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Ghee’s central role in Ayurvedic treatment

February 24, 2009

“Ghee is sweet in taste and cooling in energy, rejuvenating, good for the eyes and vision, kindles digestion, bestows lustre and beauty, enhances memory and stamina, increases intellect, promotes longevity, is an aphrodisiac and protects the body from various diseases.”  (Bhavaprakasha 6.18.1)

No other substance is as widely used to prepare Ayurvedic medicines as ghee.  Ghee is also cited as the best substance for preparing the body for Ayurveda’s internal detoxification (Panchakarma).  One reason for this is that ghee is given as the best remedy for diseases due to aggravated Pitta and Vata doshas.  Ghee alleviates Pitta dosha by its cold, sweet properties and Vata by its oiliness.  Ghee is hence recommended in autumn when Pitta’s hot nature can get aggravated after summer.  But there is more to ghee than its dosha balancing properties. This article explores ghee’s role in working alongside Ayurvedic herbs, as well as its own inherent healing abilities not found in other fats.

Ghee is ideal for massage and detoxification

A unique aspect of Ayurveda is its use of large amounts of oily substances in treatment. Anyone who has had an Ayurvedic massage in India will have experienced this! External massage with sesame oil or ghee balances Vata dosha by countering its rough, dry properties. As such, oil massage can be very effective in Vata problems such as osteoarthritis, stress, insomnia and paralysis.  However, ghee is more often used internally than for external massage. In Ayurvedic detoxification (Panchakarma) increasing doses of ghee are given each morning to prepare the body. Patients are also given a daily oil massage which brings toxins out of fatty tissues, followed by steam therapy to bring toxins to the surface.  After several days, these are eliminated with different techniques such as emesis (vomiting), purgatives, enemas and nasal therapy to cleanse the body.

Maharishi Ayurveda research has shown that Panchakarma greatly reduces 14 important fat soluble toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. These would otherwise remain in the body for a long time as the body usually excretes only water soluble chemicals. The daily doses of ghee have the capacity to dissolve the lipid soluble toxins and bring them to the alimentary tract for elimination by purification procedures. With an increasingly polluted internal and external environment, Ayurveda offers a unique way to remove these harmful fat soluble chemicals. This powerful means to detox the body merits further research.

Ghee is used in most Ayurvedic formulations

“Ghee is the unctuous substance par- excellence because of its power to assimilate effectively the properties of other substances… it increases, thousand times in potency and develops manifold qualities” (Charaka Su trasthana 13/13).

Ghee is widely used in medicinal formulations due to its unusual ability to assimilate the properties of herbs it is mixed with, without losing its own qualities.  For example, if ghee is mixed with a drying, heating herb, it doesn’t sacrifice its own oily, cold nature.  Ayurveda considers honey to be the best in this regard. This is explained by it being made from many different species of flowers, each having different properties themselves. However, Ayurveda views honey is a living substance that must not be heated or it ferments acting like a poison in the body (Charaka Sutrasthana 27/248).  As most Ayurvedic formulations require heating in their preparation, ghee is favoured.

However, ghee is no mere inert ‘filler’ for formulations.  Its own therapeutic powers work to help cure disease, as well as increasing the effect of other herbs. For example, ghee’s effect of increasing the digestive fire (agni) allows other herbs to be more easily absorbed.  More fundamentally, impaired digestion is also a cause, symptom and part of the pathogenesis of many chronic degenerative diseases.  Ghee is invaluable as it not only increases digestive capacity, but simultaneously nourishes a weakened body. This is especially true when ghee is given with milk. Ghee also brings many other healing powers to a medicine.

Ghee in rejuvenation and aphrodisiac therapy

“A person who takes ghee and milk, who is free from fear, complexion and diseases, who indulges in sex every day, who is youthful, and who has determination, gets sex vigour with women” (Charaka Chikitsasthana 2/20).

Ayurveda is famed for its rejuvenation treatments. The combination of ghee and milk is one ofthe best rejuvenation tonic as its increases the body’s life force (ojas). The Ayurvedic concept of  ojas covers all factors involved in the prevention of degeneration and natural immunity. It is considered the essence of all the body’s tissues, and without it we die. Syndromes such as AIDS involve a progressive running down of the body’s supply of ojas.  Ghee has physical similarities to ojas in being white, yellowish, tasting like honey and smelling like fried rice (Charaka Sutrasthana 17).

The Ayurvedic concept of like increasing like helps explain why ghee increases ojas. Indeed, an aversion to milk and ghee is given as one of the reasons leading to foetal malnutrition in pregnancy. A generalised treatment is giving ghee medicated with life nourishing herbs.  Phala ghee, mixed with medicinal fruits  is also prescribed in pregnancy to strengthen the uterus and nourish the foetus. Such ghee and herb formulations act by increasing ojas, without which there can be no life.

As well as being similar to ojas, ghee is also similar to the reproductive fluids (known as shukra in Ayurveda). For this reason, ghee is widely used in Ayurvedic aphrodisiacs of which there are many! For example, in his Complete Book of Home Remedies, Dr Lad recommends massage the penis with Shatavari ghee or Bala ghee for low libido. Women can massage the pubic bone with either ghee formulation to strengthen the reproductive tissues.

