In Ayurveda, health is much more than the absence of disease. It is the dynamic integration of the body, mind, spirit, and environment. Herbal medicine offers a gentle approach to enhance this integration and correct subtle imbalances. For Vatas, herbal remedies can be especially helpful for improving digestion, elimination, and sleep. They can also help restore immune function, calm an anxious mind, and promote detoxification and renewal.
Not a Vata?
Keep in mind that Ayurveda does not support herbal allopathy, in which you take an herb to relieve symptoms without looking for the cause of the underlying imbalance. Herbs need to be used as part of a complete plan for mind-body balance. Instead of simply prescribing valerian to improve your sleep, an Ayurvedic doctor would help you explore the underlying issues that are keeping you awake.
With this Ayurvedic perspective in mind, let’s look at a few herbs that are particularly balancing for your predominant dosha, Vata.
Composed of space and air, Vata dosha is responsible for all movement within your physiology. When Vata becomes aggravated or excessive, you may experience anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, and digestive issues, among other symptoms. You can use grounding and calming herbs as part of an overall Vata-balancing lifestyle.
Ashwagandha (withania somnifera)
- Tastes: astringent, bitter, sweet
- Energetics: heating
In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha has been valued since ancient times as a Rasayana or rejuvenating herb that helps the body cope with physical and emotional stress. In Sanskrit ashwagandha means “the smell of a horse,” indicating that the herb imparts the vigor and strength of a stallion. It is traditionally prescribed to help people strengthen their immune system after an illness. In fact, it’s frequently referred to as “Indian ginseng” because of its rejuvenating properties (although botanically, ginseng and ashwagandha are unrelated).
Ashwagandha is particularly beneficial for Vata types as it calms the nervous system and helps focus the mind. It is frequently prescribed for people who complain of fatigue, have difficulty concentrating, or feel “ungrounded”—all symptoms of Vata imbalance.
Ashwagandha contains many useful medicinal chemicals, including withanolides, (steroidal lactones), alkaloids, choline, fatty acids, amino acids, and a variety of sugars. While the leaves and fruit have valuable therapeutic properties, the root of the ashwagandha plant is the part most commonly used in Western herbal remedies.
Medical researchers have been studying the healing benefits of ashwagandha with great interest, and have found that it …
- Strengthens the immune system
- Modulates the body’s stress response
- Improves memory and ability to focus
- Reduces anxiety and depression without causing drowsiness
- Stabilizes blood sugar
- Lowers cholesterol
- Reduces brain-cell degeneration
- Offers anti-inflammatory benefits and is beneficial in treating rheumatoid arthritis and gastrointestinal disease
- Enhances sexual potency for both men and women
The usual recommended dose is 600 to 1000 mg twice daily. For people who suffer from insomnia and anxiety, having a cup of hot milk that contains a teaspoon of powdered ashwagandha before bedtime is beneficial.
In extremely large doses, ashwagandha has reportedly induced abortions in animals. Although no similar studies have been carried out on humans, women should avoid the herb during pregnancy.
Ginger (zingiber officinale)
- Taste: pungent
- Energetics: heating
Ginger is a pungent, aromatic herb that has long been used in traditional healing systems to improve digestion and alleviate nausea, intestinal gas, and menstrual cramps. Modern scientific studies have found that ginger contains powerful anti-inflammatory phytonutrients known as gingerols, as well as strong antioxidant and antibacterial properties.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, ginger’s heating qualities make it useful for treating Vata imbalances. For example, people with cold hands and feet can drink ginger tea or chew on fresh or candied ginger to bring heat into the system and improve circulation. Ginger is also a beneficial treatment for common Vata digestive issues as it improves all three phases of gastrointestinal function (digestion, absorption, and elimination).
Here are just a few of the recent findings about ginger’s overall benefits in restoring and maintaining balance and health:
- Consuming ginger on a regular basis can help reduce pain levels and swelling in people with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
- Ginger inhibits the activation of several genes involved in the inflammatory response.
- Researchers have found that ginger contains specific compounds that may bind to human serotonin receptors, which may help to alleviate anxiety.
- Ginger is effective in preventing the symptoms of motion sickness, including nausea, dizziness, and vomiting.
- Small doses of ginger can also help relieve nausea and vomiting related to pregnancy, without the adverse side effects associated with anti-nausea drugs.
- Studies suggest that ginger may also be helpful in stabilizing metabolism, including reducing the risk of diabetes.
- Ginger may inhibit the growth of some kinds of human cancer cells, including colorectal cancer cells.
It’s better to use fresh ginger rather than dried in the form of the spice, not only because it will have a superior flavor but also because fresh ginger contains greater levels of gingerol and other anti-inflammatory compounds. If you do need to use dried ginger powder, try to find an organically grown product that has not been irradiated. Take one gram of powdered ginger for inflammatory conditions.
Since ginger acts as a blood thinner, it’s important to taper off usage for two weeks before surgery. In addition, if you are undergoing chemotherapy, consult your doctor before taking ginger at medicinal doses.
- Tastes: sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, astringent
- Energetics: neutral (heating and cooling). Amalaki is cooling, while bibhitaki and haritaki are heating.
Triphala is an herbal blend made from the fruits of three trees that grow in India and the Middle East (the Sanskrit term triphala means “three fruits”). The fruits are dried, ground into powder, and blended in a precise manner developed by the ancient herbalists. It balances the Vata dosha as well as Pitta and Kapha. It also contains five of the six tastes, lacking only the salty taste. The herbs that comprise triphala have potent healing and purifying properties.
Amalaki (emblica officinalis), commonly known as Indian gooseberry or amla, is considered one of the best rejuvenating herbs in Ayurveda. It has traditionally been used to treat skin diseases, lung conditions, diabetes, and indigestion. Amalaki is a strong natural antioxidant containing high levels of vitamin C. In India, amalaki is known as the “nurse herb” because it strengthens the immune system and cools the body, balancing the Pitta dosha.
Haritaki (terminalia chebula) has the strongest laxative powers of the three fruits contained in triphala. In Tibet, haritaki is so highly revered that in Tibetan sacred paintings, it’s often depicted in the extended palm of the Medicine Buddha. The herb also has astringent properties and balances Vata.
Bibhitaki (terminalia bellerica) is an excellent rejuvenative with both laxative and astringent properties. It eliminates excess mucus in the body, balancing the Kapha dosha. In addition, bibhitaki is a powerful treatment for a variety of lung conditions, including bronchitis and asthma.
Triphala is a particularly useful herbal blend because it gently cleanses and detoxifies the body without irritating the colon. In addition, unlike other laxatives that deplete the body, triphala actually strengthens and nourishes the bones, nervous system, and reproductive organs.
The recommended dose is 500 to 1,000 mg twice daily.