Dr. Michael Tierra L.Ac., O.M.D.
The most popular herbal remedies in the health food industry are those that promote bowel movement. The reason is quite simple since a very common problem for so many individuals is constipation and bowel irregularity. Consider how tremendously valuable a formula is that not only regulates bowel movement but at the same time does the following:
Sound like a panacea? Well, it is practically just that.
Triphala, as it is called, is the most popular Ayurvedic herbal formula of India, since it is an effective laxative that also supports the body's strength. The constitution of vegetarian Hindus cannot tolerate harsh laxatives anymore than vegetarians in other countries. Because of its high nutritional value, Triphala uniquely cleanses and detoxifies at the deepest organic levels without depleting the body's reserves. This makes it one of the most valuable herbal preparations in the world.
How is Triphala different from other kinds of laxatives? There are two primary types of herbal laxatives. One is called a purgative and includes herbs such as senna, rhubarb, leptandra, buckthorne and cascara. These often contain bitter principles in the form of anthroquinones that work by stimulating the peristaltic action of the intestinal lining, either directly or by promoting the secretion of bile through the liver and gall bladder.
The second type of laxative is a lubricating bulk laxative, including demulcent herbs such as psyllium and flax seed. This is more nutritional and usually does not have any significant direct effect on either the liver or the gall bladder. Instead, these work like a sponge by swelling and absorbing fluid, thus acting as an intestinal broom.
Triphala combines both nutritional as well as blood and liver cleansing actions. It has little function as a demulcent or lubricating laxative, however. It possesses some anthroquinones that help to stimulate bile flow and peristalsis. The nutritional aspect is in the form of its high vitamin C content, and the presence of linoleic oil and other important nutrients that make it more of a tonic.
People who are in need of purgatives are those whose bowel irregularity is caused by liver and gall bladder congestion, usually accompanied, to some degree, by blood toxins. Those in need of demulcent laxatives are those with intestinal dryness caused by a variety of metabolic factors including a nutritional deficiency as well as a condition of excess hypermetabolic energy. Triphala will prove useful for all kinds of constipation except that caused by a lack of vital energy or chi. Even for the latter type, it will not further deplete such an individual and can be made to work well if it is combined with other chi, blood or yang-warming tonic herbs such as ginseng for chi tonification, tang kuei for blood tonification and prepared aconite for yang tonification.
Herbal healing is largely a matter of strategy. One approach may emphasize tonification while another emphasizes elimination. The problem with overemphasizing tonification is that it can lead to further stagnation and congestion in an excess condition. Emphasizing elimination through the overuse of purgatives in an already deficient individual can further deplete the body's store of minerals and essential B vitamins and can also cause an imbalance of beneficial intestinal microorganisms. The result is weakness with a likely tendency towards chronic fatigue and anemia. Since the body is always simultaneously involved with maintaining and gaining strength through good nutrition as well as eliminating waste, Triphala is unique in that it is naturally able to support both vital processes simultaneously.
Because of its high nutritional content, Ayurvedic doctors generally do not regard Triphala as a mere laxative. Some of the scientific research and practical experience of people who have used it down through the ages has demonstrated that Triphala is an effective blood purifier that stimulates bile secretion as it detoxifies the liver, helps digestion and assimilation, and significantly reduces serum cholesterol and lipid levels throughout the body. As a result, it is regarded as a kind of universal panacea and is the most commonly prescribed herbal formula.
A popular folk saying in India is: "No mother? Do not worry so long as you have Triphala." The reason is that Indian people believe that Triphala is able to care for the internal organs of the body as a mother cares for her children. Each of the three herbal fruits of Triphala takes care of the body by gently promoting internal cleansing of all conditions of stagnation and excess while at the same time it improves digestion and assimilation.
We herbalists believe that the longevity and innate power of herbs such as those of Triphala are, when ingested, energetically absorbed and imparted to our reserves. This belief exists with herbs such as wild ginseng, where specimens that have "weathered" decades of climatic stress have been found to contain the highest concentration of ginsenosides. The Ginkgo tree is another of those long lived plants whose evolution extends back over millennia to the time of the dinosaurs.
The three fruits of Triphala (Harada, Amla and Bihara) each correspond to the "three humours" or "tridosha" of Indian Ayurvedic medicine. According to Ayurvedic theory, the body is composed of three doshas or humours. Vata is sometimes translated as "wind" which corresponds to the mind and nervous system. Its nature is dry, cold, light and activating. The second is pitta which is also translated as "fire" or "bile." It is responsible for all metabolic transformations including the digestion and assimilation of food as well as assimilation and clarity of thought and understanding. The nature of pitta is primarily hot, moist and light. Kapha is sometimes translated as the "water" or "mucus" humour and is responsible for all anabolic or building functions such as the development of muscle and bone tissue. Its nature is cool, moist and heavy.
