The Ayurvedic formulary describes hundreds of plants that have the ability to keep us healthy as well as help us heal from disease. One of the most well-known and commonly used herbs is triphala, which means “three fruits.” As its name implies, triphala is a combination of the fruits of three plants, which are dried, ground into powder, and precisely blended: amalaki (Emblica officinalis), haritaki (Terminalia chebula), and bibhitaki (Terminalia belerica). The specific combination of these three fruits creates a beneficial synergistic effect.
An Ayurvedic Perspective of Triphala
Triphala acts as a rejuvenative, helping maintain a state of good health in the mind and body. Taking triphala daily with honey and ghee (triphala rasayana) is said to have the power to “make a person live for one hundred years devoid of old age and diseases,” according to the classical Ayurvedic text the Charaka Samhita.
In addition to serving as a rejuvenative, triphala can act as a treatment for many ailments. From an Ayurvedic perspective, some of triphala’s therapeutic action comes from the fact that it possesses five of the six tastes (all but salty) necessary for health and well-being. It also balances all three doshas and all of the seven tissue layers.
Triphala’s qualities are light and dry, adding lightness to the mind-body system. It also cleanses all the channels in the body, especially the channels of elimination, thus aiding in daily detoxification.
The Findings of Modern Biochemistry
The multitude of phytochemicals in triphala explains the many healing properties of this herb. Scientists have identified some of these beneficial chemicals, yet it’s likely that there are many more that haven’t yet been identified that may also contribute to its healing effects. For example, triphala contains many antioxidant molecules, including ascorbic acid, gallic acid, bioflavonoids, and tannins. Triphala is one of the most antioxidant-rich compounds in nature, containing a significantly higher antioxidant content than most foods and single herbs, according to a recent article published in the Nutrition Journal.
Why Are Antioxidants Important?
During the normal processes of metabolism and digestion—as well as when we’re exposed to the sun–our body creates free radicals, which are unstable molecules that are missing an electron (negative charge) and will “steal” an electron from surrounding molecules, including our healthy cells and tissues. Inside of cells, free radicals can steal these electrons from our DNA, resulting in mutations that can cause cancer and other diseases. Antioxidants are molecules that have extra electrons and can donate these electrons to free radicals so that they don’t create damage in the body. We therefore need lots of antioxidants in circulation to neutralize these potentially damaging free radicals.
We also require antioxidants for our body’s natural detoxification process. During detoxification in the liver, we need to modify “foreign” chemicals that have entered the body in order to prepare them for elimination. These foreign chemicals include environmental toxins, food additives, medications, drugs, alcohol, and even potentially harmful molecules produced by our own digestion.
In order for our body to eliminate these toxins, the molecules are temporarily turned into less harmful molecules through processes such as oxidation, reduction, and hydrolysis. These processes create free radicals that also need to be “neutralized” by antioxidants. As you can see, antioxidants are an important factor in our natural detoxification process. In addition, antioxidants such as the bioflavonoids contained in triphala can reduce the oxidation of LDL particles (typically referred to as “bad cholesterol”), making the particles less likely to damage blood vessel walls.
In additions to antioxidants, triphala contains these beneficial biochemicals:
Sennosides: These natural laxatives relieve constipation by stimulating the muscles of the colon to contract and push stool forward. They can also help the colon to soften stool by keeping water in the colon. With typical doses, the natural fibers in triphala usually prevent stool from getting too loose.
Fibers: Like many other natural fibers, the fibers in triphala can help clear cholesterol, produce regular bowel movements, and promote colon health.
Mucilage: Found in many plants, this substance has a thick, mucous-like quality that can soothe inflamed tissues, serve as a cough suppressant, and help hydrate tissues.
There are numerous studies that show other beneficial effects of triphala, including anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-cancer.
