Written by Sebastian Pole
“There is nothing in the world which does not have therapeutic utility when applied in appropriate conditions and situations.” – Charaka Samhita Sutrasthana
The creation of Ayurvedic formulas is based on some fundamental herbal pharmacological principles that are all grouped together in what is known as the dravyaguna shastra – the treatise on the qualities of medicinal substances. Over 6,000 species have been described in Ayurveda, though perhaps around 600 are in common use today. At its heart is a very simple idea that opposites balance each other (samanya-vishesha). And that the opposite is also true that ‘like increases like’. Essentially it promotes the idea that substances with like qualities increase each other proportionally; Cinnamon + Ginger = double spicy, very heating, Neem + Andrographis = double bitter, very cooling; and those with opposing qualities balance each other; cooling diets, lifestyles or herbs such as Aloe vera remove hot inflammation, whilst heavy herbs like Ashwagandha balance lightness.
Below is a list of the different criteria that are used in Ayurveda to differentiate the potency of each herb that need to be considered when combining herbs:
- Taste (rasa): Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent (Find more about tastes in our article The Six Tastes of Ayurveda)
- Effect on the metabolic thermal body (virya): Hot, cold and neutral; this category clarifies whether herbs warm you up or cool you down, if they stimulate or reduce the digestive fire, whether they are expansive or contractile by nature, whether they increase circulation or reduce it.
The quantity of impact is graded into degrees:
|Degree of heat||Heating flavours|
|hot in the third degree (hottest)||Pungent (katu)|
|hot in the second degree||Sour (amla)|
|hot in the first degree||Salty (lavana)|
|Degree of cold||Cooling flavours|
|cold in the third degree (coldest)||Bitter (tikta)|
|cold in the second degree||Sweet (madhura)|
|cold in the first degree||Astringent (kashaya)|
- Post-digestive effect (vipaka): How the taste of a natural substance changes after digestion and cooking, hence how it influences the doshas and physiology in the long-term. This rather unique interpretation primarily refers to the long-term effects on the fluids of the body and their impact on the bowels and fertility. Drying bitter and pungent herbs, like neem for example, are considered to reduce fertility if used long-term as they ‘dry’ the reproductive fluids.
- Effect on the digestion, fluid system and tissues in the body (guna): The herbs have qualities of light, heavy, unctuous, drying, penetrating and soft; e.g Mint is light, Shatavari is heavy, Aloe Vera is unctuous, Cinnamon is drying.
- The unique properties of the plant (prabhava): This describes what the plant’s unique activities are above and beyond their energetics. For example, Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is classified as heating but it therapeutically helps to clear heat and reduce fever through diaphoresis. This means that whatever the causes of the fever Tulsi is indicated, along with other appropriate herbs, and this is its prabhava; jwarahara– the fever destroyer.
- Tropism (satmya): The affinity a plant has for a certain organ, tissue or channel (ashaya/dhatu/srotas); e.g. Garlic for the lungs, Turmeric for the liver, Brahmi for the brain.
- Constitutional (dosha): The effect of the herb on the constitution; i.e. whether it increases, decreases or balances the doshas.
These energetic descriptions of the herbs are all based on the different qualities of nature. To use an artistic metaphor, the theory of energetic pharmacology is the canvas; this is the basis. The herbs are the paints that the artist uses to paint a picture full of texture, depth, colour and clarity. How the colours of the paints are blended depends on the artist’s interpretation of the scene in front of them, just as the energetic qualities of the herbs are merely guides along the path to finding the perfect formula for the patient. They are not absolutes. This is the stroke of the brush that gives the picture its unique quality. The interpretations of herbal energetics are flexible and depend on who is taking how much, of what and when. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so herbal energetics are in the senses of the experiencer. The skill of the herbalist lies in uniting the theoretical framework of energetic pharmacology (dravyaguna), with the reality of the balanced or imbalanced physiological state of the patient (dosha prakriti and dosha vikriti).
Ayurvedic treatment strategy
“Drugs act by virtue of their own nature and qualities at the proper time, in a given place, in appropriate conditions and situations; the effect produced is considered to be their action (karma); the factor responsible for the effect is their energy (virya); where they act is the place (adhisthan); when they act is the time (kala), how they act is the mode of action (upaya); what they accomplish is the achievement (phalam).” – Charaka Samhita Sutrasthana
Having arrived at an accurate Ayurvedic diagnosis the next step is to define the treatment plan. Treatment focuses on clearing out excess doshas, ama and malas and strengthening deficient dhatus, agni, prana, tejas and ojas. Ayurveda uses six main techniques to treat disease and create health:
- Reducing (langhana) where there is an excess. Purification (shodhana) or palliation (shamana) are prescribed for reducing any excess pathologies.
