Modern Research on Ayurvedic Herbs and Heart Health
As part of our ongoing Evidence-Based Ayurveda series, we recently chatted with Vaidya Dinesh Gyawali about new advances in research on Ayurvedic medicine and heart health—specifically, the plant-based remedies arjuna, garlic, and guggul. For many years, Vaidya Gyawali saw up to 50 patients a day working in an Ayurvedic hospital in Nepal. Today, his Ayurvedic research is renowned, and he currently works as an Assistant Professor at Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa.
vpk by Maharishi Ayurveda: We know that Ayurveda’s efficacy has been validated by thousands of years of traditional use, but where does it stand in terms of modern research?
Dinesh Gyawali: Generally speaking, the research on Ayurveda is growing day by day. But compared to Western science, it’s a little behind. There is a huge interest in validating Ayurvedic treatments, protocols, and all of its philosophies and theories. More and more people are doing research on Ayurveda, especially in India, because most of the Ayurvedic activities still occur there and there’s a new government which is very proactive and very supportive of our rich traditional medicine. There are more attempts to do studies scientifically with randomized controlled trials and, moreover, publish them in peer-reviewed journals. The whole knowledge of Ayurveda is thousands of years old, and there is a desire to prove its efficacy from the modern perspective. The research is in its infancy, but it is growing and much better than it used to be.
vpk by Maharishi Ayurveda: Let’s talk about the herb Arjuna. How does it affect heart health?
DG: I spent quite a bit of time researching Arjuna and have reviewed many studies. My field of expertise is conducting systematic reviews and meta-analysis. In systematic review and meta-analysis, what you do is gather all the previous studies and pull them together to see if a broader understanding can be reached qualitatively and quantitatively. The studies to date on Arjuna have very promising results. Arjuna has always been highly applauded in Ayurveda. We call it hridya in the Ayurvedic language—this is a term for something beneficial for the heart—and Arjuna has always been used as a great hridya herb that helps in cardiac health.
Arjuna has been used for ages. The word “Arjuna” actually comes from Rig Veda, and also has been mentioned in the Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and Ashtanga hridyam—all these ancient Ayurvedic texts—for the purposes of heart health. The Arjuna plant is a big, 60-80-foot-tall evergreen tree native to the Indian subcontinent, and we use the bark for medical purposes.
vpk by Maharishi Ayurveda: How does Arjuna work from the perspective of the doshas?
DG: It is a Kapha and Pitta dosha pacifier, and it works on blood plasma, and also helps maintain the health of the channels, or srotas, of our body. It is astringent and bitter in taste and is used in Ayurveda in anything pertaining to the heart and circulatory system.
We know that in Ayurveda, according to the Charaka Samhita, the heart is the seat of consciousness. And of course we know that the mind, body, and organs interact with each other, which means that mind, body, intellect, and consciousness interact with each other. So basically it also has a lot to do with Sadhaka Pitta—the subdosha of Pitta associated with the heart and emotions. That’s why in vpk by Maharishi Ayurveda products like Stress Free Emotions, Cardio Support, and BP Balance, Arjuna is there. The former two affect not only physical heart health, but emotional heart health as well.
vpk by Maharishi Ayurveda: Garlic seems to be heavily researched—even by the National Institutes of Health. How is garlic helpful in supporting heart health?
DG: In Ayurveda, garlic has been called rasona—where merely one rasa, one taste, out of the six tastes is lacking. It has bitter, sweet, astringent, pungent, and salty; only sour is missing. It has been used in cardiac health, it kills germs, and it is used to support the digestive system.
Garlic’s a very interesting herb—not only from an Ayurvedic perspective. Garlic has always been used to protect human health. As you mentioned, even modern medicine has done over a thousand research studies on garlic; there have been quite a few studies, and it’s very popular in the kitchen. There has been far more research on garlic than Arjuna and other Ayurvedic herbs. There have been meta-analyses and around fifty to one hundred randomized controlled trials on garlic showing its effect on maintaining cholesterol and healthy blood pressure levels already within a normal range, and generally helping to maintain cardiovascular health.
vpk by Maharishi Ayurveda: Unlike, say, garlic, many of our readers may not be familiar with guggul—a gum resin with healing properties. Is there any promising research on this traditional Ayurvedic remedy and heart health?
