What Are Ayurvedic Herbs?

4 Traditional Herbal Remedies Used for Healing

Gotu kola capsules, Triphala capsules, Guggul capsules, Boswellia softgels

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian healing system that focuses on balancing the mind, body, and spirit. Ayurvedic herbs are used for several reasons, including:

  • To "cleanse" the body
  • To defend against disease
  • To balance the mind, body, and spirit

Ayurvedic medicine aims to prevent illness—rather than respond to disease—by maintaining a balance between your body, mind, and environment.

Practitioners rarely use Ayurvedic herbs on their own. Instead, they use them as part of a holistic approach to health that may include:

This article discusses how a few popular Ayurvedic herbs are used, available preparations, the possible side effects, and dosages are generally recommended.

Types of Ayurvedic Herbs

Ayurvedic treatments include more than 600 herbal formulas and 250 single plant remedies. Ayurveda categorizes therapies according to their health effects, such as pain relief or increased vitality (energy).

While studies have suggested that some Ayurvedic herbs may benefit human health, more research is needed to back up these claims. However, based on the bulk of clinical research, four Ayurvedic herbs may be worth consideration.

Triphala

Triphala is actually not one Ayurvedic herb, but a botanical formula that contains three different ones:

  • Amla
  • Myrobalan
  • Belleric myrobalan

Test tube studies have suggested that triphala may have antioxidant effects. Antioxidants are nutrients that naturally occur in some foods. They detoxify harmful chemicals in the body called free radicals, which can cause long-term harm to cells. As such, triphala could theoretically prevent or delay aging-related diseases like heart disease and cancer.

Proponents also claim that triphala, classified as Rasayana (meaning "path of essence") herbs, could support the health of people with:

A 2012 Iranian study of 62 adults with obesity reported that a 12-week course of triphala was able to decrease:

Despite the promising results, many of the findings were not that different from participants provided a placebo, or sham treatment.

For example, on average, people who took triphala achieved a weight loss of 4.47 kilograms (9.85 pounds) after 12 weeks compared to the placebo group, which gained 1.46 kilograms (3.21 pounds).

Further research is needed to establish whether triphala offers benefits in treating or preventing obesity, IBS, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries"), or diabetes.

Guggul

Guggul is an Ayurvedic herb traditionally used to lower cholesterol. It is made from the oily sap of the guggul tree native to India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. 

Historical records show that people have used guggul to treat cardiovascular disease since as far back as the 7th century. However, the research to date is mixed on whether the herb has this benefit.

A 2009 study from Norway reported that 18 people who took a 12-week course of guggul had slight improvements in cholesterol levels. Specifically, the guggul group had improved total cholesterol and "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol compared to those provided a placebo.

By contrast, there were no improvements in low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad" cholesterol). The same was true of triglycerides, which are stored fats that can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke if present in high levels.

Other studies, meanwhile, have shown increases in LDL concentrations, placing doubt on the use of guggul in treating hyperlipidemia (high triglyceride levels).

What Makes Cholesterol "Good" or "Bad?"

HDL is considered "good" because it clears fat from the bloodstream. This process helps keep cholesterol from building up on artery walls.

High levels of LDL cholesterol "stick" to artery walls. Narrowed arteries from cholesterol buildup is a risk factor for developing heart disease, which is why LDL is called "bad cholesterol."

Boswellia

Boswellia, also known as Indian frankincense, comes from the resin of the boswellia tree. The extract is rich in boswellic acid. Test tube studies have found that this compound may have anti-inflammatory effects.

Practitioners believe that these properties can support treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions, such as:

  • Asthma
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Ulcerative colitis (a form of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD)

Scientists believe that a chemical known as acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid can suppress specific inflammatory proteins. Some of these proteins are associated with chronic pain and swelling in people with osteoarthritis, or so-called "wear-and-tear arthritis".

A 2011 study from India reported that a 30-day course of a purified form of boswellia, called Aflapin, reduced pain in 30 adults with knee arthritis. In addition, relief for many began as early as five days following the start of treatment.

Compared to the placebo group, there was a significant reduction in all pain categories. Specifically, the Aflapin group had 32% to 41.3% reduction in pain and stiffness compared to the placebo group.

Further studies are needed to assess the long-term safety of Aflapin and whether researchers can replicate the same results in a larger group of people with arthritis.

Gotu Kola

Gotu kola, also known as Asiatic pennywort or Centella Asiatica, is a perennial plant in the Apiaceae family. Practitioners usually prescribe it as a tonic for mental and emotional support, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Low mood
  • Mental fatigue

Gotu kola acts as a mild stimulant. Though the evidence for it use remains mixed, proponents believe this herb can support the following:

A 2016 study from Indonesia reported that gotu kola improved memory in those who had experienced a stroke. Participants who took 750 to 1,000 milligrams (mg) of gotu kola for six weeks had more improved memory than those who took 3 mg of folic acid.

However, the study found no difference between gotu kola and folic acid when it came to participants' cognitive function. This includes:

  • Attention
  • Concentration
  • Executive function
  • Language
  • Conceptual thinking
  • Calculations
  • Spatial orientation

Despite some promising results, the study conclusions were limited by the small number of participants and the uncertain benefit of folic acid in post-stroke patients.

Few other studies have reached such positive conclusions. For example, according to a 2017 review of studies published in Scientific Reports, there has yet to be any evidence that gotu kola can improve cognitive function compared to a placebo.

Even so, the researchers acknowledged that gotu kola might improve mood by making the user feel more alert. In addition, the herb's stimulant effect may also provide a temporary energy boost.

