Developed in India, Ayurveda is considered one of the world’s oldest medical systems. Its history goes back to at least 5,000 BC, and its modern-day relevance continues to be utilized worldwide. The literal meaning of the word Ayurveda is “science of life,” and Ayurveda’s aim is to preserve health and treat disease by promoting balance between humans and their environment using a range of healthy lifestyle practices. These practices include the consumption of minimally processed foods and medicinal herbs, alongside sophisticated exercise and detoxification protocols which are aimed at enhancing the body’s capacity to maintain balance amid a variety of stressors.1
Fundamental to Ayurvedic practice is a philosophy which recognizes a mutual relationship between humans and nature. Ayurvedic texts have documented over 2,000 plant species, and the prominent use of medicinal and culinary herbs in Ayurveda draws upon India’s incredible biodiversity and an inherent acknowledgment of the energetic components that exist within both people and plants.2 Herbs are often used together in formulations to address an imbalance of one’s “Doshas” (Vata, Pitta and/or Kapha), which in the Ayurvedic concept of health and disease is necessary for a person to remain in a healthy and balanced state. Additionally, many different methods and forms of herbal preparations are used, and always in conjunction with specific dietary and lifestyle practices.
Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata), also known Kalmegh or “King of Bitters” is widely cultivated in India and one of the most extensively mentioned herbs in Ayurvedic texts for its “blood purifying” activity.2 It is an official plant in the Indian Pharmacopoeia and a component of over 50 percent of herbal formulations mentioned in Ayurveda for the treatment of liver disorders.3 Andrographis leaves are often used for their bitter, hepatic, and antimicrobial effects which can benefit various types of infectious and inflammatory disorders, especially when associated with fever.3 The leaf juice or infusion is a household remedy for bowel complaints such as gas, loss of appetite, diarrhea, dyspepsia, dysentery, and during convalescence in both children and adults.4 Due to its cooling nature, it is preferably given with the addition of warming aromatic herbs, particularly during winter when addressing respiratory or digestive infections.
Sometimes referred to as “Indian Ginseng,” Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) holds a similarly prominent place in Ayurveda as do the Ginsengs in Traditional Chinese Medicine, increasing overall vitality and having rejuvenate effects upon the neuroendocrine system. The name “Ashwagandha” is a combination of the Sanskrit word “ashva,” meaning horse, and “gandha” meaning smell, due to the roots’ strong odor. It is also said that regular consumption of Ashwagandha gives one the strength and virility of a stallion. W. somnifera is included in a category of plants called “Rasayanas” which are commonly compared to the modern understanding of adaptogens. Rasayanas are used to promote health, longevity, and sexual potency by bolstering the body’s defenses against disease and improving its ability to adapt to stress.5
Ashwagandha has a multitude of uses and is considered one of the best tonics and restoratives during convalescence and to treat states of deficiency characterized by exhaustion, weight loss, and poor immunity, particularly when aggravated by chronic stress. The powdered root is often used alone or in combination with other herbs, and mixed with milk, water, ghee, or honey. Given before bed it is considered a gentle sedative in chronic insomnia and an important reproductive, immune, and nervous system tonic. It’s regarded as a warming herb with grounding properties that promote mental and emotional well-being when used long-term particularly in those with a vata or kapha-type constitutions.6
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri; commonly called Brahmi) is a creeping marsh plant which grows throughout India and is considered one of the most important nervines used in Ayurveda and the “best rejuvenative for the mind and the heart, which should be kept in every home.”2 A well-known modern nootropic, its safety and efficacy has been investigated in various neurological and psychiatric disorders including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, ADHD, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.7,8 Much current research with Bacopa describes it as a potent neuroprotective, cognitive, and memory enhancer.9
A relaxing nervine tonic, Bacopa is often combined with Ashwagandha to aid recovery from stress and exhaustion while calming the heart and relaxing tense musculature. Being energetically cooling, it is thought to help normalize all three Doshic constitutions, but it is also particularly ideal for balancing pitta types. Bacopa leaves and stalks can be prepared in a multitude of ways and administered both topically and internally, but Bacopa is considered most beneficial when macerated or eaten fresh. Consuming a cup of fresh Brahmi tea with honey is considered a helpful aid to enhance yoga or meditation practice.
