A Guide to 5 of the Most Popular Ayurvedic Herbs and Adaptogens

Brahmi, Triphala, Shatavari, Shilajit, and Ashwagandha have been around for centuries. Here’s how to best incorporate them into your wellness routine. 

Well over 5000 years ago, the ancient science of medicine—Ayurveda—was born, unveiling a well of profound lifestyle practices and tactics that help to prevent disease and to return one to balance. Cooking with fresh vital foods, incorporating ritualistic self-massage, and honoring one’s emotional health are several of the many principles that anchor Ayurveda and continue to thrive today.

 Ayurvedic Cooking and Healing Adaptogens

Herbs, herbal formulas, and adaptogens are another fundamental aspect of Ayurveda. In India, the earliest practitioners began untapping the wisdom of plants and various earth substances. They recognized the wellness potential and healing energy found in botanicals and began cultivating and incorporating them into their routines by grounding them fresh to be taken orally, adding them to carrier oils to be applied topically, and also honoring the plant essences to be used as aromatherapy. “The pharmacology of Ayurveda is a vast science including thousands of medicines, many of them herbal preparations,” writes Dr. Vasant Lad. Each of these herbs have their “own intelligence.” They can ease aggravated dosha, support detoxification and rejuvenation, and stimulate certain systems in the body.

Today, many are taking notice of these herbs, herbal formulations, and other natural substances for their star-performing wellness benefits. Ayurveda has an array of options to choose from. Some are blends of several fruits or plants and are taken as rasayanas, a general wellness-promoting tonic. Some are adaptogens, meaning their function adjusts according to the specific needs of the body, for which research is steadily growing. And others are non-plant earth substances, such as vegetable asphalts and metals. The well of healing potential is as full as it is eclectic.

 Ayurvedic Healing Adaptogens

In efforts to demystify Ayurvedic herbs and adaptogens, we rounded up five of the most popular: Brahmi, Triphala, Shatavari, Shilajit, and Ashwagandha. And we tapped the expertise of certified Ayurveda practitioner and PanchaKarma technician Sarah Barasch, who incorporates various Ayurvedic herbs into her practice.

Of course, like any medicinal substances, it is critical to take care when embarking a journey with herbs. In essence, the how is as important as the what and why. “The classic Ayurvedic texts state that all substances found in nature have medicinal value when used in proper manner,” writes Lad. Barasch agrees, which is why she suggests seeking the counsel of an Ayurvedic practitioner or doctor, if possible. “It is a financial investment to work with a practitioner, but it’s always a good idea,” says Barasch. This diligence will help to understand your health history, to better understand your imbalances, and to ensure that the herbs or formulations you intend to take do not interfere with any Western medications or other solutions you’re taking. For instance, “you can’t say ‘take licorice’ to someone on the street or on the phone,” says Barasch, “because licorice does increase your blood pressure pretty dramatically if taken every day.”

Top Ayurveda Adaptogens

A practitioner will also help you to understand your primary doshic qualities, guiding you toward the herbs that will complement and balance your energetic qualities—cold, hot, moist, dry, heavy, light, mobile, or idle—in the most beneficial way. Ultimately, the capabilities of Ayurvedic herbs echoes the ethos of the ancient science: There is wisdom found in listening to your body.  

Ashwagandha

It may be often mentioned in modern wellness conversations today, but Ashwagandha has roots that go back centuries upon centuries. A perennial shrub plant native to India, Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that sometimes goes by the names of Indian ginseng or Indian winter cherry.

The benefits:

In the wellness world, you will likely be hard-pressed to find a practitioner who doesn’t tout Ashwagandha. “It is a wonderful herb, says Barasch. A revered Ayurveda rasayana, the adaptogenic qualities of Ashwagandha help the body deal with both psychological and psychological stress. Research shows that it can promote overall vitality and "a youthful state of physical and mental health." It can also provide immunity-enhancing effects, antioxidants, reduce inflammation, and help to support cognitive function, and a healthy nervous system. Barasch also loves it for its abilities to help “build quality healthy tissue and get better sleep.” Ashwagandha can also help to balance excess Vata and Kapha in the body.

How it’s taken:

Ashwagandha is widely commercially available today in powder form, which can be added to water, or capsule form. Because it can vary in terms of quality, source, and potency, it is essential to make sure it is the true organic plant (withania somnifera) and not a commercialized extract. (True certified Ayurvedic practitioners do not use standardized extracts, says Barasch. “We want to work with the whole plant, grinding it in a mortar and pestle.”)

What to consider:

Ashwagandha is tri-doshic, meaning it can complement all the dosha energies, making it suitable for most everyone. But it can be mildly aggravating to Pitta types, says Barasch, as well as those with a build-up of ama.

Triphala

Rather than a single herb, Triphala is actually a blend of three organic fruits native to India— bibhitaki, amalaki, and haritaki. Each fruit is chosen for its complementary wellness boosting properties. Bibhitaki is known to help with detoxification of the muscles, fatty tissue, and blood. (Bibhitaki is great for promoting balance in Kaphas.) Amalaki is rich in Vitamin C and helps to boost the immune system and lower cholesterol. And Haritaki,  also abundant in vitamin C, is full of antioxidants and helps to ease inflammation, promote healing, and enhance brain function. The combination of the complementary fruits makes this polyherbal rasayana one of the most widely used in Ayurveda.

