Written by Andrew Mason
Guggulu is a highly medicinal preparation in Ayurveda, made from a tree resin. It has an intricate preparation method and many uses. This article explains all about it.
Guggulu (1) (Commiphora mukul) is a highly popular ingredient in a number of important Ayurvedic remedies; in this introductory article we will take a closer look at its medicinal application as well as its recommended purification techniques.
Guggulu is the common name of this plant; the meaning of its name something akin to ‘having excellent benefit’. The categorisation of Guggulu is a slightly complex affair as Ayurveda advises us that five colours abound. These very simply are: Mhashya (a blackish/brown colour and most suited to human patients, Mahaneed, having a bluish colouration (indeterminate use (2)), Kumud (having a pale or whitish colour), Padma (brownish in colour and suited more to use on animals) and finally, Kanak (yellowish in colour and most suited to human patients. Typically, two varieties of Guggulu are seen in the marketplace (3), these being: Kana-guggulu: a greenish/yellow variety and Mhasha-guggulu: a blackish brown variety.
Commiphora mukul is a smallish, thorny tree, usually 1.5 – 2 meters in height. It is found in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Arabia and Africa, favouring an arid climate. In India, it is typically found in the Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. The flowers of Guggulu are reddish brownish, its leaves rounded, serrated and waxy looking. The fruits of this tree are reddish, pulpy and rounded.
Guggulu is an exudate or niryasa, being obtained via the method of tapping. Tapping involves stripping away or piercing the bark of the tree to facilitate the flow of its gum. Commiphora mukul has a number of ducts throughout its bark in which the oleo-gum-resin abounds. To effectively capture this exudate, large leaves or the shell of coconut is affixed around or just below the point of excision. Over a period, these receptacles slowly fill and are later collected.
Upon retrieval, the material has hardened and darkened. It is not uncommon for each catch to be contaminated with some amount of leaves, insects, bark etc. and so will need to undergo so level of cleaning, see Shodhana process of Guggulu. The tree is usually harvested between May and June (4), with anywhere between 250g-500g of resin collected from each tree during any harvest season.
Some of the more important chemical constituents of Guggulu (by quantity) include: its gums and essential oils, sucrose, fructose, amino acids, flavonoids, α-camphorene, ellagic acid, sterols (such as guggulsterone, β-sitosterol, Z- and E-guggulsterone) and carbohydrates as well as a variety of inorganic ions.
1. Also guggula, guggal and gugar
2. In Ayurvedic and Alchemical texts, the colour blue is usually associated with toxins and/or requiring purification/cleansing.
3. Most of material I have purified is a slightly mixed colour, with an element of green, yellow and brown. Natural oxidation and older batches naturally darken. The traditional categorisation or colours is typical, in Ayurvedic text and sometime hard to qualify.
4. In some cases – autumn?
Historical references to the use of Guggulu
As previously mentioned, Guggulu is an important medicinal compound in Ayurveda, but just how old is its use?
One of the earliest references to Guggulu is found in the Atharvaveda (5). In Hymn 38 ‘With Guggulu, against disease’, we are told: ‘Disease obstructs him not, a curse attains him not, whom the agreeable odour of the healing guggulu attains. From him, diseases scatter away, like antelopes from a wild beast. If, O guggulu, thou art from the river, or if also from the ocean, the name of both have I taken, that this man may be uninjured.’
Later on, more detailed accounts of its action, uses and indications are discussed in Ayurvedic classical works such as Caraka Samhita, Susrutha Samhita and Astanga Hrdayam. All extol its healing prowess, along with its ability to reduce fat, cleanse the tissues and reduce pain, joint stiffness, inflammation and other maladies.
5. Sometimes called the forth Veda and one most linked to the healing arts and Ayurveda, this text is tentatively dated at around 1000BCE.