Ghee rejuvenates the mind

Beyond rejuvenating the body, Ayurveda has specific tonics for the mind.  These have ghee as a key ingredient as its sweet taste nourishes the nerve tissue and brain.  Brahmi ghee is prescribed in the fifth month of pregnancy for mental development of the foetus as both Brahmi and ghee aid the development of consciousness and intellect. The newborn is also fed honey and ghee to stimulate intellect and ojas (the essence of all tissues) in an important ritual.

Beyond maintaining a healthy mind, ghee is also prescribed for anxiety, depression, dementia, insanity, epilepsy and other disorders of consciousness. Ghee older than one year especially good for healing the mind. It is more heating and bitter, properties which enable it to remove blockages in the mind’s subtle channels.  It is also considered auspicious and is given in mental disorders with no clear physical cause, along with Sanskrit mantras. The Ayurvedic masters of ancient India believed old ghee could regenerate brain cells, and this is an area worthy of further study with the rise of Alzheimer’s today. Panchagavya ghee is also useful as, like old ghee, it is sharp in nature.  This foul smelling, but powerful, medicine is made by adding cow dung juice, yoghurt, milk and cow’s urine to ghee.

The effectiveness of such ghee formulations in mental disorders has been researched and shown to be effective (Chandre, 2004; Girish 2004; Shekha 1999). Disappontly, most studies focus on the herbs which are added to the ghee but ghee itself is a powerful brain tonic. One study does look at ghee’s inherent properties for treating Alzheimer’s via its insertion in the nose (Madhavikutty 2000).  Such Nasya therapy is part of Panchakarma, and is a natural route for delivering rejuvenating substances to the brain.  Beyond treating serious mental disorders ghee can be used to pacify mild anxiety (due to aggravated Vata). This is done by dipping a clean finger in ghee and inserting into each nostril, lubricating the nasal passage with gentle massage.

Ghee is useful in wound healing

Ghee’s regenerative properties are also useful for healing wounds and promoting the growth of healthy cells. This wound healing ability has also been clinically proven (Prasad and Dorle, 2006).  Ghee formulations, containing bees wax, honey and herbs are also referenced in regards to treating all degrees of burns, due to it pacifying excessively deranged Pitta dosha.  Shatadhouta ghee is described as the best medicine with which to dress burns and scalds. This ghee is softer and colder than normal ghee due to it being washed in water a hundred times. Even more cooling is Sahastradhouta ghee, washed 1000 times but it is rather time consuming to make and hence more expensive! Ghee’s ability to pacify the burning nature of aggravated Pitta is also beneficial in treating gastro intestinal inflammation and ulcers. Ghee’s cold, oily qualities help protect the body’s mucous membranes and ensure its usefulness in any condition with burning sensations.

Ghee is highly beneficial for the eyes

Ghee is especially good for the eyes and helps the functioning of the extraocular muscles, eyelids and tear.  Internal and external use of Mahatriphala ghee has been shown to play a significant role in the treatment of eye disorders, such as glaucoma.  This formulation is made up of ghee, milk and thirteen herbs, all predominantly sweet in taste and cold in nature and beneficial to the eyes. Dr Vasant Lad recommends putting one drop of lukewarm liquid ghee in each eye at bedtime for burning sensations. It not only soothes, but also strengthens the eyes and can help improve vision along with Yoga eye exercises.

Summary

Ghee’s widespread prevalence in Ayurvedic medicines and treatments is due to its beneficial effects on the digestion, absorption and delivery of Ayurvedic herbs, as well as its own healing properties. When the digestive capacity (agni) and life-essence (ojas) are weakened, the doshas are disturbed causing disease. Ghee’s actions on both agni and ojas are hence at the heart of all Ayurvedic chikitsa. Ghee also nourishes and regenerates the body and mind, improving the overall quality of treatment.  Finally, on a practical level, ghee is rich in antioxidants and hence does not go rancid for a long time. In the days before refrigeration, this would have been invaluable in allowing formulations to be used for up to 16 months. The last article in this series focuses on how such Ayurvedic uses of ghee in both diet and treatments are supported by modern science.

To learn more:

  • Bhavaprakasha, Purva Khanda, Prathama bhaga (Part 1), Ghrt Varga (Chapter 6)
  • Chandre R, Narasimha Murthy VSSS and Singh RH (2004): Evaluation of the Efficacy of Kushmandaghrta in the management of depressive illness. Aryavaidyan Vol XVIII, No 2, Nov 2004- Jan 2005, pages 87-90
  • Girish S Achilya, Sudhir G. Wadodkar and Avinash K.Dorle (2004): Evaluation of sedative and anticonvulsant activities of Unmadnashak Ghrta: Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 94, Issue 1, Pages 77-83.
  • Lad, Vasant, The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home remedies (1999)
  • Maharishi Ayurveda, Panchakarma Therapy Guide, available in Maharishi Ayurveda centres
  • Madhavikutty P (2000): The role of nasya and dhoopa in Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The Aryavaidyan, Vol XIII, No 4, May- July, Pages 228-233
  • Prasad V and Kumar Dorle A (2006): Evaluation of ghee based formulation for wound healing activity. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 107, Issue 1, 11 August 2006, Pages 38-47
  • Sharma R.K, Dash B (1997): Charaka Samhita (Ch.) , Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series
  • Shekha, S (1999): Role of Brahmi compound and Chaitas Ghrita Nasya in the management of Anxiety Disorders (Atattvabhinivesha), MD. (Ayu) thesis, Gujurat Ayurved University, Jamnagar