1. Centella Asiatica, or Mandukaparni
Centella asiatica, also known as “Asian pennywort,” or Mandukaparni in Sanskrit, is a perennial herb indigenous to the swampy wetlands of India, Southeast Asia and South Eastern areas in the US, such as Florida and Louisiana. It is a ground creeper which likes a temperate or sub-tropical climate, and it produces a rhizome which grows straight down from the horizontal stems. The creeper has small flowers and fruits, and the juice of the whole plant is used for Medhya medicinal purposes.
Medhya is the Sanskrit term for cognition or intellect, and Mandukaparni is often used therapeutically for cognitive enhancement, through dendritic arborisation or branching. This is believed to improve learning and memory, as it helps neural regeneration. Mandukaparni contains natural chemical compounds which help to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. It also functions as a neuroprotective agent, inhibiting the memory impairment induced by the drug scopolamine (hyoscine), which is given to prevent nausea.
Centella Asiatica also strengthens the central nervous system and adrenal glands, improves reflexes and helps prevent DNA damage. Most importantly, extracts of Mandukaparni containing polyphenols and flavinoids are responsible for some potent antioxidant properties, terminating the free radicals that can cause cell damage.
2. Safed Musli (Chlorophytum Borivilianum)
Safed musli (Chlorophytum borivilianum), also commonly called musli, is a leafy shrub of the Asparagaceae family. In its native habitat, Safed musli is found in the tropical wet forests of peninsular India, but it is now being extensively cultivated for its therapeutic properties. It is very popular in traditional Ayurveda medicine and is a member of the group of Rasayan herbs which help the body adapt to stress.
In some parts of India, Chlorophytum borivilianum is eaten as a pot-herb or leaf vegetable, but its roots are the most in demand as a health tonic. Dried roots of Safed musli have a 2–17% saponin content, which studies indicate is responsible for the plant’s medicinal properties. These roots have been proved to be an effective treatment for disorders of the male reproductive system, such as premature ejaculation and low sperm count.
Extracts of the plant have been found to enhance the power of the body’s immune system, due to the high number of polysaccharides in its phytochemical make-up. Safed musli contains vitamin C and potent antioxidants which can scavenge cell-damaging free radicals, as well as being an antidiabetic. Its analgesic properties can be beneficial in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
3. Kali Musli (Curculigo Orchioides)
Kali Musli (Curculigo orchioides), commonly also called black musli, weevil-wort and golden eye-grass, is a flowering plant of the Hypoxidaceae family. It is native to India and south east Asia, and increasingly studied by scientists for its medicinal properties. In Ayurveda, black musli is classed as a Rasayana herb, a general restorative and tonic to reduce stress.
Research has indicated that extracts of Curculigo orchioides rhizomes can enhance the immune system’s ability to counteract toxins, reduce constriction of the respiratory system in asthma, and have an anti-oxidative response to liver damage. It may also be useful in the treatment of diabetes.
Phytochemical analysis of Kali musli roots exhibits a high content of curculigosides. These natural phenols can inhibit the build-up of harmful amino acids which contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Due to these curculigosides, extracts of Curculigo orchioides have been discovered to enhance the immune system, as well as exhibiting anti-inflammatory and liver-protective activities. Kali musli also demonstrates anti-osteoporosis potential in reducing bone loss, and the root oil has been seen to be an antibacterial agent. Other important properties of black musli are an ability to increase oestrogen, and to treat male sexual disorders, such as erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation and low sperm count.
4. Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera)
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also known as Indian ginseng, winter cherry or poison gooseberry, is a small perennial shrub belonging to the nightshade family. It is cultivated in the drier parts of India, as well as in China, Nepal and Yemen.
Somnifera in Latin means “sleep-inducing,” and the tuberous roots of this plant have been used in traditional Ayurveda medicine for centuries as an effective treatment for insomnia. It eases stress, calms the nervous system and aids restful sleep. Ashwagandha also has rejuvenating properties which have proved to be effective in treating male infertility.
