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For many in North America, the term “Ayurveda” isn’t only tough to pronounce – it’s difficult to define.
Practiced for millennia in India, Ayurveda (phonetically ai-ur-vey-duh) is one of the oldest forms of medicine in the world. Generally speaking, Ayurvedic practitioners and doctors prescribe herbs and whole foods (such as kitchari, a rice and lentil concoction that is the backbone of many Ayurvedic fasts) and lifestyle interventions such as yoga to help stoke their patients’ digestive “fire” – called agni – prevent disease and treat many common maladies.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health estimates that around 240,000 American adults, or about one-tenth of 1% of the total population, actively practice Ayurvedic medicine. And there are aspects of Ayurveda that are gaining credence in scientific circles. A 2018 review of research on pranayama, the Ayurvedic breathing technique used during yoga, concluded that in addition to reducing stress, the practice also has positive effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and cognition. Meditation, one of the backbones of Ayurveda, is a well-known mood regulator and has been found to preserve the grey matter of aging brains. And perhaps most exciting is Ayurveda’s focus on the gut, which scientists have revealed is the control center of the body, affecting a wide range of functions such as mood, immunity and how likely you are to be overweight.
Though most reputable studies on Ayurveda have been conducted on small sample sizes, some reports suggest it provides a better quality of life for cancer survivors and that it can help regulate certain side effects of type 2 diabetes and arthritis. As with many health-focused practices, Ayurveda isn’t all or nothing: Proponents caution that the practice should be used as a complement to, not a substitution for, Western medicine. As Kusum Bhandari, an Ayurvedic practitioner and certified holistic coach, notes, “There are instances where, when disease progresses, you want to make use of Western medicine, like drugs or surgery.”
While most practitioners recommend adding Ayurvedic herbs in their whole-food forms, when diet alone won’t cut it or your dosha is extremely out of balance, supplementation can be helpful. These four common herbs, Ayurvedic staples with anecdotal and proven benefits, are a great place to start.
Related: Foods That Cool
What’s Your Dosha?
Your dosha is your personal constitution or the energies and elements that create your physical, mental and emotional being.
“We are created with all five elements (air, ether, fire, water and earth),” explains Kimberly Rossi, director of business development for North Carolina’s Art of Living Retreat Center and Shankara Ayurveda Spa. You can determine your dosha by visiting an Ayurvedic specialist or Ayurvedic doctor, but there are also many online quizzes that can provide insights.
There are specific foods and types of weather that agree best with each dosha (see “Attributes” below), The doshas can also be applied to the time of year and day. Since the seasons around the world differ, how to restore balance can vary depending on your location, says Rossi. You may be directed by a specialist to eat more or less of certain foods and to focus on or abstain from certain forms of activity over the course of the year.
A broad look at each dosha is included below. Most people are a combination of two doshas, with one being more dominant.
Vata – Air and ether
Characteristics: Creative, seeks new experiences, naturally thin
Attributes: Dry, light, cold, rough
Pitta – Fire and water
Characteristics: Strong willed, natural leader, muscular build
Attributes: Hot, sharp, liquid, oily
Kapha – Earth and water
Characteristics: Loyal, compassionate, gains weight easily
Attributes: Slow, cold, dense, soft
Also known as carom or ajowan caraway, ajwain is traditionally used in Ayurveda as a treatment for diarrhea, bloating and fainting spells. Ajwain extract has antioxidant properties and has been found to be effective at inhibiting the growth of Candida albicans, a common fungus that, if overgrown, can cause issues such as thrush or yeast infections.
Try: DR WAKDE’S Carom Seed Capsules (60 count). $19, drwakde.com
In Ayurvedic medicine, cinnamon is used to help stoke the digestive fires and improve circulation and respiration, and some studies have found that it helps lower blood sugar levels in diabetics by improving insulin resistance. Since there is no recommended daily amount, keeping your intake to a moderate level – under two grams, or around one teaspoon, daily – is the best and safest approach.
Try: New Chapter Cinnamon Force (60 count). $40, newchapter.com
Possibly the most common herb in Ayurveda (some sources report it has 46 names and synonyms), turmeric is traditionally used in many forms, including as a paste, tea, tincture and powder. Curcumin, one of the substances found in turmeric, has been shown to have an anti-arthritic effect in humans as well as the ability to reduce blood pressure and inflammation.
Try: Garden of Life – myKind Organics Extra Strength Turmeric (60 count). $25, gardenoflife.com
Related: Turmeric Ginger Latte
Followers of Ayurveda with stomach issues may be told to take fenugreek, another herb that is purported to enhance digestion and stimulate appetite. It may also benefit you in the gym: A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that 500 milligrams of fenugreek helped to enhance upper- and lower-body strength in trained male athletes.
Try: Now Foods Fenugreek 500 mg (100 count). $9, nowfoods.com