The basic concepts of Ayurveda are familiar to most people. You probably remember your parents or grandparents saying, “You are what you eat.” Ayurveda helps you choose which foods to eat for health and balance in your life by turning your kitchen into your personal pharmacy.
Ayurveda is the traditional medical system of India and one of the oldest surviving healing systems in the world (at least 5,000 years old). “Ayu” means life and “veda” means knowledge, so Ayurveda is the knowledge of life and is based on 3 fundamental concepts:
- Food is medicine
- Disease can be prevented and eradicated through your daily habits
- Lifestyle recommendations are based on an individual’s physical, mental and emotional makeup
What I love about Ayurveda is that it’s a treasure chest of natural remedies that promote longevity, balance, beauty and vitality. The following six herbs and spices are among the most widely used in Ayurveda.
In today's fast-paced, high-stress world, ashwagandha offers much-needed relief and restoration for the entire body an mind. It's a well-recognized adaptogen, which means it helps your body adapt to stress by making you feel focused and relaxed simultaneously. Plus, it helps to strengthen a weakened mind and body as a result of chronic stress, injury and aging.
Ashwagandha is probably best known for its impact on the nervous system, where it exerts a calming and energizing effect. It’s helpful in rejuvenating the reproductive system, which is why ashwagandha is used in Ayurveda to promote sexual potency. Ashwagandha also supports thyroid function and helps regulate autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
As a general recommendation, I like to start people with 500 mg of ashwagandha twice a day, and if needed, work up to 2 grams per day. Higher doses can be used for specific conditions, but you should work with your healthcare practitioner to titrate up to those doses.
2. Brahmi (Bacopa monniera)
Brahmi is the most commonly used herb for the brain, helping to improve memory, concentration and learning. In fact, it's used to support intelligence and prevent future conditions like dementia.
Brahmi is traditionally used for a number of psychological and neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, depression, anxiety and addictions. It also helps resuscitate an exhausted nervous system.
Like ashwagandha, I like to start people with 500 mg of Brahmi twice a day, and if needed, work up to 2 grams per day. I often recommend taking ashwagandha with Brahmi sine they are synergistic herbs that support the nervous system and balance the effects of stress. Together they offer potent relief to a tired and overworked mind.
Triphala is an ancient Ayurvedic herb that helps with regularity, detoxification and much more. When taken regularly it produces a deep and enduring cleansing of all the tissues in the body. I like to call it Ayurveda's daily rescue from modern life.
Triphala is composed of three dried Indian super fruits that work synergistically: amalaki, haritaki and bibhitaki.
- Amalaki works as a natural antioxidant that removes excess inflammation from the gut and body. It also helps to increase lean body mass and maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
- Haritaki supports the body’s natural cleansing process by gently removing toxins that accumulate in the colon. Plus, it helps reduce cholesterol deposits in the bloodstream.
- Bibhitaki is particularly effective in reducing the accumulation of fat and fluids in the body as well as removing accumulated inflammation in the colon resulting in a healthy mucous membrane.
Each one of these herbal preparations has tremendous value individually. However, when they are combined in the form of triphala they work as an even more powerful tool to detoxify and strengthen the body and heal the gut.
Most triphala supplements are sold in doses of 500 mg to 1,000 mg. Aim for 1,000 mg per day to start. Depending on which brand you buy, this may involve taking one or two tablets in the evening, about an hour before bedtime.
If within a week you’re not having one good bowel movement every day, increase your dosage to 2,000 mg per day. If after another week, things still aren’t moving along, increase the dosage to 3,000 mg. You can go as high as 4,000 mg quite safely—remember, triphala is just dried berries. The longer it takes for triphala to work, the more you need it and the longer you should stay on it daily.
Cumin is one of the best spices for supporting digestion and gently removing toxins from the body. It also helps to reduce inflammation and pain in the uterus and reduces tightness in the lungs.
Cumin is a “super food” in Ayurveda and one of the best ways to get its benefits is by using it in your cooking. I prepare most of my meals by first sautéing cumin seed, fennel seeds, mustard seeds and fresh ginger in some ghee. Then I add ½ to 1 teaspoon of cumin powder, coriander powder and turmeric powder to create a healing and restorative paste that is used as the foundation for most of my meals.
As an alternative, you can mix ½ to 1 teaspoon of cumin, coriander and turmeric powder with hot water and drink it at the beginning or end of your meal to support proper digestion.
Turmeric is another “super food” in Ayurveda. It is a potent antioxidant, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory that has been studied in relation to several conditions including cancer, wound healing, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.
Its uses in Ayurveda are too vast to list, but include the treatment of uterine fibroids, cysts and menstrual issues. Turmeric can also help with a multitude of skin conditions including psoriasis, acne and eczema, as well as intestinal infections, conjunctivitis, liver conditions and asthma.
As a child, I grew up using a combination of turmeric and honey for respiratory infections.
Amla is one of the great rejuvenating foods in Ayurveda. It helps with a multitude of conditions, including gastritis, ulcers, gastric reflex, colitis and hemorrhoids. It's also used to treat cardiac conditions, diabetes and anemia.
Although it is a berry, Amla is often consumed in powdered form as a spice in Indian cooking or in tablet form as an herb. It has 20 times the vitamin C of an orange and is one of the most potent antioxidants in Ayurveda. In Ayurveda we say "An amla a day keeps the doctor away."
While amla balances all three doshas (mind-body types), it is particularly healing for Pitta. It has a naturally sour taste, which is why you can substitute it for lemon in your cooking. Amla is naturally cooling, which is why I use it with warming digestive spices (like cumin, turmeric and ginger) in my cooking.
Generally, I recommend cooking with Amla, and I use about ½ teaspoon. If you don’t want to cook with it, you can add it to water and drink it before or after a meal. Only if your dominant dosha is Pitta should you take Amla alone in higher doses as a supplement.
Seeds of Wisdom
In today's world, as we are running around juggling the demands of family, work and our health, it's easy to pop something quick in the microwave for dinner before taking the kids to their extracurricular activities, or to unwrap something for breakfast while driving to work.
While they're convenient now, these habits cost us much more later in the form of declining energy levels, loss of our ability to concentrate and think, and even a loss of joy in our lives.
If we look at the spices we use in cooking as opportunities to not only flavor our food, but as ways to nourish our mind and body, we can fuel our days with the energy we need to fulfill our " to do lists" while feeling refreshed rather than ragged and run down.
There is a well-known science to longevity that has been preserved for thousands of years through Ayurveda. Adding a few key herbs and spices into our daily routine can supply the boost we need to shift the scales from sickness to health, and from burden to joy.