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Boosting Immunity with Ayurveda – Overview

Summary: Ayurveda provides a range of simple, low cost strategies to help improve our immune system. Links to detailed resources on building better immunity through the Ayurvedic use of herbs and spices, lifestyle and diet choices, strengthening Ojas, detoxification programmes and the practice of meditation, yoga and pranayama.

Key strategies used by Ayurveda to help us build a strong immune system

Boosting Immunity with Ayurveda – Overview

In the West we have become used to ‘quick-fixes’ to solve our health problems. If we have a headache we take a pill to quickly get rid of it. If we have an infection we take antibiotics. Modern Western medical science offers quick-fix and convenient solutions to many common health problems. However, when a new viral or multiple-antibiotic resistant bacterial disease surfaces, Western medicine is left searching for a solution. Finding new antibiotics, or developing a vaccine, can take many years to test and effectively deploy. The good news is that the ancient science of Ayurveda offers simple, unique advice on how we can boost our immune system and therefore prevent many diseases – without any intervention from modern medicine.

Ayurveda is empowering too. Instead of waiting for ‘them’ to develop a new generation of antibiotics or vaccines, we can take steps today to start improving the strength of our immune system.

In the West we use many ‘battle’ analogies when it comes to tackling disease. For example, we often talk about ‘fighting off’ a disease, ‘doing battle’ with cancer, etc. Ayurveda does not see these descriptions as being helpful. Rather, it views health promoting strategies in terms of purification, and rebalancing of our natural systems. It uses the analogy of a field – if the field is well tended the seeds of disease cannot even germinate!

In order to understand the principles and origins of Ayurveda it is going to require a paradigm shift for those of us familiar with the Western allopathic medical system. Fortunately however, there is absolutely no need to understand any of it in order to experience the numerous extraordinary benefits!

Many people view Ayurveda simply as a form of traditional herbal medicine. Ayurveda does indeed offer a range of herbal supplements – many of which can greatly improve our immune system. So, taking an Ayurvedic product rather than a pharmacological product has a certain appeal. In the correct dosage, Ayurvedic products have minimum side effects, maximum ‘side benefits’ and provide a quick, convenient and low cost way of boosting our immunity. Ayurvedic herbs can also help with simple detoxification strategies, further improving our resistance to disease.

However, Ayurveda offers a far greater range of techniques and advice for boosting our immunity than just using herbal products. If we can combine some of these strategies we can develop a ‘super effective’ immune system. Furthermore, Ayurveda does not see ‘health’ as just an absence of disease; it views it as a positive state of wellbeing resulting in feelings of joy and enthusiasm for life!

Ayurveda offers an integrated solution to building an exceptionally powerful immune system through a number of different approaches. It recognises the combined value of meditation, use of herbs, improving digestion, strengthening Ojas, diet and lifestyle choices, detoxification regimes, together with yoga and pranayama to build a better immune system. Any one of these different facets can be followed with positive results. Taken together they work synergistically to provide almost invincible immunity! However, in order to achieve this ‘super state of wellbeing’, we are going to have to follow some elements of an Ayurvedic lifestyle.

What exactly does an ‘Ayurvedic Lifestyle’ involve? Well, it certainly incorporates being aware of certain daily and seasonal routines. We don’t need to follow these obsessively, just go in their general direction. Ayurveda offers really practical advice such as tips for meal times, improving digestion, getting better sleep, etc. We will also need to follow (again not obsessively) a diet tailored to our particular mind-body type (categorised in the Vata-Pitta-Kapha system).  Incorporating some elements of meditation, yoga and pranayama on a regular basis into our daily routines will also help us remove the ongoing stresses we accumulate from our modern world. This will further boost our immunity.

So, using a range of Ayurvedic principles to boost our immune system is going to involve some effort and a willingness to make a few changes. However, if we use this ancient wisdom to improve our immune system there are many positive ‘spin offs’ in addition to a achieving a strong immune system! People who follow Ayurveda report experiencing a much greater ‘feel good factor’, more enthusiasm for life and a deep, unshakeable sense of well-being. The experience of pure joy also grows in our awareness – wow!

Even adopting a few Ayurvedic principles can help us begin our journey towards a strong immune system. We don’t have to follow everything all at once, but we do need to make a start somewhere! Try any one of them for a couple of months and see how you feel.

 

Ayurvedic Herbs to Boost Immunity

Summary: Ayurveda suggests a range of herbs, spices and herbal preparations that can significantly improve our immune system: Turmeric, black pepper, Amla, Chyawanprash, Amruth, Triphala etc.