Therapeutic qualities of Guggulu
Modern Ayurvedic works define Guggulu’s taste as being: bitter, pungent, sweet and astringent, with its pungency and heating qualities more prominent. The prabhava or special property of this resin is that it has beneficial effects for all Ayurvedic Doshas. In those cases of diminished health, where all three dosha are involved, Guggulu is often indicated as a staging post from which to strike out and combat dis-ease.
Guggulu has excellent anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic properties as well as regulating thyroid function. It is a powerful antioxidant, with good cardio-protective and cytotoxic properties. It also has an antimicrobial action as well as being effective in reducing a good number of complicated and difficult to treat skin diseases.
Taken internally, guggulu has an antiseptic bitter/astringent effect; it stimulates appetite and digestion as well as promoting an overall calming effect in the mind and body. Ayurveda commonly uses this resin to treat obesity, arthritis (osteo and rheumatoid), general paralysis, diabetes, sciatica, gout and haemorrhoids/constipation. It is also useful in combatting inflammation, cysts, coronary thrombosis, anaemia and urinary calculus.
Used externally in the form of a lotion/paste (known as lepa), it has proved useful in treating stubborn skin conditions. In the form of a tincture or herbal wine, it can be useful for sore throats, tonsillitis, gum infections and toothache. Finally, Inhalation of the resins fumes (a kind of incense if you will), is recommended for hay fever, nasal catarrh, bronchitis and laryngitis.
Within the Ayurvedic formulary of India, an entire section has been dedicated to Guggulu based medicines. The resin of this tree might also be said to be something of an oddity within the materia medica of Ayurveda in as much as it has something of an alchemical nature to it. Akin to a number of popular alchemical ingredients found in Ayurvedic medicine, the resin is advised to undergo shodhana, prior to use. Shodhana simply means to ‘clean’ or ‘make ready’ for human consumption. This is usually done through the application of heat or being immersed/triturated with other ingredients. In the case of Guggulu, ‘heating’ usually means boiling it in liquids such as milk, cow’s urine or other herbal decoctions.
Upon completion, the resin is referred to as suddha-guggulu; or pure guggulu. In effect this is highly refined and filtrated form of the resin. In some cases additional processing can reduce the resin to a powder form. I have covered this procedure in the next section.
Another interesting property of guggulu resin is its appearance in a mixture of five ingredients (plus borax), the combination of which is used to ‘pull’ impurities from a selection of medicinal minerals. This alchemical extraction of ‘sattva’ or essence from such materials is lesser used process but none the less effective. Typically the minerals in question include: copper sulphate, iron sulphate, mica and types of water soluble bitumen. These are all then mixed with borax, a natural fluxing agent. Equal amounts of honey, Gunja seed powder (Abrus precatorius), jaggery (coconut sugar), ghee and Guggulu (known as Mitra-panchaka) are then beaten together into a waxy pulp and mixed with the aforementioned minerals. This mass is then subjected to very high temperatures (more than 1000 degrees) in an open crucible. The end result (a fine bhasma or alchemical ash) is then reduced to a fine powder and used medicinally.
Shodhana: processing Guggulu
The following outlines a few variations of Guggulu shodhana. So far as I can tell, therapeutically, there seems no clear favourite amongst these, each seemingly having merit. Ultimately, processing may just be based upon circumstance i.e: availability of purification materials and amount of final purified gum that is typically obtained.
Method 1: steaming
- After collecting exudate, it is hand sifted to remove any obvious inclusions such as twigs, leaves, soil and insects that may have accrued during the collection process.
- The remaining resin is placed into a course fabric, which is tied off into a rounded bolas or parcel. These are then secured about their neck with cord.
- A quantity of triphala decoction is prepared at a ratio of 8 parts water to 1 part triphala. This then reduced to about 50% by volume and filtered.
- The next procedure is to prepare an apparatus known as Dola Yantra or swing device. Here, the cloth parcels with Guggulu resin inside can be suspended just above the triphala decoction. This type of apparatus is used a lot in Ayurvedic alchemical preparations as well, allowing essences to be retained when steaming or soak without the risk of heat damage.