- Tonifying (brimhana) where there is deficiency. Sweet and nourishing tonics (rasayana) are given for building strength.
- Drying (rukshana) therapy is used to alleviate any excess fluids in the system. Herbs that are diuretic or remove mucus dry the system.
- Oleating (snehana) treatments moisturise dryness and give unctuousness to the tissues by using oily and demulcent substances.
- Sweating (svedana) therapy reduces coldness, heaviness, stiffness, ama and trapped heat in the body by using steam and diaphoretic herbs.
- Astringing (stambhana) therapy is used to slow the excessive flow of bodily fluids with tannin rich herbs.
When making a formula based on these techniques, you always focus on:
- Disease specific treatment (vyadhi pratyanika):– focus on mitigating the disease
- Dosa specific (dosa pratyanika):– focus on regulating predominant doshic pattern
- Dhatu specific (dhatu pratyanika):– focus on predominant tissue imbalance
- Digestionspecific (agni):– focus on digestive energy
- Clearing toxins (ama):– focus on cleansing with bitter and pungent herbs
And you may include solutions for:
- Removing obstacles: low digestive fire (mandaagni), blocked channels (srotorodha), undigested wastes/toxins (ama), inflammation (raktapitta, shotha), palliation (shamana), deep cleansing (shodhana)
- Increase mental clarity (sattvavajaya), nourishing the intellect (medhya varga)
- Increase circulation (rakta pravritti)
- Rejuvenate inherited strength (ojas), inner metabolic fire (tejas), life-force (prana), general tonic rejuvenation (rasayana)
Carrier Herbs (anupana)
This is the idea that certain substances either act as catalysts or messengers to the main active herb and help carry them to certain parts of the body. The carriers are either mixed with or taken alongside the medicine. Known as an anupana they are the medium that carries the herbs to their intended destination and enhances or moderates their effect. Water (hot or cold), milk, ghee, oil, herb juices, sugar, salt and honey are all used as vehicles.
- Water when hot encourages digestive agni, clears toxic ama and reduces vata and kapha;
- Water when cold reduces pitta;
- Milk counteracts pitta and also encourages the nourishing effect of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) or Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus);
- Ghee carries the herbs deep into the tissues, nourishes the nervous and reproductive systems and it also has a catalytic (yogavahi) effect on the herbs that helps to potentise them;
- Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) carries herbs to all the tissues with a special affinity for the plasma, blood and reproductive tissues;
- Honey clears kapha due to its warming astringency and is often used with herbs that treat the lungs and congested mucus conditions. It stimulates the appetite and prevents excessive excretions. It acts as a catalytic yogavahi substance that enhances the activity of the herbs taken with it
The herbs ride on these carriers like the scent on the wind. Using an anupana can enhance the potency of a preparation as well as facilitating its journey to the intended destination.
Ayurvedic formula review
Famous Ayurvedic formula such as Triphala, Trikatu and Kaishor guggul incorporate these principles. Kaishor Guggul is a classic preparation including Triphala, Trikatu and a range of other herbs for reducing pain and inflammation, with a focus on arthritis, gout and skin problems.
Preparing Kaishor Guggul
Dose: 2 pills 2-3x/day with warm water
Each 250mg pill contains:
|Common name||Latin name||Dose|
|Guggulu||Commiphora mukul (purified)||186.05mg|
Guggulu Shodhana (purification) reference: Bharat Bhaisajya Ratnakara
Triturated with the decoction of: Haritaki (Terminalia chebula), Bibhitaki (Terminalia bellirica), Amalaki (Phylanthus officinalis), Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia)
- Guduchi has a powerful pitta reducing action that penetrates deeply into the tissues.
- Guggulu scrapes the pitta and vata toxins from the plasma, blood and muscle tissues.
- Triphala, vidanga and trivrut combine to clear inflammatory toxins and ama.
- Trikatu digests the toxins in the tissues and enkindles the tissue agni.
‘Kaishor’ indicates ‘youth’, hence it is used to prevent ageing and keep youth intact.
For the best results the Sarangadhara Samhita recommends that when using guggulu preparations one should avoid sour foods, penetrating foods, indigestion, excessive exercise, hot sun, alcohol and anger.
By learning the basic language of herbs, getting to know the herbs and, overtime, developing your intuition you can take these principles and mould them with your expertise using base formulae as building blocks and adjusting as appropriate for each individual case.
Ayurvedic herbal classification
Medicinal substances are classified according to groups that have different physiological actions. The Charaka Samhita lists 50 groups of ten herbs and the Bhavaprakasha Samhita has 24 such categories. These Ayurvedic pharmacological concepts offer deep insight into how herbs work to balance the doshas, dhatus, and malas. They tie together the concepts of taste (rasa), energetics (virya) and post-digestive effect (vipaka) as well as incorporating prabhava so that we can have a clear understanding of the primary action of the herb. The list below contains some of the most popular categories listed throughout the Ayurvedic literature.