If we have an ideal diet (ideal that is for our particular mind-body constitutional type e.g. Vata, Pitta or Kapha), very good digestion and an Ayurvedic lifestyle we will already have a strong immune system, be in very good general health and really don’t need supplements at all! However, Ayurveda recognises that this ideal situation is not always possible and suggests herbs (or combinations of herbs called ‘Rasyanas’) that can help boost our immunity.

It is worth noting that in Ayurveda the main emphasis is on the prevention of disease. So we really need to address any immunity issues before we get ill. Prevention is also much simpler and much cheaper than cure!

In the West we have a tendency to analyse, synthesise and then ‘commercialise’! If any traditional medicine system appears to identify a beneficial herb, we first try to identify the ‘active ingredient’ present in the herb. Then we concentrate it in our capsules, or even try to synthesize the ingredient artificially, before selling it.

Ayurveda takes a more holistic approach. The Vedic viewpoint suggests that the whole universe, all the elements in it, all the plants and every living being are expressions of an all pervading field of intelligence and energy  Herbs are part of this field too and are simply used to realign our human physiology with that ‘field of intelligence’.  This corrects any ‘mistakes’ in the underlying ‘programming’ (inherent in the operation of our physiological systems) that gave rise to the disease in the first place. To use a modern analogy; Ayurveda sees the use of herbs more like a ‘software update or security-fix’ than a hardware repair job!

Ayurvedic Spices to Boost Immunity

Even readily available commonly used spices, such as ginger, turmeric and black pepper have many health promoting properties. These ‘kitchen spices’ can be really beneficial in improving our digestive abilities and also boosting our immunity.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been regarded as a potent antibiotic and anti-inflammatory in Ayurveda for thousands of years. It is usually taken as a teaspoon of turmeric powder stirred into hot milk. Very simple! Very cheap! Cooking with turmeric in the Indian style (i.e. herbs cooked first in ghee before adding to lentils or a curry) is also good.

If this is not practicable, then turmeric can be taken in capsule form, but be sure to include something like Lecithin (a phospholipid) with the turmeric. This greatly increases its bioavailability. Some people say that the addition of pepper [1] to turmeric increases its bioavailability. This is perfectly true, but the latest research suggests taking phospholipids, such as lecithin, with turmeric is even more effective than using pepper. Lecithin granules (from soya) can be obtained from most health food stores.

An American database of medical and physiological research now shows over 12,000 citations for turmeric alone. Recent research also points to its anti-viral properties. So, investigating turmeric further could be useful in our current pandemic situation!

What about other commonly available spices in our ‘kitchen pharmacy’? Well, both pepper and ginger are both used in Ayurvedic medicine. Although not directly having antibiotic properties, they are useful in that they stimulate the internal digestive fire or Agni which can then burn off toxins (Ama) and disease in the form of bacteria etc. Pepper itself is also useful when mixed with other herbs as it can increase their bioavailability. Ginger is often described as ‘the universal medicine’ in Ayurveda as it is so valuable for igniting the internal digestive fire (Agni) which then destroys toxins.

Pepper and ginger are so valuable that they form the basis of an Ayurvedic powder or churna called ‘Trikatu’. This powder is a mixture of dry ginger, black pepper and Indian long pepper – its use is covered more fully in the article on ‘improving digestion to boost immunity’.

Ayurvedic Herbs to Boost Immunity

Specialised Ayurvedic herbs have now become readily available in the West. Certain herbs and herbal formulations have strong anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. Many have been shown to improve our immunity and the way our bodies respond to infection i.e. the immunomodulatory response. Some also improve our digestion – which in Ayurveda is also linked to our ability to ‘burn-off’ disease. The following section looks at a few of these Ayurvedic ‘super-herbs’.

Ayurvedic products containing the fruit of Amla are major boosters of our immune system! Amla is also known as: ‘Amalaki’ – ‘Amla Berry’ – ‘Emblic Myrobalan’ –  ‘Indian Gooseberry’ – Emblica officinalis Phyllanthus emblica.  There is a huge amount of positive research into the effectiveness of this herb!

A well-regarded preparation which contains Amla is called ‘Chyawanprash’ (pronounced Cha-van-prash). This has withstood the long test of time as the knowledge of how to prepare it has been around for thousands of years. Although its main ingredient is Amla, it contains a multitude of other herbs which work synergistically. Chyawanprash is readily available in the West and it is a ‘must have’ product for anyone wishing to strengthen their immune system in a natural way. It is also regarded as a great restorative. Another key benefit of Chyawanprash is that it boosts Ojas in our system. The higher the level of Ojas – the higher is our immunity.