- The decoction is now brought up to a point just below a rolling boil and the cloth parcel containing Guggulu is ‘steamed’ for 2-3 hours.
- The next step is to prepare a heavy wooden board. Its surface is cleaned and smeared lightly with ghee. The contents of the cloth parcel are emptied onto the board and sifted quickly by hand. Here any unwanted material is removed and resinous material is mixed and coated with ghee.
- After sifting, Guggulu is placed into a stone mortar and pounded until a tick and even mass is achieved. To reduce stickiness, the inside of the mortar is also lightly coated in ghee. The main thing to keep in mind here is that a warm environment greatly increased the efficiency of this method. If the work area or tools is cold, the resin will be much harder to work with.
Note: the steaming method by far produces the largest amount of end product. Subsequent methods produce fewer end products, but what is produced is highly concentrated.
Method 2: boiling
This second procedure closely parallels the method given under ‘Steaming’; only here the cloth parcel is actually immersed into triphala decoction. Having been cooked for about 1.5-2 hours, the cloth is squeezed just prior to removing. This allows any remaining resin to be liberated. Having separated the resin from the gum, the remaining mass is discarded. Note: composting on the garden is the best use for this material.
The retained portion of liquid holds the sattva or essence of Guggulu. To fully recover this, the liquid needs to be reduced on a low heat until all water is removed and only the resin remains. Toward the end of this procedure, resin will starts to cling to the surface of the pan, indicating the water content is all but gone. The final resin collected from the pan is again mixed with ghee and beaten into a homogenous lump.
It is probably worth mentioning here that the liquid content (or decoction) used in these two steps can vary according to end use, or availability. In most cases triphala decoction will be the decoction of choice, however, cows’ urine, milk, or just hot water are also likely to be employed, and roughly do the same job.
Note: Guggulu resin is only partially water soluble, reducing to a milky white consistency in heated water. While an infusion of resin in cold water will discolour a little, it will require heat to help break it up and enable you to clean up after processing.
Method 3: frying
Using this method, Guggulu resin may be lightly fried in ghee. Using a fairly high heat, the resin liquefied and fried. This pliable mass needs to be worked quickly with a wooden spoon. When the material fully liquefies, darkens or begins to stick to the pan, the heat is terminated. At this point, semisolid, sticky cooked resin is removed and its excess oiliness removed. When cool, the mass hardens and can be powdered.
Popular Guggulu formulas
- Kanchanara Guggulu – reduction of glandular swellings and skin diseases
- Goksuradi Guggulu – reduction of osteoarthritis and worn joints
- Kaisora Guggulu – reduction of gout and raised uric acid levels
- Yogaraj Guggulu – strengthens muscular-skeletal system, reduces pain
- Simhanada Guggulu – reduction of swellings and joint pain (rheumatoid arthritis)
- Maha-Yogaraj Guggulu – reduction of urinary stones, respiratory and digestive dysfunctions
Note: Guggulu appears in a good number of Ayurvedic formulas and has an entire category assigned to it in The Ayurvedic Pharmacopeia of India. It has excellent longevity as a remedy, its resin is said to have a shelf life of around 20+ years.7
Contraindications of Guggulu
Ayurveda advises that freshly harvested resin, has a potential to aggravate skin conditions, disturb menstruation (weaken fertility), make one nauseous, create headaches, vertigo and dryness. In some cases it can produce diarrhoea and/or derange liver function. For this reason, fresh resin (less than 12 months) is recommended to be given some level of purification. Indeed, patients experiencing any of the above conditions are contraindicated.
Note: Some texts indicate saffron and curd may be used as an antidote to adverse guggulu reactions.
In the author’s experience, mature batches of Guggulu (more than 2 years) may no longer require shodhana; however, as this processing generally adds potency to the medicine, as well as insuring purity, it seems shodhana should be performed regardless of the age of the resin.