Harada, having a bitter flavor, is associated with the vata humour and with elemenst of well air and space. It treats imbalances and diseases of the vata humour. Harada possesses laxative, astringent, lubricant, antiparasitical, alterative, antispasmodic and nervine properties. It is therefore used to treat acute and chronic constipation, nervousness, anxiety and feelings of physical heaviness.
Among Tibetans, Harada is so highly revered for its purifying attributes that it is the small fruit that is depicted in the hands of the "medicine Buddha" in their sacred paintings or tankas. Of the three fruits, Harada is the most laxative and contains anthroquinones similar to those found in rhubarb and cascara.
Amla has a sour flavor and corresponds to the pitta humour and the fire element in Ayurvedic medicine. It is a cooling tonic, astringent, mildly laxative, alterative, antipyretic. It is used to treat fire imbalances that include ulcers, inflammation of the stomach nd intestines, constipation, diarrhea, liver congestion, eruptions, infections and burning feelings throughout the body. In various studies, Amla has been shown to have mild anti-bacterial properties, as well as pronounced expectorant, anti-viral and cardiotonic activity.
Amla is the highest natural known source of vitamin C, having 20 times the vitamin C content of an orange. The vitamin C in Amla is also uniquely heat stable. Even when subjected to prolonged high heat, as in the making of the Ayurvedic tonic formula called Chyavanprash (Amla, as the primary herb comprises 50% of the formula), it loses hardly any of the vitamin C that was present when it was freshly harvested off the tree. The same is true of Amla that has been dried and kept for up to a year. This age and heat stable form of vitamin C that Amla possesses is due to the presence of certain tannins that bind and inhibit its dissipation.
Bihara is astringent, tonic, digestive and anti-spasmodic. Its primary flavor is astringent and the secondary is sweet, bitter and pungent. It targets imbalances associated with the kapha or mucus humour, corresponding to the earth and water elements in Ayurvedic medicine. Specifically Bihara purifies and balances excess mucus, treats asthma, bronchiole conditions, allergies and hiccoughs.
Ama is a term denoting a substance associated in Ayurveda with chronic disease patterns and symptoms of aging. It is described as a kind of sticky buildup of material that clogs the circulatory channels. In many ways it is nearly identical to the accumulation of excess cholesterol and blood lipids described in the West. Both conditions seem to contribute to a wide variety of circulatory disorders ranging from senility to rheumatic conditions, cancer and heart disease. It is interesting that in Traditional Chinese Medicine there is also a pathological condition associated with the heart called "invisible mucus" that is similar to the descriptions of both excess cholesterol in the West, and ama in Ayurveda.
One of the body's reactions to coping with stress is to increase the production of corticosteroids. The accumulation of these stress hormones can also contribute to the formation of cholesterol. Internal stress and the resultant buildup of cholesterol can be caused by the abuse of stimulants, spicy, hot foods such as garlic and cayenne, excessive aerobic exercise and repression of the emotions. It is interesting that some of the very substances and activities that can lower cholesterol in some, when not utilized in a holistic, balanced manner, can act as a stimulant and add further stress that would precipitate the further accumulation of cholesterol. Triphala is one of two Ayurvedic formulations that are specific for eliminating Ama and cholesterol from the body.
Triphala is a completely balanced energetic formula, being neither too cold, nor too hot. When taken regularly over a long period, it gently effects the elimination and purification of Ama from the tissues of the entire body. The three fruits have been scientifically studied and confirm some of its known traditional benefits. These include the lowering of cholesterol, reducing high blood pressure, benefiting circulation, improving digestion and regulating elimination without causing any laxative dependency.
One Indian study reported by C.P. Thakur, demonstrated the enormous value and effectiveness of Amla, in reducing serum, aortic and hepatic cholesterol in rabbits. In another study, extracts of Amla fruit were found to decrease serum free fatty acids and increase cardiac glycogen. This helps to prevent heart attacks by providing significantly greater protection and nourishment to the heart muscle.
Studies of the fruit of Bihara found that it contains up to 35% oil and 40% protein. The oil is used in soap making and by the poorer classes,as a substitute cooking oil for ghee. The sweet smelling oil is 35% palmitic, 24% oleic and 31% linoleic. Linoleic oil is an essential fatty acid important for increasing HDL cholesterol, associated with a healthy state and reducing LDL cholesterol, considered to indicate a higher-than-average risk for developing coronary-heart disease.
One of numerous studies of Harada demonstrated its anti-vata or anti-spasmodic properties by the reduction of abnormal blood pressure as well as intestinal spasms. This confirms its traditional usefulness for heart conditions, spastic colon and other intestinal disorders.