Other immune system strengthening products containing Amla are ‘Amla Rasyana’ or ‘Amalaki Rasyana’. A Rasayana is just a life-supporting mixture of herbs made to a specific formula. Like Chyawanprash these also contain other herbs which work synergistically to produce a super-effective Ayurvedic supplement. Both Chyawanprash and Amalaki Rasyana are available as a paste or ‘herbal jam’ so are real easy to take.

Once again, there is an increasing amount of research into the anti-ageing aspects (e.g. effects on telomerase activity in cells) of these Ayurvedic preparations. In the West we might say that these products boost our immunity because they are a great natural source of Vitamin C. Perfectly true, but as Chyawanprash is a mixture of many herbs, its healing and restorative properties are probably due to far more complex mechanisms than just its Vitamin C content!

Another herbal preparation of great benefit to our immune system contains Amruth (‘Giloy’ – ‘Guduchi’ – Tinospora cordifolia). It is one of the most valued of all Ayurvedic super-herbs! Amruth is acknowledged for its anti-inflammatory properties and its use in the treatment of fever and flu. It also improves the way our bodies respond to infection i.e. the immunomodulatory response. Amruth can be taken in capsule form. There is a growing body of scientific research into Amruth.

Other potent, but less well known Ayurvedic ‘power’ herbal mixtures are: Tulsi Arka  (aka Tulasi Ark) – said to be anti-viral and an immune system booster, and the powder or churna Kabasura Kudineer – said to be good for the respiratory system. Arka type products are liquids made from a distillation  process. Kudineers are solutions we can make at home from a powder (a bit like herbal teas).

Triphala is a mixture of three key Ayurvedic herbs. It is a superb supplement for getting rid of toxins in the colon and helping regular elimination. This in turn helps strengthen our immunity. Triphala also contains Amla; alongside Bibhitaki and Haritaki. This herbal product (available as tablets) is covered in more depth in the article on detoxification.

On a slightly more esoteric note, there is a new product linked to Ayurveda which a long term Sadhak (spiritual seeker) recently remarked is a bit like ‘Homeopathic Holy Water’! I am referring to the ‘Shakti Drops’ produced by Sri Sri Tattva Ayurvedic Products. The drops contain the essence of six key Ayurvedic super herbs. The stated dosage taken is very small – only five or six drops are needed in a glass of water.

Purchasing Ayurvedic Herbs

This site has no commercial links, so the advice given here is unbiased and based on the experiences of the author.

Fortunately, Ayurvedic herbs have become much easier to obtain over the past twenty years. In part this is due to the growing awareness of Ayurveda in the West and partly due to the online market place availability (e.g. Amazon and eBay).  There are now many good, quality suppliers.

When buying Ayurvedic herbal supplements I usually prefer to get products (particularly Rasayanas i.e. complex herbal mixtures) from suppliers involved in people’s spiritual development (often Ashram based). There are a number of these organisations around and, although often little known outside India, many are surprisingly large scale operations. This means they have access to the top Ayurvedic experts, have strict Quality Assurance procedures in place and have access to the best laboratories for testing their products. Many of them also support local farmers who grow and harvest the herbs to their specifications.

A number of suppliers, particularly ‘Health Food’ type shops, tend to fall into the Western mind-set trap of selling capsules incorporating just the ‘active ingredient’ (e.g. curcumin in turmeric). Another processing error is to produce lighter tablets with a ‘concentrate’ of the herb. If you really can’t find anything else then these are, in my opinion, just on the limits of acceptability – because they ignore the true Ayurvedic principles relating to herbal preparations.

 A Few Recommended Suppliers

    • Maharishi Ayurvedic Products – relatively expensive, but high quality products available in USA, UK and Europe. Their website usually carries some Ayurvedic health tips too
    • Products from the Swami Ram Dev organisation. An extensive range of quality Ayurvedic products available in USA, UK and Europe under the ‘Patanjali’ brand.
    • Products from the Art of Living under the ‘Sri Sri Tattva’ brand (a large NGO founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) – another high quality supplier
    • Products from smaller (but good) suppliers which usually sell a small range of Ayurvedic herbs: Essential Ayurveda: Swansons : Planetary Herbals : Pukka

Footnotes

[1] The best pepper to increase bioavailability is actually Indian Long Pepper (Piper longum). This is not to be confused with the cheaper Indonesian Long Pepper (Piper retrofactum). It is different from the ordinary Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) too!


Other Key strategies used by Ayurveda to help us build a strong immune system

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Detoxification to Strengthen our Immune System

Summary: Practical Ayurvedic tips for detoxification and the role it plays in supporting a strong immune system

Ayurveda suggests that toxins in our system prevent it from working at optimum efficiency and ultimately this gives rise to disease.

