Ayurveda approaches herbal medicine through the science of energetics. Herbs are classified in a simple system that clarifies their properties. Understanding the system of herbal energetics is essential to understanding how the herbs affect our Doshas. Once we appreciate the energetics and dosha impacts, we can learn how to harness the power of herbs to create Ayurvedic supplements for healing and wellness.
The first part of herbal energetics begins with:
The Taste, called Rasa
Rasa directly affects our nervous system through the Prana in the mouth, which is connected to the Prana in the brain. Taste stimulates nerves, awakens the mind and senses, and make us feel alive. It sets our vital fluid in motion. Through stimulating our Prana in our mouth, taste affects our digestive fire! It prepares our body for digestion!
This explains why when we are sick, we lose our appetite and taste. Lack of taste indicates fever, disease, low agni and high ama. To improve agni, it is important to stimulate the sense of taste.
There are 6 tastes according to Ayurveda: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.
- SWEET: earth and water
- SOUR: earth and fire (fermented or acidic)
- SALTY: water and fire
- PUNGENT: fire and air (spicy or acrid)
- BITTER: air and ether (think bitter herbs like gentian, goldenseal or dandelion)
- ASTRINGENT: earth and air (think constricting quality like tannins or oak bark)
After finding out the taste of an herb, we need to look at its energy and be able to define it with attributes.
The Energy, called Virya
The energy of an herb is either cooling or heating. Herbs through their taste tend to heat the body or cool it and this produces the most basic energizing effect on the body.
- Pungent tastes have a heating effect. Your body gets warmed up when you eat fresh ginger or chili peppers.
- Sour taste is heating as well. Products resulting from fermentation like wine, kombucha, yogurt or pickles will warm your body.
- Salt is heating, too. If you happen to have a cut in your lip and put salt on it, you will experience a burning sensation.
- Sweet tastes; however, are cooling, as sugar counteracts the burning sensations in the body.
- Bitter is also cooling. Bitter herbs are renowned for reducing fever and inflammation.
- Astringent is also cooling.
Heating herbs cause dizziness, thirst, fatigue, sweating, and speed up digestion. They increase Pitta and generally decrease Vata and Kapha.
Cooling herbs are refreshing and promote tissue firmness. They are calming and clear Pitta from the blood, but can increase Vata and Kapha.
Heating or cooling energy means that these herbs contain the energies of the fire and water (agni or soma), respectively.
Other attributes that are used to describe the herbs are drying or moistening, and heavy or light.
Tastes that are drying (bitter, pungent and astringent) will increase Vata and decrease Kapha. Tastes that are moistening (sweet, salty and sour) increase Kapha and decrease Vata.
Light tastes are bitter, pungent, then sour, and heavy tastes are sweet, salty and astringent.
All these attributes play a role and have an effect on the doshas.
After evaluating the qualities of the herbs themselves, we need to assess how they will interact with the digestion.
The Post-digestive Effect, called Vipaka
The post-digestive effect relates to the processes of absorption and elimination, which are the last stages of digestion. Here, the six tastes that we had come down to three: sweet, sour, and pungent. They all three correspond to one dosha. Sweet will be promoting Kapha, Sour will be promoting Pitta, and Pungent will be promoting Vata.
Putting it all together
So, when we look at an herbal remedy, we will take into account Rasa, Virya and Vipaka in order to choose what we need.
And finally, herbs also have their spiritual properties that is their capacity to affect the mind and psyche on a direct and subtle level. I won’t go into the subtle impact of plants here, but you can understand it as the effects of Mantras, gemstones, and rituals. It is the subtle power of the plant.
In order to treat with herbs or supplements, we will apply the rules of Ayurveda which are: Like increases Like, and Opposites cure each other. We will look at the dosha that is currently imbalanced and find opposite qualities of that Dosha’s attributes.
So let’s dive into each Dosha and the herbs and supplements that are the most recommended to balance them.
Herbs and Supplements for Each Dosha
Vata is the lightest of the Doshas, and the combination of Ether and Air. To describe Vata, we use the following attributes: cold, dry, light, subtle, flowing, mobile, sharp, hard, rough and clear.
In order to calm down an aggravated Vata, we will need to apply the opposite qualities of Vata’s attributes, which means we will need Ayurvedic supplements that are warm, wet, heavy, gross, dense, static, dull, soft, smooth and cloudy. We will also favor tastes that are sweet, sour and salty, and the virya will be Heating.
In addition, herbs that dispel the Air, called carminative, will be favored. Also, diaphoretic herbs that promote sweating will be important to stay warm and keep the skin and body moisturized and flexible (it will help Vata with arthritis conditions).
Generally speaking we will focus on herbs that are warming, moistening, promote weight and calm hyperactivity.
TYPICAL AYURVEDIC SUPPLEMENTS FOR VATA: Ashwaghanda, cumin, dill, fennel, ginger, guggul, turmeric, thyme, sage, star anise, parsley, oregano, orange peel, licorice, frankincense, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, bay leaves, basil, black pepper, cayenne, carraway, camphor, celery seeds, fenugreek.
Pitta is the combination of Fire and Water. To describe Pitta we use the following attributes: hot, wet, light, subtle, flowing, mobile, sharp, soft, smooth and clear.
In order to decrease an aggravated Pitta, we will apply the opposite qualities, which means we need plants that have a cooling Virya and tastes that are sweet, astringent and bitter.
TYPICAL AYURVEDIC SUPPLEMENTS & HERBS FOR PITTA: Shatavari, manjistha, guduchi, coriander, cumin, dandelion, gotu kola, jasmine, lemon, marshmallow, nettle, peppermint, raspberry, rose flowers, red clover, saffron, sandalwood, skullcap, spearmint, yellow dock, alfalfa, chamomille, neem.
Kapha is the combination of Water and Earth. Its attributes are: cold, wet, heavy, gross, dense, static, dull, soft, smooth and cloudy.
In order to keep Kapha in check, we will use herbs that provide opposite qualities of these attributes. Kapha will be treated by warming, drying, lightening and stimulating herbal therapies. Pungent and astringent tastes will also be favored.
TYPICAL AYURVEDIC SUPPLEMENTS FOR KAPHA: triphala, trikatu, bibhitaki, pippali, basil, black pepper, cardamom, eucalyptus, cinnamon, cloves, mustard seeds, orange peel, parsley, peppermint, skullcap, , yarrow, ginger, thyme, dandelion, juniper berries.
Ayurvedic supplements that support all of the doshas tend to be rejuvenative or rasayana formulas. One of the most well known and popular formulas in all of Ayurveda is Chyawanprash. Chyawanprash contains 30+ herbs and ingredients that work together to balance each of the doshas, and create overall health and vitality. If you’re interested in using Ayurvedic supplements, Chyawanprash is a great place to start.
Questions? Contact me at @cecileantoine_ !
Cecile Antoine Alfonzo
Certified Ayurvedic Lifestyle Consultant & Coach