The Energetics of Ayurvedic Herbs

The Ayurvedic way of using food (& herbs) as medicine

In Ayurveda, food and herbs are classed according to their energetic properties.  These properties go beyond taste alone and evaluate 5 different aspects of the substance.

  • Taste (Sanskrit: Rasa)
  • Quality (Sanskrit:  Guna)
  • Potency (Sanskrit:  Virya)
  • Post Digestive Taste (Sanskrit: Vipaka)
  • That Extra Something (Sanskrit: Prabhava)

How do you evaluate the effect of a food or an herb based on these five aspects?  Let's break each one of them down.

Ayurveda Dietary Aspect:  Taste (Rasa)

Ayurveda teaches that there are 6 tastes:

  • sweet
  • salty
  • sour
  • pungent
  • bitter
  • astringent

The sweet and salty tastes build tissue and retain moisture, respectively, so these are especially beneficial for vata individuals and are recommended to reduce in your diet if you have a kapha constitution.

Quickly recapping the three doshas (energies) of Ayurveda:

  • vata:  composed of the air and ether (space) elements, vata encompasses mobility and dryness. 
  • pitta:  composed of fire and water elements, pitta is transformative, quick, and sharp.
  • kapha:  composed of water and earth elements, kapha is stable

According to Ayurveda, each one of us is composed of a unique ratio of these three energies.  When your current ratio of these three energies is different from the ratio of these energies at your conception, you're off balance and without correcting that balance, you're far more likely to slip into a diseased state.

Moving back over to taste.

Sweet in particular is made of earth and water, and it's the most nourishing of the 6 tastes.  Rice and milk are two examples of sweet foods.

Salty is composed of fire and water, and this taste helps the body hold onto moisture.  Aside from salt itself, seaweed is a great example of a salty food.

Sour is composed of earth and fire.  Sour's tasted in unripe fruits, most citrus, and fermented foods like yogurt, buttermilk, and vinegar.  Sour boosts pitta because it heats the body. 

For this reason, despite the presence of the earth element, sour might be conditionally good for kapha types and especially good if you have lots of vata (or vata derangement) in your constitution.

Pungent is composed of the fire and air elements and pungent is synonymous with spicy.  Chili peppers, onion, garlic, and black pepper all display pungent taste.  Pungent foods dilate the channels of the body, and this helps move things in and out of the tissues.  In excess, the fire and air elements associated with pungency will dry the body out and overstimulate both the mind and digestive tract. 

Bitter is composed of space and air, and it's found in foods like coffee, tea, and dark leafy greens. 

Bitter is an excellent purifying taste, however, in excess, it can dry out your body and bring in the effects of the space and air elements making you cold and diminishing your tissues rather than building tissues. 

While it might seem that bitter would be contraindicated for vata dosha, bitter is a highly praised taste in Ayurveda, and one of Dr. Vasant Lad's famous quotes is "bitter is better."  So, even though it's best for kaphas, bitter is also a tonic taste in Ayurveda and considered good for any dosha type.

The sixth taste is astringent.  Astringent is composed of earth and air.  This taste is found in dry and drying substances that create a downward motion within the body.  Examples are red wine, honey, and black tea.  Astringent foods and herbs remove excess water from your body and help to clean the blood.  Despite the earth component, astringent foods (& herbs) are often recommended for kapha types.

The three best tastes for vata:  sweet, sour, salty

The three best tastes for pitta:  sweet, bitter, astringent

The three best tastes for kapha:  pungent, bitter, astringent

Regardless of the three best tastes for your dosha, you need all 6 tastes for balance in your diet, and it's possible to feed a family of mixed doshic individuals a single tridoshic meal.

Ayurveda Dietary Aspect:  Quality (Guna)

According to Ayurveda, everything in the universe is made up of a unique blend of 20 qualities (known as gurvadi gunas in Sanskrit) or 10 pairs of opposing qualities.

These ten pairs are:

hard

soft

mobile

static

cold

hot

clear

cloudy

sharp

dull

rough

smooth

fluid

stable

subtle

gross

dry

wet

light

heavy

 

While each taste exhibits these qualities, the food itself also exhibits these qualities.

For instance, a banana and a watermelon are both sweet in taste, however, the qualities of the banana are:  heavy, wet, dense, smooth, and soft while the qualities of the watermelon are:  light, rough, and crunchy (hard and dry... with watermelon, think of how easily the moisture leaves the meat of the fruit, so despite how moist watermelon is, it's considered dry because the water separates so easily from the meat).

The quality of the food (or the herb) goes beyond the taste.  While it's common to use dried herbs, the qualities of interest are what happens when that herb's rehydrated?  For instance, dried marshmallow root, chia seed, and slippery elm are all mucilaginous when they're soaked in water for a while. 

Compare these to black or green tea or ginger for instance.  Even after soaking these herbs in water for a while, they don't retain that water, and it's very easy to separate water from the herb.

When you're assigning qualities to a food or herb, you don't have to assign all 10 sets of qualities.  Just think about what's most noticeable.  Typically, it's pretty easy to assign 3 or 4 qualities to a food (or herb).

Ayurveda Dietary Aspect:  Potency (Virya)

The effect that a substance (food or herb) has once it's ingested and reacting with enzymes in your body is defined as its potency.

The potency (virya) effect may be either heating or cooling. 

In general, potency is the most important aspect when you're considering whether a food or an herb is appropriate for you or not. 

For herbs especially, this is why it's so important to work with a practitioner,... especially for herbs that are extremely heating or cooling.

For herbs, foods, and spices that are neutral or closer to neutral (mildly heating or cooling), things are more forgiving.  You'll find out more about the potency of a variety of herbs and spices in Kate O'Donnell's book The Everyday Ayurveda Guide to Self-Care.