Research studies indicate that Ashwagandha’s anti-inflammatory capability is helpful for joints, and it can assist in reducing swellings. Root and leaf extracts have been found to have strong antibacterial properties, overcoming a range of harmful pathogens including salmonella. Its powerful immunomodulatory properties can increase white cell count and platelets in the blood, boosting the production of antibodies to counteract infection.
Vital chemical constituents of Withania somnifera include withanolides. These valuable phytosteroids have antioxidant properties which can help reduce the brain cell deterioration caused by free radicals. Ashwagandha also has a positive influence on the cardiopulmonary, endocrine, and central nervous systems, so it’s effective as a general tonic.
5. Kapikacchu (Mucuna Pruriens)
Mucuna pruriens, or Kapikacchu in Sanskrit, is a legume of the Fabaceae family. It is found indigenously in tropical Asia and Africa, but widely naturalised elsewhere for cultivation. Common names include velvet bean, lacuna bean and devil or mad bean. Mucuna pruriens is an annual flowering shrub, with climbing vines 15 metres long or more. It is similar to a broad bean, with purple, lavender, or white flowers, and 10cm long seed pods with shiny brown or black seeds.
Kapikacchu is notorious for producing severe itching on contact (pruriens is Latin for itching), particularly from the seed pods and young foliage, which are covered with fuzzy hairs. The beans are edible, but unless properly prepared, contain fairly high levels of L-DOPA, which can induce an adverse reaction in humans. L-DOPA (levodopa) is a chemical factor in the production of catecholamine neurotransmitters which govern brain activity, particularly dopamine. Research studies have confirmed that the strong antioxidant properties of Mucuna pruriens alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
In Ayurveda medicine, Kapikacchu, and extracts of it, have long been long used to treat bleeding disorders and neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s. It is also considered a safe and powerful aphrodisiac for both sexes.
6. Shilajatu (Asphaltum Punjabianum)
Shilajit (Asphaltum punjabianum), is also known as black bitumen, or Shilajatu in Sanskrit, which literally means mountain- or rock-tar. It is a thick exudate found most commonly in the Himalayas and other high mountain ranges in the region. The sticky, blackish-brown substance resembles and behaves much like tar, or bitumen, and is sometimes called mineral pitch or mineral wax. However, some researchers note that the substance is unlike usual mineral tar seepage, and is perhaps of vegetative origin.
The first written reference to Shilajatu dates from the 6th century BCE in an ancient Sanskrit medical treatise, which said it seeped from the mountainside and cured “all distempers of the body,” but particularly the liver and kidneys. In traditional Ayurveda medicine, the blacker the substance, the more potent is the effect.
Black bitumen reportedly contains at least 85 minerals, as well as vitamins, triterpenes and humic (from the soil) acids. Research has shown it effective in reducing the resistance of the HIV virus to Anti Retroviral Therapy, and in aiding the treatment of obesity. It can also diminish the incidence of PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) which causes female infertility, and has been instrumental in reducing the effects of diabetes and hypertension.
7. Shatavari (Asparagus Racemosus)
Asparagus racemosus, or Shatavari in Sanskrit, is a small flowering herb that grows 1–2 metres high, and is found in rocky soils around 1,300–1,400 metres in elevation. Shatavari grows indigenously in the Himalayas, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka, but increased demand and habitat destruction have made it an endangered species.
As described in its Latin suffix, racemosus, this asparagus has an elongated, random root system, producing about 100 tuberous roots per plant. These roots are used in Ayurveda medicine to prevent and treat dyspepsia and gastric ulcers, and to increase milk flow in lactating mothers. Shatavari contains many useful phytochemical components, and particularly oestrogen precursors that ensure a healthy female reproductive system. In Ayurveda, Shatavari has always been an effective restorative for women’s reproductive health. It makes the uterus stronger, assists women to recover from childbirth, regulates menstruation and attenuates many menopausal symptoms. It can also promote fertility in both sexes, acting as a male aphrodisiac.
