2019 thus far seems to be the year of “what’s old is new again.” The Mediterranean diet has made a comeback, people are starting to be okay with carbs again, and Cookie Monster (yup, the very same) is suddenly a wellness icon. And when it comes to your health, more people than ever are dabbling in Ayurvedic herbs—one of the oldest wellness practices of all.
“Ayurveda is an ancient system of complementary medicine that originated with the Tamil Siddhas in the the south of India 10,000 years ago,” says Martha Soffer, Ayurvedic doctor, MACA (Maharishi Ayurvedic Clinic Administration), MAT (Maharishi Ayurvedic Therapist), and founder of Surya Spa in Los Angeles. “Ayurveda can return us to balance, health, and vital well-being. It’s a beautiful and easy-to-apply self-care tool.” The ancient healing practice is known to be good for all sorts of things including skincare, easing period cramps, and better digestion.
And while they’re popping up in supplements, foods, and even beauty products, herbs are a fundamental part of Ayurvedic healing. “Ayurvedic herbs are herbs that have been used in Ayurvedic lineage for 5,000-plus years and grow in India and surrounding areas,” says Sahara Rose, certified ayurvedic health counselor and author of Eat Feel Fresh and Idiot’s Guide to Ayurveda. “Each herb is unique and can help with physical or mental ailments.”
But before you dip your toes into Ayurvedic herbs, Soffer says you should see an Ayurvedic doctor to help you access your imbalances and understand your health. She recommends looking for someone with years of experience who’s trained with Maharishi University of Management, National Ayurvedic Medical Association, or Kerala Ayurveda. “It’s a science that one develops like an art, with that level of attention, awareness and diligence,” Soffer says.
Your practitioner can work with you to find the best healing herbs that will help you rebalance. They can also help you ensure that the herbs you take are in the proper amounts and don’t interfere with any existing medications you’re taking. (For example, St. John’s Wort, a popular herbal remedy for depression, has been shown to interfere with birth control pills.)
As for how to use Ayurvedic herbs, “some herbs are taken internally, while others [are applied] externally,” Rose says. “And they have a wide range of uses from teas to herbalized oils to skin care to supplements.” Or, you can go the old-fashioned way, Soffer says, and just mix them with a little water and chase them with ghee and honey to help with digestion and absorption. “Fats help with assimilation and honey increases the ‘agni,’ the fire of digestion,” Soffer says.
Got all that? Great. Now, here’s your primer on some of the most popular (and useful) Ayurvedic herbs:
What it is: Ashwagandha is a shrub originally grown in India. It’s name literally translates to strength of a stallion, Rose says.
The benefits: Ashwagandha is said to increase vitality, balance stress hormones, help with adrenal fatigue, and increase energy. “It is an adaptogen, meaning it adapts to what your body needs,” Rose says.
How to use it: Rose suggests adding a powdered ashwagandha to your morning tonic or taking it as a supplement.
What it is: Brahmi is a word that has been used to describe two different Ayurvedic herbs with similar benefits: centella asiatica and bacopa monnieri.
The benefits: “Brahmi is the ultimate brain tonic,” Rose says. “In fact, the leaves even look like a brain.” The herb helps balance the left and right hemispheres of your brain so you operate with both your analytical (left hemisphere) and intuitive (right hemisphere) side. “By balancing both, this means it helps us operate with both shiva (masculine) and shakti (feminine) aspects of ourselves so we can become whole,” Rose says.
Add if you’re looking for something to help you tap more into your woo woo side, brahmi is a great choice. Rose tells us it also helps open up your pineal gland, the small endocrine gland in our brain that’s associated with intuition.
How to use it: Brahmi can be taken in powder or supplement form. “Most ayurvedic brain-boosting supplements will have brahmi,” Rose says.
What it is: Cardamom is a spice that originated in India.
The benefits: Cardamom can help remove excess Kapha, one of the Ayurvedic doshas (your Ayurvedic body type, based on your physical and emotional makeup), from the system. “Kapha is not bad,” Rose says. But she says having too much can cause problems like mucus, phlegm, weight gain, lethargy, clammy hands, or a sluggish metabolism.
How to use it: “You can cook with whole cardamom pods or use them in your teas,” Rose says. Or, you can add ground cardamom powder to your ACV-spiked black tea or get your dose of the aromatic seed in beauty products.
What it is: Like cardamom, cumin is also a spice. It comes from the seeds of the cuminum cyminum plant originally grown in Asia, Africa and Europe.