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) shares some significant similarities with Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) related to its appearance, qualities, and medicinal effects. It is another creeping plant that thrives in marshy habitats, and though both herbs are considered to be brain tonics, Gotu kola is thought to be a milder nervine possessing greater wound healing, connective tissue building, and cleansing diuretic effects. According to one ancient text, taking Gotu kola for one week “improves memory, intellect and imparts a celestial glow to the complexion.” According to the energetic principles of Ayurveda, Gotu Kola is bitter, cooling, and sweet and balancing for all three Doshic constitutions.
As another Rasayana, in Ayurveda Gotu Kola is used to slow brain aging, regenerate neural tissues, and to provide adaptogenic, immunomodulatory, and memory-enhancing effects. While strengthening the adrenals it is also considered a powerful blood-purifier which helps fortify the immune system through cleansing and nourishment. It also has specific use for healing chronic skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, varicose veins, as well as inflammation of the genitourinary tract.
Commonly known as Tulsi, Holy Basil (Occium sanctum) is an aromatic shrub thought to have originated in India and one of the country’s most sacred plants. Within Ayurveda, it is known as “The Incomparable One” and “The Queen of Herbs” and is revered as an “elixir of life” for both its medicinal and spiritual properties.10 A Holy Basil plant is kept in many households for its purifying influence on the environment and is thought to simultaneously strengthen one’s compassion, stamina, and immunity.
Holy Basil has a unique combination of pharmacological actions that promote well-being and resilience. Thus, it also fits well with the modern definition of plant adaptogens, helping the body and mind cope with a wide range of chemical, physical, and emotional stressors and restoring physiological and psychological health. Daily consumption in Ayurveda is said to prevent disease, promote general health, and assist in dealing with the stresses of daily life. It is also credited with fostering beauty, intelligence, longevity, and a calm emotional disposition.11 The aerial parts have a warming, pungent quality which allow it to penetrate deeply into body tissues, also giving it major use as a diaphoretic in colds, influenza, and respiratory concerns.
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) is a tall climbing plant found throughout India that is used extensively in Ayurveda as a rejuvenating female tonic. Though it will benefit both sexes, the root is most often given to nourish and cleanse the blood and the female reproductive organs across various life stages from menstruation to menopause. It has particular benefit in those who have had hysterectomies or who are trying to conceive as it is thought to nourish the ovaries, increase fertility, and aid in the production of female sex hormones. It is often recommended in cases of threatened miscarriage, as a galactagogue, and as an aphrodisiac having an ability to deepen one’s devotion.
Shatavari is another Rasayana in Ayurveda, promoting general well-being by increasing a person’s vitality or resistance to stress.4 It has a cooling, moistening quality thought to nurture various body membranes and secretions such as breast milk and semen, and it acts as an effective emollient and demulcent for dry and inflamed mucus membranes of the respiratory, genitourinary, and gastrointestinal tracts. The root powder is commonly combined in warm milk along with ghee and sweetened with honey. Externally it can be applied as a lubricant for stiff joints, stiff neck, and muscle spasms.
Well known for its potent anti-inflammatory properties, in Ayurvedic practice turmeric is similarly used for a multitude of health-enhancing effects. The rhizome has bitter, pungent, and heating properties which are thought to work on all body tissues but particularly the digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems. It is another herb said to “purify the blood,” promote proper body metabolism, and strengthen the overall energy of the body.2
Turmeric is considered a primary herb for improving digestion, helping to reduce gas, bloating, cramping, and aiding with the digestion of food – particularly protein. It is also thought to reduce the production and accumulation of toxins and/or pathogenic bacteria within the gut, as well as any inflammation of the gastrointestinal lining (e.g., gastritis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease). Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, it is used in the treatment of a variety of skin problems and musculoskeletal inflammation such as arthritis and wound healing.12 Turmeric is also said to nourish the heart and protect against cardiovascular disease by reducing cholesterol and cleansing harmful accumulations from the blood vessel walls. It can be used topically and internally and is frequently combined with honey and/or ghee.