kapha) is in the mouth and stomach and is dominated by a sweet taste. The second phase (pitta) occurs in the stomach and small intestine and is dominated by a sour taste. The final phase (vata) occurs in the colon and is predominately pungent. The post-digestive effect, known as vipaka relates to the process of absorption and elimination. Herbs tend to aggravate the dosha whose vipaka they possess. There are three categories: sweet and salty possess a sweet vipaka; sour has a sour vipaka; bitter, astringent and pungent all possess pungent vipaka.
There are qualities (gunas) inherent in every plant, animal and mineral. Each quality has an opposite quality. Ayurveda teaches us how to find our way back to balance by treating with opposites. For example, herbs with a light, sharp quality can treat heaviness and lethargy.
Some of the qualities are easy to determine whereas other qualities are more nuanced. For example, food full of chili peppers is obviously hot. Mashed potatoes and gravy are heavy. Water with lemon and ginger is a relatively clear drink, whereas a milk shake is very cloudy. An example of a rough herb is guggul. This resin scrapes toxins from our body!
Body Systems, Tissues and Therapeutic Actions
Western medicine categorizes herbs and medicines based upon their effect on a specific body system. Ayurveda also considers the effect of dravya upon our tissues or dhatus. The dhatus are:
- Rasa – plasma, lymphatic fluid
- Rakta – blood
- Mamsa – muscle
- Meda – fat
- Asthi – bone
- Majja – bone marrow
- Shakra – reproductive fluids
- Ojas – the essence of all dhatus
Herbs can be categorized by their therapeutic actions upon body systems and tissues.
- Alterative herbs cleanse and purify the blood.
- Antiparasitic herbs kill and remove worms.
- Astringent herbs are drying and firming and help avoid excessive discharges.
- Bitter herbs are detoxifying, deplete tissues, suppress or sedate organic bodily functions
- Carminative herbs relieve intestinal gas, pain and distention; they help promote peristalsis.
- Diaphoretic herbs induce perspiration; restore circulation, lower fever and eliminate toxins from the surface of the body.
- Diuretic herbs increase urination and promote kidney and bladder function.
- Emmenagogues help promote and regulate menstruation; help with PMS, uterine infections.
- Expectorant and demulcent herbs promote the discharge of phlegm and mucus.
- Laxative and purgative herbs promote bowel movements and help eliminate food accumulations and toxic build-up (ama) from the intestines.
- Nervine and antispasmodic herbs strengthen the function activity of the nervous system. Include stimulants and sedatives.
- Stimulant and digestive herbs stimulate digestion resulting in an increase in all organic functions.
- Aphrodisiacs reinvigorate the sexual organs.
- Tonics nurture the tissues of the body – rejuvenating tonics (rasayanas) promote physical strength, boost cognitive function and prevent disease.
When I began my studies in Ayurveda in 2009, I had acid indigestion, heartburn, pain and distension in my stomach. On my teachers’ recommendations, I stopped drinking orange juice, eating hot peppers (bowls of salsa with chips) and fruit with my yogurt. And I naturally stopped drinking wine. I traded cayenne and chili powder for cardamom and ajwain. And I learned the benefits of cumin, coriander and fennel tea. I also began taking triphala. My digestive problems were gone within a few months and have not returned. When I stray for a day or two – I still love a bowl of chili on a cold winter night – I notice the difference immediately. Simple changes can create a dramatic shift.
Earth, sky, worlds above, quarters and their halves;
Fire, air, sun, moon, and stars; water, herbs, trees,
Space, and entity are the elements.
Eye, ear, mind, tongue, and touch; skin, flesh, muscle,
Marrow, and skeleton; and the five
Vital forces constitute the body.
The sage, contemplating these sets of five,
Discovered that everything is holy.
Man can complete the inner with the outer.
From the Upanishads ~ Translated by Eknath Eawwaran
Chopra, Deepak. 2001. Perfect health. London: Bantam.
Frawley, David, and Vasant Lad. 2016. The yoga of herbs: an Ayurvedic guide to herbal medicine.