DG: Guggul is a very effective herb in Ayurveda. You’re right—it’s a gum out of a shrub tree that grows in mostly dry, arid, tropical places, especially the deserts of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Guggul is a very popular Ayurvedic remedy for promoting healthy cholesterol levels already within a normal range. It has always been used to address fat, which we call meda dhatu, that is, the fat tissue and the fourth of the seven dhatus, or tissues. It is not only used by itself, but also as a carrier in complex formulas. It can also be used as a catalyst in other formulas. Cardio Support has guggul and Arjuna both, and is a very helpful formula.
vpk by Maharishi Ayurveda: Our Cholesterol Protection formula contains guggul, along with other ingredients like turmeric, night jasmine, and others. What is the benefit of taking a synergistic formula vs. taking the individual herbs?
DG: One thing to understand about Ayurveda is that it is a holistic form of medicine; we do not isolate one active ingredient out of an herb, or any other raw material. That’s not an Ayurvedic principle. Ayurveda uses nature as a whole, and that’s why results may generally be a bit slower, but there are no side effects. For example, we use the whole Arjuna bark as it is recommended in the Samhitas, but we do not look into arjuni, which is supposedly the active ingredient of Arjuna that works for heart health. The ingredients within the chemical compositions of one herb or raw material act together; just like that, in a compound herbal formula, these different types of herbs have their synergistic effect. Certain herbs act as the primary function herbs, others to help support the primary function, and others yet still to neutralize side effects.
Modern research and scientific evidence are largely based upon the Western medical system, but they are a different science of medicine than Ayurveda. You cannot scrutinize Ayurveda-based herbal preparations and interventions on the principles of Western medicine. You have to look into the Pancha Mahabhutas [the five basic elements], look into the dosha-dhatu perspective [constitution and bodily tissues] and Guna, Dosha, Veerya, Vipaka, Prabhava, the Ayurvedic bioenergetics of the herb. Not necessarily do you go into the thermodynamics and pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of Western medicine. It’s a whole different set of principles associated with Ayurveda.
Ayurveda does not actually believe in active ingredients. It believes in the whole. We know this principle of “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” So we take it as a whole and we process it, we purify it, of course. But we do not go into one active ingredient. This is the beauty of Ayurveda. It is how it works. The synergistic effect, the symbiotic effect.
vpk by Maharishi Ayurveda: Our Cardio Support supplement promotes both physical and emotional heart health—can you break that down for readers? How does it do both, and why are both so important?
DG: Ayurveda does not consider the heart as just a physical entity. The heart is the seat of consciousness and mind, self, and body. There are three key pillars of health, Sharira, Man and Atma. Sharīra is body, man is mind, and Atma is the self. With these three things, the physical health and the emotional health are interrelated, they are entwined. The heart being the seat of the consciousness, it directly affects the way we think, and the way we think affects our heart. Think of mind as the seat of intellect and heart as the seat of consciousness. That is why stress makes a big difference in heart health. Even from the Western perspective, stress is considered to have the biggest effect on heart health. Why is that? It’s because the heart is the seat of consciousness, and that is why Ayurveda considers heart, mind, and body connected. Without the health or balance in one, this whole trio does not exist.
Having dedicated my life to Ayurveda and having been associated with vpk by Maharishi Ayurveda for decades, I can attest to the quality of their manufacturing, the adherence to the ancient texts and their commitment to the ideals of Ayurveda. When confronted with choosing between making a product USDA-organic compliant and keeping the traditional herbs, they always choose for the tradition and effectiveness. They do not cut corners. Good companies like Maharishi Ayurveda have been working for so many years, and have a trusted name. They are the oldest Ayurvedic products company in the US and their track record is clean.
vpk by Maharishi Ayurveda: We’re glad you feel that way! Any final thoughts for our readers on evidence-based Ayurveda?
DG: As we talked about earlier, Ayurveda has been effective for ages. It is a time-tested health system, and we are doing our best to test it in the scientific laboratories. Some examples: Ashwagandha has almost become mainstream, turmeric has become a mainstream product. They all come from Ayurveda. Holy basil (or tulsi), has been seen as effective and people are trusting and using it. Just like that, there are many more treasures of Ayurveda, and they also deserve to be viewed with a balanced science-based perspective. Evidence-based Ayurveda is growing and I look forward to watching and participating in its evolution. Ayurvedic scientists and researchers and vaidyas like me, we all are trying to substantiate the effectiveness of our protocols and treatment regimens. There is a bright future ahead, and with the support of consumers we will be able to achieve it.
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