- Abhishyandi: These substances block the channels and cause heaviness. The flow of rasa is hindered and stagnation occurs when too much of these substances are used. They are mainly unctuous and heavy in nature; eg. yoghurt obstructs the flow in the channels.
- Anuloma: These herbs help vayu to move in its appropriate direction. They are often mild aperients and help with flatulence and constipation. They are usually aromatic and carminative herbs, commonly from the Umbelliferacea family, such as Fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare) or Ajmoda (Apium graveolens).
- Arsoghna: There are anti-haemorrhoidal remedies such as Chitrak (Plumbago zeylanicum) or Ginger (Zingiber officinale).
- Artava janana: Herbs promoting the menstrual flow such as Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha).
- Balya: This means strengthening and these herbs are tonics. They are usually heavy and filled with the earth element, like Bala (Sida cordifolia) or Ashwagandha (Withania somniferum).
- Bhedaniya: These are purgative herbs that forcibly expel the solid and liquid parts of faeces. Kutki (Picorrhiza kurroa) has this effect at a high dose.
- Brmhaniya: These are nourishing herbs that are full of the water element; e.g. Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus).
- Chaksushya: These herbs improve eyesight; e.g. Amalaki (Phyllanthus officinalis).
- Chhardi nigrahana: These are anti-emetic herbs such as fresh Ginger (Zingiber officinale recens), Pomegranate juice (Punica granatum) or Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum).
- Chedana: These herbs actively draw out toxins by scratching them from the tissues; Guggul (Commiphora mukul), Shilajit (Asphaltum) and Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) all help to detoxify the deeper tissues.
- Daha prasamana: These herbs alleviate burning sensations in the body, such as Sandalwood (Santalum album) or Coriander (Coriandrum sativum).
- Dipaniya:These herbs enkindle the digestive fire. They indirectly digest ama. They are usually pungent, hot and dry; for example Long Pepper (Piper longum), Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) and Chitraka (Plumbago zeylanicum).
- Garbashaya: These herbs have an affinity for the uterus, such as Ashoka (Saraca indica) and Roses (Rosa centifolia).
- Grahi: These herbs dry the moisture of the body and of the wastes; Ginger (Zingiber officinale), Cumin (Cuminum cyminum).
- Hikka nigrahana: These herbs are anti-hiccough such as Clove (Syzygium aromaticum).
- Hridaya: These herbs have a tonic effect on the heart; Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna) and Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera).
- Jeevaniya: These herbs are life-giving and rejuvenative herbs such as Amalaki (Phyllanthus officinalis).
- Jwarahara: These are anti-pyretic herbs for stopping fevers including Musta (Cyperus rotundus) and Kalmegh (Andrographis paniculata).
- Kandughna: These are anti-pruritic herbs such as Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and Musta (Cyperus rotundus).
- Kanthya:These herbs are renowned for their affinity for the throat; for example Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Long Pepper (Piper longum).
- Kasahara: These are anti-tussive herbs such as Vasaka (Adhatoda vasaka) or Long Pepper (Piper longum).
- Krumighna: These herbs are specifically for removing parasites and worms; for example Neem (Azadiracta indica) or Kalmegh (Andrographis paniculata).
- Kushtaghna: These are herbs that treat skin diseases such as Neem (Azadiracta indica) or Manjishta(Rubia cordifolia).
- Lekhaniya: These herbs ‘scrape’ the waste residues out of the body by a drying action. They are usually bitter and pungent in flavour; for example Guggul (Commiphora mukul), Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), Vacha (Acorus calamus), Turmeric (Curcuma longa), Triphala, Barley and Honey.
- Madakari: These are substances that cause intoxication, such as alcohol.
- Mutra sangrahaniya: These herbs reduce the flow of urine such as Bhallataka (Semecarpus anarcadium)
- Mutravirechana: These herbs are diuretics that increase the flow of urine, such as Gokshura (Tribulus terrestris) and Coriander (Coriandrum sativum).
- Nidrajnana: These herbs promote sound sleep; eg Tagarah (Valeriana wallichi), Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Pachana: These herbs directly ‘digest’ ama. They do not necessarily stimulate digestion as well; e.g. Triphala.
- Praja sthapana: These herbs prevent miscarriage such as Ashoka (Saraca indica).
- Pramathi:These herbs remove the accumulated doshas from the dhatusand cells; e.g. Vacha (Acorus calamus) and Black Pepper (Piper nigrum).
- Purisha sangrahaniya: These are intestinal astringents that stop diarrhoea such as Bilva (Aegle marmelos).
- Rakta shodhana (rakta prasadana): These herbs specifically clean the blood and ‘alter’ its chemistry so that it does not cause inflammatory problems; for example Manjishta (Rubia cordifolia).
