In Ayurveda, herbs are the foremost medicines. They are taken for acute illness, to prevent disease and to maintain balanced health. Still, to be sure, their use depends on precise self assessment. And these distinctions, while perhaps unfamiliar to us here, allow Ayurvedic consumers to individualize their personal herb choices.
Traditional Ayurveda cares little about chemistry, instead relying on picking herbs for their “energetics”, in which a health evaluation is based on experiencing the body with the five human senses. When you take an herb, does it speed you up, or slow you down? Help your tissues stay moist, or dry you out? Make you feel warmer, or cooler? By narrowing down herbal energetics, we can design herb selections with power, potency and targeted effects.
Ayurveda classifies herbal actions based partly on temperature, a complex metaphor that includes influence on metabolic rate as well as actual body temperature. A good way to understand the broad concept is as a spectrum from hypometabolic (cold) to hypermetabolic (hot). As the metabolic rate increases, more calories are burned. Temperature and all other biological processes increase. The opposite is true for the cold direction.
If you could use a circulatory boost, improved digestion, fewer allergies, and a little warmth to those cold hands and feet, add some spice to your life.
If you’ve ever eaten Indian food, you might know that Ayurveda makes very little distinction between food and medicine. Herbs go in food for taste, and for medicinal effects, or food is mixed into herbs to make them palatable, so many warming herbs are those we think of as culinary spices, such as garlic, mustard and cloves, whereas dandelion and spearmint are cooling herbs.
Ayurvedic expert Alan Tillotson, Ph.D., author of The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook, says, “Herbs that are warming help to disperse and counteract pathogenic agents present when the body has excess mucus. Warming herbs also reduce disturbances to the nervous system.”
On the whole, warming herbs promote digestion, and black pepper is an excellent example. Though it’s little respected here, it is one of the most valued herbs in Asia. Piperine, a main active ingredient, has a reputation for increasing bioavailability and absorption of nutrients. In one study, scientists measured the absorption of turmeric active ingredients. Administering the turmeric along with piperine increased bioavailability by 154%, and reduced the time for absorption by half. Another study confirms what Ayurveda says about black pepper- it reduces depression and enhances cognition. Piperine also protects against liver damage almost as well as milk thistle > Studies 1, Study 2, Study 3.
Use pepper liberally as a culinary spice, or brew some spicy peppercorns into your tea of choice.
Tillotson adds, “In another sense, the efficacy or action of an herb depends upon its dilating and constricting effects. Herbs are classified according to those which dilate and generate heat, and those which constrict and cause a cooling sensation. In general, sour, salty and pungent tasting herbs generate heat.”
Ginger is just such a pungent herb, called “the universal medicine.” This spicy root can be given to almost anyone, and will almost always have at least some benefit. In capsules, food or delicious tea, it increases circulation, promotes digestion, and reduces phlegm in the lungs. Ginger is used to treat, among other diseases, colds, indigestion, nausea, arthritis, hemorrhoids, and menstrual cramps > Study 1, Study 2.
Long pepper, a famous Ayurvedic herb, is a two inch long peppercorn closely related to black pepper, with which it is often combined. But it tends to moisturize tissues, such as the lungs, while black pepper dries them out. Long pepper is available in capsules.
This trio of warming herbs forms the famous “trikatu” (“three pungents”) formula. Michael Tierra, L.Ac., author of Planetary Herbology, comments, “I always use trikatu, combination of black pepper, ginger and long pepper for respiratory allergies and add it to formulas to balance cold and damp conditions.”
For a few more warming Ayurvedic choices, look at cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, anise, cumin and basil.