Health Benefits of Ayurvedic Herbs

4 Traditional Herbal Remedies Used for Healing

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ayurvedic herbs in box
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Ayurvedic herbs are a key component of Ayurveda, the traditional practice of medicine of India. Practitioners will generally use ayurvedic herbs to "cleanse" the body, boost defense against disease, and keep the mind, body, and spirit in balance.

The basic principle of Ayurvedic medicine is to prevent and treat illness—rather than respond to disease—by maintaining a balance between your body, mind, and environment. Ayurvedic herbs are rarely used on their own. Instead, they are used as part of a holistic approach to health which may involve nutrition, yoga, massage, aromatherapy, and meditation.

Along with Ayurvedic herbs, practitioners frequently use therapeutic oils and spices to treat illness and promote well-being.

Health Benefits

More than 600 herbal formulas and 250 single plant remedies are included in the pharmacy of Ayurvedic treatments. These remedies are typically grouped into categories according to their health effects, such as pain relief or increased vitality. While studies have suggested that some Ayurvedic herbs may be beneficial to human health, there is no definitive evidence that any are effective as practiced.

Based on the bulk of clinical research, here are four Ayurvedic herbs that warrant serious consideration:

Triphala

Triphala is a botanical formula that contains three different Ayurvedic herbs (amla, myrobalan, and belleric myrobalan). Test tube studies have suggested that triphala may exert antioxidant effects, meaning that they can neutralize free radicals that cause long-term harm to cells. By doing so, triphala is believed to prevent or delay many aging-related diseases from heart disease to cancer.

Proponents also claim that triphala, classified as rasayana ("path of essence") herbs, is able to restore digestive and constitutional health in people with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

A 2012 study from Iran reported that a 12-week course of triphala was able to decrease body weight, body fat, total cholesterol, triglycerides, and "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in 62 adults with obesity.

Despite the promising results, many of the findings were not statistically different from adults provided a placebo. 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 who gained 1.46 kilograms (3.21 pounds).

Further research will be needed to establish whether these results can be replicated and if triphala offers genuine benefit in treating or preventing obesity, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, or diabetes.

Guggul

Guggul is an Ayurvedic herb traditionally used to cut cholesterol. It is made from the oily sap of the guggul tree native to India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Historic records have shown that guggul has been used to treat cardiovascular disease since as far back as the 7th century. The research to date has been mixed on whether the herb can actually deliver on this promise.

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

By contrast, there were no improvements in LDL or triglyceride levels. Other studies, meanwhile, have shown increases in LDL concentrations, placing into doubt the use of guggul in treating hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol).

Boswellia

Boswellia, also known as Indian frankincense, is sourced from the resin of the boswellia tree. The extract is rich in boswellic acid, a compound known to potent anti-inflammatory effects in test tube studies. Practitioners believe that these properties can aid in the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, COPD, and ulcerative colitis.

Scientists believe that a chemical known as acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid is able to suppress certain inflammatory proteins. These are some of the proteins associated with chronic pain and swelling in people with osteoarthritis ("wear-and-tear arthritis").

A 2011 study from India reported that a 30-day course of Aflapin (a purified form of boswellia) was able to reduce pain in 30 adults with knee arthritis. Relief for many began as early as five days following the start of treatment.

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

Gotu Kola

Gotu kola, also known as Asiatic pennywort or Centella asiatica, is a perennial plant of the Apiaceae genus. It is usually prescribed as a tonic to ease anxiety, improve mood, and alleviate mental fatigue.

Gotu kola exerts a mild stimulant effect. Proponent believes that this can enhance memory and even help overcome cognitive problems in people with depression, Alzheimer's disease, or stroke. The evidence to date remains mixed.

A 2016 study from Indonesia reported that 750 to 1,000 milligrams of gotu kola, taken as an oral extract for six weeks, was more effective in improving memory following a stroke than 3 milligrams of folic acid traditionally prescribed.

With respect to all other cognitive measures (attention, concentration, executive function, language, conceptual thinking, calculations, and spatial orientation), gotu kola was no better or worse than folic acid. Despite the promising results, the conclusions were limited by the small size of the study as well as the uncertain benefit of folic acid in post-stroke patients.

Few other studies have reached such positive conclusions.

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.

With that being said, the researchers acceded that gotu kola may improve mood by making the user feel more alert. The herb's stimulant effect may also provide a temporary energy boost.

Possible Side Effects

Certain Ayurvedic herbs may produce side effects or interact with conventional medications. To avoid these, inform your doctor if you are using or intend to use any Ayurvedic remedy.

Among some of the side effects you should watch out for:

  • 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)

Due to the lack of quality research, Ayurvedic herbs should not be given to children, pregnant women, or nursing mothers. It is unknown at what point you can overdose on an Ayurvedic drug or how it may impact a chronic medical condition.

Among some of the drug interactions that have been known to occur:

  • Triphala: blood thinners like Coumadin (warfarin) or Plavix (clopidogrel)
  • Guggul: estrogen-based birth control or Premarin (conjugated estrogen)
  • Boswellia: Coumadin (warfarin), Plavix (clopidogrel), and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen)
  • Gotu kola: Tylenol (acetaminophen), antifungals like Diflucan (fluconazole), statin drugs like Pravachol (pravastatin), and sedatives like Ativan (clonazepam) or Ambien (zolpidem)

Dosage and Preparation

There are no universal guidelines directing the appropriate use of Ayurvedic herbs. Generally speaking, you would rely upon the experience of an Ayurvedic practitioner. Even so, practices can vary from one treater to the next. Like all folk medicines, Ayurvedic practices are handed down from one generation to the next and tend to evolve regionally and idiosyncratically.

Some Ayurvedic herbs are made into teas or tonics. Others are formulated in capsules, tablets, and oral tinctures. Others still are infused into ointments and salves for topical use.

If purchasing an Ayurvedic herb online, through an Ayurvedic practitioner, or at a specialty health food store, the general rule of thumb is to never exceed the prescribed dose. There is no guarantee you won't still get side effects, but the general assumption is that the herb is safe at the prescribed dose, at least for short-term use.

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 is especially true if you are older or are smaller in stature.

Avoid the long-term use of Ayurvedic herbs unless under the watchful of a qualified physician. Ideally, blood tests should be performed routinely to check your liver enzymes, kidney function, and complete blood cell count.

Stop treatment and call your doctor if you experience any usual side effects after taking an Ayurvedic herb. If your symptoms are severe, be sure to bring the herbs with you to your doctor or the emergency room.

What to Look For

Arguably the biggest concern related to Ayurvedic herbs is drug safety. Given that these remedies are largely unregulated in the United States and are rarely submitted for voluntary testing (by the U.S. Pharmacopeia or other certifying bodies), they pose a certain risk to consumers.

According to a 2008 study from the Boston University School of Medicine, 21 percent of Ayurvedic drugs manufactured in the United States or India and sold on the internet contained toxic levels of lead, mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals.

This was further evidenced by a 2015 report from the University of Iowa in which 40 percent of consumers of Ayurvedic drugs had between two to 10 times the level of lead in their blood considered to be toxic.

To ensure quality and safety, buy your Ayurvedic herbs from a reputable manufacturer with an established market presence. Always choose herbs that have been certified organic under the regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Organic Food Production Act of 1990.

Finally, don't be swayed by the conceit that "natural" drugs are inherently "better" or by health claims that may or may not be true. Use your best judgment, and always keep your doctor in the loop about any complementary therapies you may be taking.

Self-treating a medical condition or avoiding or delaying the standard care of treatment can have serious consequences.

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