- Rechana: These herbs are cathartics. They forcibly expel faeces as semi-solid diarrhoea; e.g. Castor oil (Ricinis communis) or Rhubarb root (Rheum palmatum).
- Rasayani: These herbs rejuvenate the cells and extend life. They are anti-oxidants and also remove diseases; e.g. Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia), Amalaki (Phyllanthus officinalis) and Haritaki (Terminalia chebula).
- Samjanasthapana: These herbs are used to restore consciousness; eg Vacha (Acorus calamus).
- Sandhaniya: These herbs heal broken bones and hasten the repair of broken bone tissue. Guggul (Commiphora mukul) is famous for this. Resins have a significant role here because resins in general are considered to relate to the blood part of plants just as the bark of trees is said to relate to bone tissue. The analogy is that just as resin heals the bark so it heals the bone. They also encourage circulation to flow to the wounded part of the body and hasten healing.
- Shamana: These are herbs that reduce the pathogenic level of a dosha to a more healthful level. The dosha is not expelled from the body, it is calmed. These are ‘palliative’ herbs; e.g. Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia).
- Shirovirechan: These are herbs that clear the orifices of the head, also known as errhines. Such herbs are Vacha (Acorus calamus) or Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum).
- Shodhana: These herbs actually clear the excess doshas out of the body; e.g. Triphala, Castor oil (Ricinus communis) or Manjishta (Rubia cordifolia).
- Shonita sthapana: These are haemostatic herbs such as Manjishta (Rubia cordifolia).
- Shramshana: Herbs that are laxatives and clear faeces before complete digestion is complete; e.g. Trivrut (Operculina turpethum).
- Shula prasamana These are anti-colic herbs that prevent intestinal spasms; for example Hingu (Ferula asafoetida) or Cumin (Cuminum cyminum).
- Shukrala: Herbs that increase semen and/or give force to its ejaculation; e.g. Amalaki (Phyllanthus officinalis), Aswagandha (Withania somnifera) and Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus).
- Shukra janana: These are sperm increasing herbs; for example Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and Safed Musali (Asparagus adcendens).
- Shukra shodhana: These herbs purify the sperm such as Gokshura (Tribulus terrestris).
- Snehopaga: These are moistening herbs such as Castor oil (Ricinis communis) or Tila/Sesame (Sesamum indicum)..
- Stambhana: These are astringent herbs that are constipating, stop bleeding and are drying. They have the properties of vata and so increase it. Manjishta (Rubia cordifolia) is a renowned astringent that stops bleeding diseases.
- Stanya janana: These herbs can increase lactation; for example Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus).
- Stanya shodhana: These herbs purify the breast milk such as Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and Musta (Cyperus rotundus).
- Sukshma: These herbs are penetrating herbs that can travel through the minutest channels, such as Salt, Neem oil (Azadiracta indica) and Gotu Kola (Hydrocotyle asiatica).
- Swasahara: These herbs prevent breathing difficulties such as Somalata (Ephedra vulgaris) and Vasaka (Adhatoda vasaka).
- Swedopaga: Herbs that induce sweating such as Vasaka (Adhatoda vasaka).
- Triptighna: These herbs are thirst quenching such as Amalaki (Phyllanthus officinalis).
- Udara prasamana: These are allergy treating herbs such as Pit shirish (Albizzia lebbek).
- Vajikarana: These are aphrodisiacs that increase sexual desire, strengthen the reproductive system and nourish shukra dhatu; for exampleKapikacchu (Mucuna pruriens), Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera).
- Vamana: These are emetic herbs. They work specifically on pitta and kapha that have accumulated in the stomach. They move upwards and outwards. High doses of Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) are emetic as is Madanphala (Randia dumentorium).
- Varnya:These herbs benefit the complexion and skin lustre. Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis), Sandalwood (Santalum album) or Rose water (Rosa centifolia).
- Vedana sthapana: These are analgesic herbs such as Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) or Ashoka (Saraca indica).
- Vikasi: These herbs destroy the tone of the joints by loosening the ligaments; e.g. Betel nut (Areca catechu).
- Virechana: These herbs are purgatives that move downwards. They dissolve undigested foods and expel them; e.g. Haritaki (Terminalia chebula).
- Vishaghna: These are anti-toxin herbs that destroy ‘poison’ in the system; e.g. Neem (Azadiracta indica), Kutki (Picrorrhiza kurroa) and Sariva (Hemidismus indica).
- Vyavayi: These herbs spread everywhere in the body and are then digested; e.g. Ganja (Cannabis sativum) and Opium (Papaver somniferum).
- Yogavahi: These are catalyst herbs. When they are mixed with another herb they enhance its action; e.g. Ginger (Zingiber officinale), Honey and Ghee.
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