The benefits: Cumin is great for digestion. Rose says it helps remove excess Vata, the dosha associated with air and space. An excess of Vata can look like bloating, gas, constipation, anxiety, insomnia, cracking joints, cold body temperature, and dry skin and hair.
How to use it: Rose says you can get your dose of cumin in a digestive-enhancing tonic mixed with coriander and fennel. It can also add a healthy touch to your cocktail.
What it is: Manjistha is a vine with heart-shaped leaves and a bright red root that grows in mountain regions.
The benefits: “Manjistha purifies the blood with its cooling properties that work on the plasma and blood dhatus (organs), with a dry and pungent quality,” Rose says. She says it’s great if you have a Pitta imbalance (the dosha associated with fire and water), which can look like inflammation, hyperacidity, feeling hot all the time, foul-smelling sweat, oily skin, rosacea, hives/rashes, anger, impatience, and irritability. Manjistha is also an anti-inflammatory, helps clear acne, and regulates liver and kidney function, she says.
How to use it: Rose likes taking it as a powder and adding it into tonics.
What it is: Turmeric is a bright-yellow spice often used in Indian cuisine.
The benefits: Ah, turmeric. It’s one Ayurvedic herb that’s pretty much a staple in most kitchen pantries, and all the buzz around it the past few years is well deserved. “It is extremely anti-inflammatory,” Rose says. Animals studies have also shown that curcumin, the main component in turmeric, may have some anti-depressive properties too.
How to use it: Let’s count the ways you can incorporate it into your diet: You can make pumpkin pie quinoa oatmeal, matcha and turmeric ice pops, or spicy lemonade to name a few. Rose’s go-to way to get her daily dose of the vibrant-colored spice is with a cult-favorite Golden Milk Latte. “I make Golden Milk paste using turmeric, black pepper, ginger, and coconut oil and always have it in my fridge for an instant Golden Milk latte,” she says.
Here’s the 311 on those turmeric ice pops, btw:
What it is: Amalaki, aka amla or Indian gooseberry, is a small, round fruit native to southeast Asia.
The benefits: Amalaki is rejuvenating, high in vitamin C, and has some major antioxidant powers. “Amla balances all our doshas, nourishes our physiology, boosts immunity, and promotes longevity,” Soffer says. (It’s also used in triphala, an Ayurvedic herb combo. More on that in a sec.)
How to use it: Soffer says you can find it as a powder, although she perfers it dried and candied (more commonly available at Indian markets). You can also find it as the main ingredient in chyawanprash paste, a jam-like mixture of herbs, ghee, sesame oil, and honey prepared that is believed to boost body strength and the immune system. Soffer says you can take a spoon of the paste once a day, alone or mixed with warm milk.
What it is: The “tri” in triphala indicates that the herb blend is made up of three fruits: amla, haritaki, and bibhitaki.
The benefits: Triphala has been traditionally used as a digestive remedy. “This combination helps balance our fire element—our Pitta dosha—cleans and rejuvenates our tissues, helps rejuvenate the liver, [acts as] a very mild laxative to help things move along, and actually strengthens the digestive system,” Soffer says.
What is it: Arjuna is the bark of the arjuna tree.
The benefits: “The bark from the Arjuna tree has been used for thousands of years, primarily to support cardiovascular health,” Soffer says. “Interestingly, research in western medicine is validating the powers of arjuna as well.”
How to use it: “You can find it as a tincture, as well as a red powder that you stir in warm water,” Soffer says. “It doesn’t taste so great, so just enough water to quickly drink it!”
What it is: Shativari is an adaptogenic herb traditionally grown in India.
The benefits: If you have any issues with your reproductive organs (periods, menopause, fertility, etc.), Shativari, which funnily translates to “she who has one hundred husbands,” is a good herb for you, according to Soffer. It’s traditionally been used to help with female reproductive health. And a 2018 review of studies found some evidence that the herb could help with PCOS.
How to use it: It’s best to see an Ayurvedic doctor and have this one prescribed, Soffer says. It comes as a powder that can be taken with other herbs, mixed in water, or encapsulated.
What is it: Neem refers to the flowers that come from the neem tree.
The benefits: “Neem is one of the most powerful blood purifiers and detoxifiers in Ayurvedic herbology,” Rose says. “It’s wonderful for eczema and psorisas, and also used for joint and muscle pain in oil.”
Soffer adds that the oil made from the neem tree’s flowers help with acne and dandruff, and gives you shiny and healthy hair (yes, please!). “The main benefit is that neem is antiviral and antibacterial,” she says.
How to use it: “You can find it in toothpaste, shampoo, and as the oil itself, for your hair and face,” Soffer says.
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