The benefits:

“This is one I recommend all the time,” Barasch says of Triphala, which is revered for its tri-doshic nourishing, cleansing, and balancing properties. Ayurvedic has looked to Triphala as a multi-purpose herbal remedy for various ailments, most notably digestive issues. It has been shown to support internal cleansing, healthy regular bowel movements, and tissue nourishment, according to various studies, while also benefiting the liver. (Some research suggests it may aid in the prevention of colon cancer.) Barasch says Triphala may also aid in weight loss, for some.

How it’s taken:

The three fruits are equally dried, ground, and mixed together to create a medium brown, rather dense powder. Triphala can be taken daily, in either power form added to water, made into a tea (a small spoonful of the ground herbs in a cup of warm or hot water), or capsule form.

What to consider:

Triphala can have a laxative effect, says Barasch, but it is not a stimulant laxative. Therefore, it is safe to take daily. Those who experience noticeable bowel effects may want to consider taking it at night.

Shatavari

A member of the asparagus family, Shatavari (sometimes called “wild asparagus”) is an adaptogenic herb cultivated from the roots of a bush native to India and the Himalayan region. Its name translates to “who possesses a 100 husbands,” which speaks to its ancient wisdom of supporting female health. It is also commonly referred to as “the queen of herbs.”

The benefits:

While Shatavari is viewed  as an adaptogenic rasayana, its primary uses are linked to the restoration of hormonal balance and female reproductive health including supporting breast milk production, increasing libido, and treating PMS symptoms. For these reasons, Shatavari is commonly seen as a tonic for females. Research shows that Shatavari can also aid in improved mental clarity, reduced inflammation, and increased longevity.

How it’s taken:

A cooling and mildly sweet herb, Shatavari can be taken in powder or capsule form. Beneficial use varies person to person, but it is generally taken for specific ailments and not as a daily routine.

What to consider:

This is a “wonderful, gorgeous herb,” says Barasch, but it is one to use with extra care. Shatavari has the potential to interact with excess ama in the system, which “in some cases is not good,” she says. It may also aggravate those with estrogen-dominant conditions or concerns, such as endometriosis.

Shilajit

Shilajit is as surprising as it is incredible. A vegetable asphalt, or sometimes considered a mineral pitch, Shilajit is “basically a rock,” says Barasch. It is a sticky, dark, gooey substance that is excreted from the cracks of rocks in Indian and the Himalayan region. How was this phytocomplex even discovered? Ancient history claims the ancient sages used to watch monkeys eat the sticky substance, which sparked their curiosity about it. Since, Shilajit has gained a strong reputation as a powerful healer.

The benefits:

While its sticky look may cause some to take pause, Ayurvedic practitioners and researchers say this substance is safe and extremely nutrient dense. Shilajit is a mineral powerhouse rich in silica, calcium, copper, magnesium, zinc, and other minerals, as well as botanical antioxidants and amino acids. Studies show Shilajit to help prevent disease, restore energy balance, and strengthen the immune system. More recently, experts have looked to it for its potential to support cognitive function and those who are overall depleted. It also has profound detoxifying and cleansing capabilities, boasting a sort of “scraping effect” that can help to reduce masses and excesses in the body, says Barasch. A lot of the diseases we have are diseases of excess—excess weight, excess food—“so scraping can be good for that,” she adds. Shilajit can help to balance a Kapha excess.

How it’s taken:

Because no one likely wants to take a spoonful of dark goo in its raw form, Shilajit commonly comes in powdered form today, either to be added to water or taken via a capsule. It is safe to take daily but, again, it is best to garner the counsel of a specialist to ensure this is right for you.

What to consider:

While Shilajit is considered to be tri-doshic when used properly, Barasch says to take note that it is not meant to be an “across-the-board miracle remedy” for everything—meaning it is best to be clear on your intentions and health conditions before incorporating it into your routine. It can have warming tendencies, so those with an excess of Pitta should take caution.  

Brahmi

Another ancient herb, Brahmi today actually means two perennial plants that have similar characteristics and benefits: bacopa monnieri and centella asiatica (also called gotu kola or Indian pennywort). Bacopa monnieri was the original Brahmi, but it has been over-sourced, says Barasch, which has left its natural supply drastically depleted, therefore leading people to reach for gotu kola.

The benefits:

Brahmi is touted for its nootropic benefits—meaning it’s a star for cognitive function. Growing research over the past several decades has directly linked Brahmi to being a key player in overall brain enhancement and memory improvement.  (These studies have also unlocked “a myriad of possible mechanisms relating to anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, metal chelation, amyloid, and cholinergic effects amongst many others.”). Perhaps even more profound, Brahmi is looked to for having strong potential in the treatment of neurological disorders, including Alzeheimer’s Disease. Brahmi is also said to enhance consciousness and promote quality sleep.

How it’s taken:

Light and tridoshic, Brahmi has a neutral temperature, says Barasch, making it potentially beneficial for most to take. Most Ayurvedic brain formulations will have Brahmi. It can be found in powder form, to be added to water to make into a tea, or in capsules. (Depending on the source, Brahmi will be offered as simply “Brahmi” or at times the specific plant— bacopa monnieri or centella asiatica/gotu kola—will be named.

What to consider:

Both Brahmi plants are considered to be tridoshic and safe for daily use for most people.

The beauty of Ayurvedic herbs is their potential to unlock a steady path toward balance. They are also a way to better support your holistic Ayurveda journey. Barasch uses the analogy of a bridge: they will help toward great healing, but ultimately the more profound—and consistent—solution is found in cooking fresh, vital foods and honoring your dosha in all ways—every day. 

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