Get rid of toxins and our immunity improves.

Ayurveda states that toxins arise due to ‘poor digestion’. The term ‘digestion’ does not only apply to food! According to Ayurveda, both food and all sensory inputs and experiences have to be ‘properly digested’. Otherwise they give rise to toxins. Emotional upsets, trauma, stressful experiences, watching violent scenes, frightening movies, even the news on TV, etc. all have to be ‘processed’ and ‘digested’ by the fire of Agni. Agni is the internal digestive fire (in some ways it is similar to pitta dosha).

As Ayurveda places great emphasis on prevention, it is far better to avoid the toxic by-products of a poor digestive system in the first place by following Ayurvedic guidance on mealtimes, diet, lifestyle and strengthening our digestive fire.

Ayurveda has a range of purification and detoxification strategies. Some of these are very simple and can be done at home. Other, more complicated procedures are often Ayurveda clinic based.

Home Based Detox Tips

A very simple step to help the digestive fire or ‘Agni’ burn off toxins is to sip warm water at regular intervals throughout the day. This is fine for most people, but would not be recommended in the height of summer or for individuals with a predominantly Pitta constitution. There is strong anecdotal evidence that this simple step can even remove the toxins associated with arthritis. From an Ayurvedic perspective, the hot water stimulates the digestive fire (Agni) which then ‘burns off’ the toxins (Ama).

Another very simple detox step is to ensure we have regular elimination and bowel movements. Ayurveda suggests many toxins are lodged in our colon as a result of poor digestion.

An Ayurvedic mixture of herbs (Rasayana) called ‘Triphala’ promotes great digestive health and is an excellent cleanser of toxins in the colon. Triphala is readily available from herbal suppliers on the internet. Triphala contains three powerful Ayurvedic herbs: Amalaki, Bibhitaki and Haritaki. Tablets are nicer to take than the powdered form. It can be taken for several months at a time (before having a short break of a few weeks, then continuing to take it for a couple of months, then repeating this cycle). Taking the recommended dose with a glass of warm water before bedtime really helps cleanse the colon of toxins and helps with elimination the following morning. Maharishi Ayurveda provide a useful leaflet on Triphala (download via link). I have heard an enlightened Vedic Master say: ‘If we are only going to take one Ayurvedic supplement, it should be Triphala – it gives so many benefits’

Drinking a full glass of warm water first thing upon rising in the morning also stimualtes elimination.

Fasting can help with the removal of toxins. During a period of fasting the internal fire or Agni gets kinlded and, as there is no food to digest starts to burn away toxins. The maximum length of fast is different for different mind-body types. Therefore a pure vata type should fast for no more than three days – longer than this and the vata element will go out of balance and create weakness, anxiety etc. For pitta types four days is the maximum (longer than this and the out of balance pitta element causes anger, excessive heat etc.) Kapha types can benefit from longer fasting periods without problems. A warm water fast one day a week is fine for everyone and gives our digestive system a rest.

Yogic breathing or pranayama exercises can help in increasing the digestive fire and also in removing toxins associated with negative or stressful experiences. Bhastrika Pranayama is particularly effective at increasing the strength of the digestive fire – which then burns off the toxins. So pranayama helps detox our system. There are some contraindications with certain pranayama exercises – see precautions in article on ‘Strengthening Our Digestive Fire to Prevent Disease’ before starting a particular pranayama exercise.

Clinic Based Detox

Ayurveda offers complete detoxification programmes called ‘Panchakarma’ (or the five cleansing actions). Although some of these procedures can be done at home, most are clinic based under the guidance of a trained Ayurvedic Physician (look for someone with a Batchelor of Ayurvedic Medicine degree and clinical experience.) The aim is to first detoxify the system and then rebalance the doshas (vata, pitta and kapha).

What exactly are the five cleansing actions? This really depends very much on the individual and an Ayurvedic professional will recommend appropriate actions. One detox  route might involve strategies to loosen the toxins from the underlying tissues (e.g. via ‘oil based’  therapies and warm oil massage), then to enable them  to move (e.g. via steam ‘baths’) to the colon, and then to finally eliminate them (e.g. by medicated enemas) from the system.

Panchakarma purification therapy offers many benefits as a result of getting rid of toxins. It slows down the ageing process, helps remove the long term effects of stress, brings more energy to the body and clarity to the mind, promotes a sense of well-being and, most importantly, strenthens our immune system.

These purification procedures can have dramatic results on health and can eliminate many long term diseases – often without the need for Western style surgery!


Other Key Ayurvedic  Strategies to Build a Strong Immune System

Or, return to Boosting Immunity with Ayurveda – Overview article