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The Art & Science of Herbal Formulation: Ayurvedic Formulation

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 heatHeating flavours
hot in the third degree (hottest)Pungent (katu)
hot in the second degreeSour (amla)
hot in the first degreeSalty (lavana)
Degree of coldCooling flavours
cold in the third degree (coldest)Bitter (tikta)
cold in the second degreeSweet (madhura)
cold in the first degreeAstringent (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). 

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