Therapeutic Uses of Triphala
As we explored above, triphala is used in Ayurveda as a detoxifier, rejuvenative, and mild laxative. It traditionally has been prescribed for health conditions ranging from diabetes and obesity to digestive issues, liver conditions, allergies, skin inflammation, and eye disorders.
It might seem strange to the Western-minded practitioner that one herb can accomplish so many things. However, since plants contain potentially hundreds of bioactive molecules (as is the case with triphala), it makes sense that each of the phytonutrients in a plant may have a different beneficial effect. Each of the beneficial phytochemicals can have a different benefit, and therefore can be used for a wide variety of ailments.
Let’s look in more detail at some of the most common therapeutic uses of triphala.
In Ayurveda, triphala is mainly used for maintaining a healthy digestive tract. It can help with symptoms of constipation, bloating, flatulence, abdominal pain, and indigestion, as well as correct imbalances of natural bacteria that may develop in the GI tract. It can also help heal ulcers, inflammation, and hemorrhoids.
Many of the fibers in triphala support the natural bacteria in the digestive tract, which play an important role in our overall well-being. Like many natural fibers, triphala can improve elimination in people whose bowels are slow, and normalize bowel movements in people who tend to have loose stools.
As a detoxifier, triphala can be used with other herbs or at higher doses during a short-term cleanse program, or daily at lower doses as a gentle detoxifier. As discussed above, one of the detoxification benefits of triphala is its antioxidant activity. In studies of mice, gallic acid—one of the specific antioxidants in triphala—has been shown to help protect liver cellsfrom a toxin known as carbon tetrachloride. By protecting the liver, triphala supports efficient detoxification. Other studies of animals found that by neutralizing free radicals, triphala reduced liver damage from alcohol as well as decreased death from radiation sickness. One of the fruits in triphala, amalaki, has been shown to be effective against some of the harmful effects of heavy metals.
Another common use for triphala is a tea eyewash for eye irritation due to allergies or dry eyes. This is a common treatment in Ayurveda for other eye disorders as well, including cataracts, and styes. To make this preparation, boil ½ teaspoon powdered triphala in ½ cup of water for three minutes. Cool and strain with a cheesecloth or paper coffee filter to remove particles. Then wash the eyes with the cooled water once or twice daily You can soak a cotton ball in the liquid and gently squeeze the fluid into the eyes, letting it rinse the eyes—or you can cup some liquid into the palm of your hand, lean your eye into the fluid, and blink several times to wash the preparation over the eye.
Triphala is used as a paste, ointment, or wash to promote wound healing, and it has been shown to be beneficial in healing infected wounds. Triphala contains antibacterial properties that promote healing. It also stimulates collagen formation within wounds to repair the skin, reduce skin breakdown, and allow wounds to heal completely. You can use the eyewash preparation described above to use as a wash for skin wounds as well.
Although the dosage can vary depending on the indication, the typical recommended dose is 500 to 1,000 mg, twice daily.
Safety and Contraindications
Triphala is considered a very safe herb and can be used in smaller doses in children and the elderly. It is not habit forming, and therefore is safe for long-term use.
As with most herbs, there are not any scientific studies on the use of triphala in pregnancy. According to Ayurveda, triphala can induce a downward movement of energy in the body and should therefore be avoided during pregnancy.
There are no known major drug interactions with any of the herbs in triphala when used at the typical doses. Of course, it’s always recommended that you let your health care provider know when you are using any herbal supplement, especially if you are taking medications that require specific levels to be maintained, such as blood thinners, seizure medications, and chemotherapy. Since triphala can increase the elimination of foreign chemicals from the body, it may increase the elimination of certain medications as well, so it’s important to discuss taking triphala with your health care provider. In general, you can continue taking triphala while monitoring the levels of your medications with your health care provider.
As one of the most rejuvenative formulations in Ayurveda, triphala helps keep us healthy throughout our life. Using this time-tested formula helps us eliminate what is not contributing to our health and well-being, while at the same time providing a combination of nutrients that allow us to create and maintain good health.
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