Modern Health Benefits of an Ancient Healing Compound
By Jim English
Ayurveda is a 5,000 year-old healing tradition rooted in ancient Indian culture. This vast body of healing knowledge – sometimes referred to as the “Mother of All Healing” – has recently come to the attention of Western medical researchers seeking novel therapeutic compounds. While screening a number of traditional Vedic formulas scientists discovered that one of the most revered of all Ayurvedic compounds – Triphala – exhibits a number of health benefits, including:
- Exhibits antioxidant activity
- Lowers cholesterol
- Normalizes blood pressure
- Inhibits HIV
- Reduces tumors in animals, and
- Protects and improves liver function
Triphala is a botanical preparation comprised of equal parts of three herbal fruits: Harada (Terminalia chebula, black myrobalan, The Buddha’s Chosen Herb), Amla (Emblica officinalisor Indian gooseberry), and Bihara (Terminalia bellerica).
Harada (Terminalia chebula) According to the renowned herbalist, Dr. Michael Tierra, Tibetans so revere Harada that the fruit is depicted in the hand of the “Medicine Buddha” in sacred paintings. (1) Numerous studies have found that Terminalia chebula (TC) supports digestion and aids in treating both acute and chronic constipation.
Amla (Emblica officinalis) is the edible fruit from a small tree native to India. As with Terminalia chebula, EO has been shown to increase gastric emptying and to possess a broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity against a number of test bacteria. (2)
Bihara (Terminalia bellerica) is rich in protein (40 percent) and oils (35 percent), and is particularly high in the omega 3 essential fatty acid, linoleic acid.
Healthy digestion requires the coordination of a complex pattern of contracting and relaxing muscles in the stomach and intestines (gastric motility) for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. Gastrointestinal motility is disrupted when the nerves and muscles of the GI tract fail to function in a strong or coordinated fashion. Motility can be disrupted by stress, inflammation (i.e. Crohn’s disease), disease (i.e. muscular dystrophy, systemic sclerosis and amyloidosis) and from use of over-the-counter and prescription medications.
Symptoms of motility disorder range from mild cases of heartburn and constipation to more severe problems, such as chronic vomiting, nausea, cramping, bloating, abdominal distention and diarrhea after eating. The most prevalent form of motility disturbance is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which fully accounts for 50 percent of all patients who go to a GI specialist. (3)
Safe Alternative to Prokinetic Drugs
To increase GI muscle contractions and improve gastric emptying, Western doctors often prescribe prokinetic drugs such as Metoclopramide or Bethanechol. When researchers compared the Triphala herb Harada (Terminalia chebula) to prokinetic drugs they found that Terminalia chebula increased gastric emptying by 86 percent, compared to 76 percent for metoclopramide. Since Terminalia is free of side effects, the herb may be a useful alternative to the prokinetic drugs currently available. (4)
Recently published studies report that Terminalia exhibits antibacterial activity against a number of bacterial species. (5) One group of researchers found that Terminalia is effective in inhibiting the urease activity of Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a ubiquitous bacterium implicated in the development of gastritis, ulcers and stomach cancers. (6)
Another research team has shown that extracts of Terminalia chebula strongly inhibit the growth and adherence of Streptococcus (S. mutans), a virulent cavity-inducing organism. Oral rinsing with an extract of Terminalia chebula was found to significantly reduce both total bacterial counts and streptococcal counts in saliva samples. The protective effect lasted for up to 3 hours after rinsing, demonstrating a potential role for TC in the prevention of dental caries. (7)
Terminalia has been found to possess antiviral activity. Researchers have reported that Terminalia protects epithelial cells against influenza A virus, supporting the traditional use of Terminalia for aiding in recovery from acute respiratory infections. (8) Terminalia has also demonstrated therapeutic activity against herpes simplex virus (HSV) in in vivo tests. (9) These findings prompted a team of Japanese researchers to investigate Terminalia’s effects on human cytomegalovirus (CMV). They found that Terminalia was effective in inhibiting the replication of human cytomegalovirus (CMV) in vitro and in immunosuppressed mice. Stating that “Terminalia chebula significantly suppressed MCMV (murine CMV) yields in lungs of treated mice,” the researchers concluded that Terminalia may be beneficial for the prevention of CMV diseases in immunocompromised patients. (10)