Recap

Some promising studies of several Ayurvedic herbs show that some herbs may support heart health, inflammatory conditions, and mood. However, most studies were limited or produced conflicting evidence. Therefore, more research is needed to prove the health benefits.

Possible Side Effects and Interactions

Any herb can cause unwanted side effects or interact with conventional medications you take.

Among some of the side effects of the herbs discussed here are:

  • Triphala: Diarrhea and abdominal discomfort, especially in high doses
  • Guggul: Stomach upset, headaches, nausea, vomiting, loose stools, diarrhea, belching, and hiccups
  • Boswellia: Stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and an allergic rash (when applied to the skin)
  • Gotu kola: Stomach upset, nausea, sensitivity to light, and an allergic rash (when applied to the skin)

Who Shouldn't Take Ayurvedic Herbs?

Due to the lack of quality research, some people should avoid these options. They include:

  • Children
  • Pregnant people
  • People who breastfeed


It is not known how Ayurvedic herbs may impact a chronic medical condition.

A complete list of possible drug interactions is not possible, but here are some that are known to have occurred with these same herbs:

To try to avoid these risks, inform your healthcare provider and pharmacist if you are using or intend to use an Ayurvedic remedy. Even still, remember that there is still much that is not known about herbal remedies.

Recap

Ayurvedic herbs can cause a range of side effects—from stomach upset to allergic rash—depending on what is used. They can also interact with medications you take. If you are interested in using such herbs, inform your healthcare team.

Dosage and Preparation

Guggul capsules

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

There are no universal guidelines on the appropriate use of Ayurvedic herbs. Instead, Ayurvedic practitioners, herbalists, and naturopaths usually advise people on how to take them.

Even so, advice can vary from one practitioner to the next. Moreover, since Ayurvedic practitioners traditionally hand down their practices from one generation to the next, recommendations can also vary regionally.

Ayurvedic herbs come in a variety of preparations, including:

  • Teas
  • Tonics
  • Capsules
  • Tablets
  • Oral tinctures
  • Ointments
  • Salves

You can purchase Ayurvedic herbs online, through an Ayurvedic practitioner, or at a specialty health food store. Wherever you obtain the herb, be sure not to exceed the prescribed dose.

As a precaution, it is always best to start a lower dose for several days to a week to see how you respond to the drug. This precaution is crucial if you are older or have a smaller body size. It is unknown at which point you can overdose on an Ayurvedic herb.

Avoid long-term use of Ayurvedic herbs unless under the guidance of a qualified healthcare provider. Ideally, your provider will perform specific blood tests to check how your body responds to the herb(s), including:

Stop treatment and call your healthcare provider if you experience any usual side effects after taking an Ayurvedic herb. Bring the herbs you're using to your healthcare provider or the emergency room, so they can review what you take.

Recap

Ayurvedic herbs are intended for short-term use, as prescribed. However, since there are no universal guidelines, working with a qualified healthcare provider is vital. They can recommended a dosage and length of treatment.

What to Look For

Arguably the most significant concern related to Ayurvedic herbs is safety. That's because, like many other types of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), these remedies are unregulated in the United States.

In addition, they are rarely submitted for voluntary testing by a third party. (U.S. Pharmacopeia, for example, certifies if products contain what they actually claim to and nothing more.)

Studies have found evidence of these risks, including:

  • Heavy metals: According to a 2008 study from the Boston University School of Medicine, 21% of Ayurvedic drugs manufactured in the United States or India contained toxic levels of lead, mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals.
  • Lead: A 2015 report from the University of Iowa found that 40% of consumers who had taken Ayurvedic drugs had toxic blood levels of lead. The researchers found lead levels were between two to 10 times higher than what's considered safe.

To help ensure quality and safety, consider these steps:

  • Select carefully: Buy your Ayurvedic herbs from a reputable manufacturer with an established market presence.
  • Look for certification: Choose herbs that have been certified organic under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Organic Food Production Act of 1990.
  • Verify health claims: Don't be swayed by the assertion that "natural" drugs are inherently better or any health claims that may or may not be accurate.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider: Use your best judgment and always keep your healthcare provider in the loop about any complementary therapies you may be taking. Remember that while herbs may have some benefits, self-treating a medical condition or avoiding or delaying standard medical care can have serious consequences.

Recap

Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate Ayurvedic herbs, they may pose certain unknown risks to consumers. For example, some studies have found herbs sold online were contaminated with heavy metals. To limit the risk, select herbs carefully and work with your healthcare provider.

Summary

Practitioners use Ayurvedic herbs as part of a traditional Indian healing system. Some studies have found that certain herbs may benefit people with heart conditions, inflammation, and low mood.

However, the evidence is conflicting and limited, so more research is needed.

Side effects of Ayurvedic herbs may include gastrointestinal problems and allergic rash when applied to the skin. There are no universal guidelines on dosage, so it's important to work with a knowledgeable practitioner.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does Ayurveda mean?

    Two Sanskrit words are combined to form Ayurveda—ayur, which means "life," and veda, which means "science" or "knowledge." Therefore, Ayurveda means science or knowledge of life.

  • Is Ayurvedic medicine banned in the United States?

    No. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), part of the National Institutes of Health, around 240,000 people in the U.S. use Ayurvedic medicine. In addition, there are more than 30 schools of Ayurvedic medicine throughout the U.S., and 11 states recognize accredited Ayurvedic practitioners.

  • Where can I buy Ayurvedic herbs?

    Ayurvedic products are widely available from Ayurvedic practitioners, acupuncturists, stores that sell Indian food, and websites. The International Society for Ayurveda and Health strongly advises purchasing and using Ayurvedic herbs only under the guidance of a trained practitioner. It's wise to consult your primary healthcare provider as well.

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