With all the virtues of the three individual herbs, Triphala has many wide and varied uses as a therapeutic herbal food. Before considering pathological indications for which Triphala would be appropriate, we should never ignore the value of taking it on some regular basis whether once daily or once or twice a week simply for health maintenance. Triphala, having great nutritional properties, will help to prevent sickness.
I remember meeting a yogic master who was in his late eighties and staying in Santa Cruz for a few months. Being clear of mind and body, he could out walk anyone, both in terms of speed and distance. Besides his practice of meditation, he considered the fact that his remarkable fitness and health was primarily due to the fact that his diet consisted primarily of Kichari(mung beans, rice, ghee and spices, i.e., cumin, coriander, turmeric and salt) and a daily dose of Triphala as the primary herbal tonic.
I have numerous reports of individuals with chronic constipative tendencies who were able to regulate their bowels with the use of Triphala. One patient with a history of bowel irregularity was suffering from pyorrhea. After taking Triphala twice a day for three months, she was completely cured. Another patient who was at least 40 pounds overweight began taking Triphala and lost 20 pounds in a month with hardly any modifications in her diet. The reason is that because such severe obesity is usually accompanied by congestion of the internal organs of elimination, including the liver and bowels. As a result, digestion is compromised with the poorly assimilated food contributing to the organ congestion. For such conditions, Triphala can be highly effective in removing stagnation of both the liver and intestines.
Regardless of any other herbs being used, Triphala can be prescribed singly or adjunctively whenever there are symptoms of inflammation, heat, infection, obesity and other conditions of excess. Because of its combined tonic and eliminative properties, it is generally quite safe to give even for deficiency diseases including anemia, fatigue, candida, poor digestion and assimilation. Unlike other eliminative and cleansing herbs, Triphala may be safely taken for symptoms of wasting heat that frequently accompanies diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and AIDS.
There are two ways to take Triphala, as a powder or tablet. Traditionally Triphala is taken as a churna or powder. One would stir in two or three grams of the powder with warm water and consume the entire amount each evening or divided into three doses throughout the day. Since for most it does not possess a flavor that one would look forward to experiencing, it is convenient that Triphala is available in tablet or capsule form. Generally the dose is from two tablets 1-3 times daily or four to six tablets one time daily. Children may only require one or two tablets in the evening.
The larger dose is more laxative while the smaller dose tends to be more gradually blood purifying. A smaller dose might be one or two tablets three times daily. One should increase or decrease the dose according to one's bowel movements. Since there are no problems in using Triphala, the dose can be adjusted upwards from the suggested amount.
Triphala is also widely taken for all eye diseases including the treatment of conjunctivitis, progressive myopia, the early stages of glaucoma and cataracts. For these conditions, it is taken daily both internally as described above, as well as externally as an eye wash. Steep one tablespoonful of the powder or six tablets in an 8 ounce glass of water overnight. In the morning, strain the infusion through a clean cloth. The resultant tea is used to sprinkle over the eyes or used in an eyewash with an eyecup that can be readily purchased at most drug stores. One can drink the remainder in one or two doses, morning and evening. Taken in this way for at least three months, Triphala becomes an herbal eye tonic.
As stated, there can be different reactions to the same dose of triphala. For some it causes too loose bowels while in others it may have little or no effect. As a result, it may take two or three days to regulate the dose that is best. After the constipative tendencies are removed, usually within 15 days of daily application, it will no longer cause loose bowels.
Presently Triphala is distributed and available in the U.S. from a few different sources. The powder can be purchased in most Indian food import stores in larger cities. Tablets are currently manufactured and distributed by Planetary Herb Formulas as well as a few other companies.
I have used Triphala as a regular part of my clinical practice for at least ten years. I know that other Ayurvedic doctors both here and in India also regularly prescribe Triphala for most of their patients to be taken at least once each evening. For centuries, Triphala has been known and used as a standard household health supplement much as vitamins are in the West. In many households, Triphala is taken on a weekly basis by all family members to prevent disease and maintain health.
In India, Triphala is considered the greatest and most versatile of all herbal formulations. With the presence of such a vitamin C rich herbal food as Amla, it possesses unique nutritive tonic and eliminative properties. Both the public and therapists of all disciplines should be able to benefit from its unique therapeutic virtues.
Planetary Products was the first to introduce Triphala to the U.S. herb market. It is no wonder that it is one of the best selling formulas in the entire line. Triphala is traditionally taken and works best when taken as a powder. The average dose is from one to two teaspoons of the powder in a little water once in the evening or three times daily for blood and general body purification. It can also be taken regularly once a week with great benefit since it promotes balanced cleansing and detoxification. The tablets are for convenience since many find the powder too have too unpleasant a flavor for the more spoiled tastes of Westerners. Triphala has been found to be very effective for helping to control weight gain, chronic constipation and as an adjunctive treatment for many chronic degenerative conditions.