Animal studies show that when extracts of Terminalia were administered following induction of anaphylactic shock, serum histamine levels were reduced, indicating that Terminalia may possess a strong anti-anaphylactic action. (11) Indian researchers have also shown that Amla (Emblica officinalis) protected experimental animals when exposed to a variety of biological, physical and chemical stressors. Oral Emblica was shown to normalize phagocytic activity, fitting within the definition of an adaptogen. Emblica was also found to protect tissues from stress-induced free radical damage, with a strong affinity for cells involved in prostaglandin synthesis. (12)
Because Emblica officinalis fruit (commonly known as amla) is the world’s richest source of natural vitamin C, researchers have attributed many of its traditional benefits to its antioxidant properties. (13) In one study amla was found to be more effective than vitamin C in improving lipoprotein values and glucose tolerance. Volunteers given amla were compared to controls receiving 500 mg/day of vitamin C. After 8 weeks the amla group showed significant improvements in lipoprotein serum profiles, including increased HDL, decreased LDL, and lower total cholesterol levels. (14)
In addition to vitamin C, researchers at the Bose Institute in Calcutta, India have also isolated a number of tannins in amla that exhibit potent antioxidant activity. The antioxidant effects of amla were measured on the basis of their effects on rat brain concentrations of the oxidative free radical scavenging enzymes, superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT) and glutathione peroxidase (GPX) and lipid peroxidation. The results were compared with effects induced by deprenyl, a selective mono-amine oxidase (MAO) B inhibitor with well documented antioxidant activity. Amla and deprenyl both effectively increased SOD, CAT and GPX activity, with concomitant decreases in lipid peroxidation when administered once daily for seven days. These results indicate that the antioxidant activity of amla may derive from the tannoids of the fruits of the plant, which have vitamin C-like properties, rather than vitamin C itself. (15)
Indian researchers have shown that extracts of amla exhibit antitumor activity. Solid tumors induced by DLA (Dalton’s lymphoma ascites) cells were reduced significantly when mice were fed either amla or an herbal preparation containing 50% amla. Amla extract was also shown to increase the life span of tumor bearing animals by up to 60%. The researchers theorize that the antitumor activity of amla may partially be due to its interaction with cell cycle regulation. (16)
Lipid Lowering and Antiatherosclerotic Effects
In addition to the previously reported effects of amla on normalizing lipid profiles, Indian scientists have reported that flavonoids extracted from amla exert highly potent hypolipidemic and hypoglycemic activities. Moreover these flavonoids were effective in raising the hemoglobin levels in rats. (17)
Amla has also been shown to possess potent antiatherosclerotic effects. Researchers evaluated the lipid lowering effects of amla in rabbits fed a cholesterol-rich diet to induce hyperlipidemia. Following 60 days of supplementation with amla, serum cholesterol, triglyceride, phospholipid and LDL levels were lowered by 82%, 66%, 77% and 90%, respectively. The researchers also reported a significant reduction in aortic plaque deposits in rabbits treated with amla, leading researchers to conclude that amla is “an effective hypolipidemic agent and can be used as a pharmaceutical tool in hyperlipidemic subjects.” (18)
It is important for those of us who are schooled in western medicine to recognize that many of the ancient Chinese and Aryuvedic formulas contain healing potentials that are often qualitatively different from the simple sum of each individual ingredient. Triphala has shown itself to be one such herbal combination. This herbal combination can have profound healing benefits in complex, multi-organ systems. Its role in preventive medicine cannot be minimized.
1. Michael Tierra. The Wonders of Triphala: Ayurvedic Formula for Internal Purification, Copyright © 1996.
2. Ahmad I, Mehmood Z, Mohammad F. Screening of some Indian medicinal plants for their antimicrobial properties. J Ethnopharmacol 1998 Sep;62(2):183-93
3. Paul E. Hyman, MD. Prokinetic Drugs and Gastrointestinal Motility. The Messenger, Spring Edition 1996.Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Orange, California.
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