Path to Juiciness
Originally published in the February 2017 issue of the Northstar Monthly
Ayurveda, or the “Science of Life”, comes from India and might be the oldest medicinal system on the planet. In the U.S. we often assume that new is better and something thousands of years old is inherently primitive and ineffective.
While ancient peoples did not have the ability to peer inside the body to see how it all worked on a biochemical level, they also did not have smart phones, TV, or facebook. They had time and the ability to thoughtfully and intelligently observe what they could see – by feeling the pulse, looking at the tongue, observing patterns in nature and the way these same patterns were reflected in the body, and to observe which remedies and herbs proved useful again and again. When we conduct scientific studies on herbs, we often find that their traditional uses are accurate and sometimes locate that biochemical action responsible for the herb's effect.
This is the case with a class of herbs called adaptogens and which Ayurveda has categorized as rasayanas.
According to Ayurveda, there is a subtle substance in the body that is created when we properly digest our food. This substance is ojas and it is our essential juiciness, vitality, or life energy. Ojas reflects the strength of our endocrine, nervous, and immune systems, otherwise known as the Neuro-Endo-Immune Supersystem.
Rasayana means the path to juiciness or essence. Rasayanas are generally sweet and increase ojas. Herbs like ashwagandha and shatavari are specific rasayanas.
Many, but not all, rasayanas could be characterized as adaptogens. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary has a very accurate definition of adaptogen: a nontoxic substance and especially a plant extract that is held to increase the body's ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning.
Adaptogen is a scientific term. When studied, these herbs are found to have an effect on the endocrine system. Modern living takes quite the toll on our endocrine system and our energy levels, bombarding us with near constant stress. This is part of why we have such a love affair with caffeine and why adaptogens are becoming the superstars of the herb world.
Ashwagandha is my favorite herb in this class. Sometimes called Indian ginseng, it is one of the most beloved and powerful herbs in Ayurveda. Like ginseng, it can boost stamina and energy levels, but it is a gentler plant that is more appropriate for a wider range of people. Ashwagandha means “smell of the horse” evoking the vigor and vitality of a stallion. Traditionally it has been used after an illness to boost the immune system.
There have been over 200 scientific studies on Ashwagandha, some indicating a positive effect on the adrenals and the thyroid. Ashwagandha seems to have an amphoteric effect on thyroid function. This means that if you have hypothyroidism, ashwagandha can help increase thyroid function and if you have hyperthyroidism, ashwagandha can help decrease thyroid function. It is normalizing body functions as opposed to doing one very specific thing in the body (as most pharmaceuticals do).
When it comes to the adrenals, ashwagandha has been shown to lower cortisol levels, reducing the effects of chronic stress in the body. Traditionally, ashwagandha is taken at night in warm milk as an aid to insomnia. Humans have natural rhythms. Hormonally, when we wake up in the morning we should pop out of bed with pep and vigor, our cortisol levels high. By nightfall, these cortisol levels should be dipping so we can relax and drop off to sleep. Many Americans have cortisol levels that buck this trend, feeling the most awake and alert at night. Ashwagandha can help bring those night time cortisol levels down, helping you get to sleep earlier, which has a range of health improvements.
What else can ashwagandha do? Help you focus, granting clarity to those who struggle with ADHD. Increase insulin sensitivity, decreasing the likelihood of diabetes. Improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even alzheimer's. Possibly prevent and treat cancer through an anti-tumor effect.
You can take ashwagandha as a powder in capsules, honey, or warm milk, you can mix it with food including nut butters or yoghurt or you can simmer it with other roots and spices to make a delicious chai like tea to chase the cold of winter right out of your bones and to fill you with sweetness this season. My favorite ashwagandha recipe is 1 part ashwagandha root, 1 part burdock root, and cardamom pods to taste. Use 1 tablespoon per cup of water and simmer for 15 to 45 minutes. Strain and enjoy with your favorite milk and sweeten with a touch of maple or honey if you are inspired. Enjoy two to four cups a day.
If you are pregnant, nursing, using pharmaceuticals, or have kidney or liver disease please consult a health practitioner or herbalist before incorporating new herbs into your diet.