Research studies have confirmed the efficacy of Asparagus racemosus as an anti-ulcer agent, preventing dyspepsia, duodenal and gastric ulcers. It can also act as an antispasmodic to calm the uterus. Shatavari has a protective effect on the liver, and increases the immune system’s ability to eliminate toxins.
8. Brihad Gokshura (Pedalium Murex)
Pedalium murex, the single species in the Pedaliaceae family, is also called Brihad Gokshura or large caltrops. It is found in India and Sri Lanka, as well as parts of tropical Africa, and is often confused or substituted for Gokshura (Tribulus terrestris). Both are used in the treatment of genito-urinary disorders, with Pedalium murex particularly valuable in increasing sperm quality. The leafy shrub has small yellow flowers, and fruits that are dried and ground to a powder for medicinal purposes.
One of the principal uses of Gokshura is to get rid of stones in the kidneys and urinary tract, and tests have revealed that Pedalium murex does have this capacity. Other pharmacological activities of the plant extracts reported by researchers are reducing fats and fatty substances in the blood, protecting the liver, and treating coughs as well as respiratory and joint inflammation. Phytochemical analysis of Brihad Gokshura has revealed phenolic compounds and flavonoids which are responsible for its antimicrobial, anti-ulcerogenic, anti-inflammatory and vital antioxidant properties.
Pedalium murex is traditionally used in Ayurveda medicine to cure reproductive disorders, mainly nocturnal emissions and impotency in men. It can boost testosterone, increasing the sperm count and motility, and helps check erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation.
9. Jatiphala (Nutmeg) (Myristica Fragrans)
Myristica fragrans, also called true or fragrant nutmeg (Jatiphala in Sanskrit) is a small, aromatic evergreen tree that grows around 5 to 13 metres high, and belongs to the Myristicaceae family. It has been cultivated for centuries for the two important spices derived from the fruit, mace and nutmeg. Mace is made from the seed covering, while nutmeg is the seed itself, often sold whole for culinary purposes, and prized as a food flavouring.
Jatiphala is a native of the Banda Islands, in Indonesia’s Spice Islands, but has been widely distributed for cultivation. It is notable in written records for its presence in Kerala, the hub of ancient spice trading in India (formerly known as Malabar), where it arrived with Indonesian traders.
Nutmeg produces an essential oil used widely in the perfumery, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. In Ayurveda medicine, this oil is considered most efficacious for boosting brain activity, increasing concentration and reducing stress. Nutmeg is also used as a liver tonic, to stimulate blood circulation in the heart, and as an anti-inflammatory for joint and muscle pain. Myristica fragrans has been reported by scientists to demonstrate strong antimicrobial and antioxidant activity, which can be attributed to its high phenolic content.
10. Saffron (Crocus Sativus)
Saffron is an ancient spice derived from the inner parts of the flower Crocus sativus, or saffron crocus. It is vastly expensive, since the dried threads used for seasoning and colouring are very fine, and it takes many thousands to make even a small quantity of saffron (110,000–170,000 flowers per kg). It is known as far back as Bronze Age Greece, where murals still exist showing the wild flower; cultivation spread outwards across the world. It has been in recorded use for more than 4,000 years, with the majority of modern production taking place in Iran.
Saffron contains more than 150 volatile compounds, most importantly the phytochemicals safranal and picrocrocin, which confer its distinctive taste and fragrance. Crocin, a carotenoid pigment, produces the rich golden colour used for food colouring and fabric dyes, such as the traditional Buddhist robes. In Ayurveda formulations it interacts with and enhances other ingredients, increasing the overall wellbeing of the body.
Saffron is nutritionally valuable for its high content of B vitamins and manganese – a trace mineral required to maintain regular metabolism, develop healthy bones, heal wounds and enhance the immune system with free radical-scavenging antioxidants. It also improves the symptoms of some major depressive disorders.