Ayurveda Dietary Aspect:  Post-digestive Taste (Vipaka)

Once you eat a food, spice, or herb, that initial taste takes on a new taste once the substance has been metabolized.  This post-digestive taste might have one of three effects on your body:

  • sweet:  nourishing & moisturizing with a cooling potency
  • pungent:  hot & dry with a heating potency
  • sour:  hot & moist with a heating potency

Examples of food with a sweet post-digestive taste are cow's milk and grains like rice and wheat.

Examples of food with a pungent post-digestive taste are chili peppers and garlic.

Examples of food with a sour post-digestive effect are tomatoes and lemons.

How does the post-digestive taste help you out?  Kate O'Donnell uses the example of cow's milk vs. goat's milk in her book Everyday Ayurveda Guide to Self-Care

While both types of milk have a sweet taste on the tongue and an unctuous quality, they display different post-digestive tastes.  Cow's milk has a sweet post-digestive taste and is heavy, cooling, and mucilaginous.  Goat's milk has a pungent post-digestive taste and is hot, drying, and heating.

So, if you find yourself congested and feeling heavy after drinking cow's milk, try goat's milk.

Ayurveda Dietary Aspect:  That Something Extra (Prabhava)

If you're like me, when somebody else makes something for me, it just tastes better than when I make it.  "That something extra" is kind of like that when we're talking about foods, herbs, and spices. It's the thing you can't quite put your finger on, the thing that defies logic.  

It's when a food or an herb has a different property than you'd expect based on its initial taste, potency, post-digestive taste, and qualities.

Among other foods, Ayurveda reveres ghee and honey both as extra special.  Why?

Because both of these foods defy logic.

Ghee is oily and unctuous, yet it leaves you feeling light when consumed and it doesn't aggravate pitta dosha.

Honey with its heavy qualities and sweet taste should aggravate kapha dosha, and yet honey's heating and scraping cutting through mucus and helping rid the body of excess.

The 5 Aspects of Taste in Ayurveda

Why is it important to understand the Ayurvedic view of foods, herbs, and spices?  As we begin talking through the common herbs used in skincare, I'll refer to these concepts.  Even though the herbs aren't being consumed in the normal manner (through your digestive tract), Ayurveda views everything that comes into your body whether through your mouth or soaking in through your skin as things your body digests.

And, yes, it's true, things that soak into your skin bypass first pass metabolism, and yet, even so, understanding these 5 aspects of taste according to Ayurveda makes it easier to understand all the factors that influence an herb's effect on your body.

Last time, we talked about 4 different groups of herbs in Ayurvedic skincare, classed according to the effect they have on your skin and your body.

Those classes are:

  • heating and drying
  • heating and moisturizing
  • cooling and moisturizing
  • cooling and drying

Let's begin the deep dive into herbs by looking at Ayurvedic herbs that fall into each of these four categories.

Heating and Drying Ayurvedic Herbs in Skincare

  • Turmeric: a beloved spice in Ayurveda, and one modern science has fallen in love with, turmeric's not widely used in skincare (at least not in appreciable levels topically here in the US) because it stains (a little bit of oil or water will lift a turmeric stain pretty readily from your skin or countertops... cloth isn't so lucky)

  • Manjistha:  also known as Indian Madder Root.  Stay tuned for a future blog post about why Ayurveda loves manjistha for your skin.

Cooling and Drying Ayurvedic Herbs in Skincare

  • Amla (aka Indian gooseberry): amla's one of the three herbs in the Ayurvedic blend, triphala, which is considered a panacea for your overall well-being.  Amla itself is one of the richest natural sources of vitamin C, and the vitamin C is stabilized during processing because of all the other antioxidants also contained in amla.

  • Lodhra:  this herb isn't talked about much outside of Ayurvedic circles and yet, it's among the most revered herbs for skin and for women's health in the Ayurveda Pharmacopeia

Cooling and Moisturizing Ayurvedic Herbs in Skincare

You'll recognize these herbs:

  • aloe
  • rose
  • cucumber
  • hibiscus
  • licorice

We've covered aloe in a previous podcast episode, and you'll find it here:

And, this episode discusses the benefits of rose water and rose hydrosol:

Heating and Moisturizing Ayurvedic Herbs in Skincare

  • Sesame:  one of the most loved oils in Ayurveda and the go to oil for people with a vata constitution, sesame is a very heating oil.  It's also comedogenic (Ayurveda would contribute this to provoking pitta dosha), so it's one I steer clear of in skincare.

  • Saffron:  very well known in cooking, saffron has heating and moisturizing properties.  This one's not readily found in skincare both because of its high price and maybe, more importantly, because it's bright gold/red and prone to staining

  • Guduchi (heart-leaved moonseed):  a lovely cleansing & nourishing herb, guduchi has a unique set of properties enabling it to impart an uncommon action in skincare

References

Head to the links above for each herb for additional details on each (links will be updated as posts are added to the site).  Info referenced in the podcast episode above are linked in those individual posts.
Brandy Searcy founder Rain Organica

About the Author

Brandy's a formulation scientist and self-proclaimed health geek who loves hiking, gardening, bird-watching, and body boarding. 

Her struggle with acne during her teens and 20s led to a holistic and healthy approach to skincare, embracing skin as an organ to be loved and cared for rather than a canvas to wage war on. 

Since 2008, she's been developing all-in-one products for a simple routine at home, & Rain Organica started when her backpacking friends asked for a portable skincare routine to keep their skin healthy & happy on and off the trails.

You can try Rain Organica for yourself with The Essentials Kit, a complete skincare routine in just 3 steps.

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