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There are 100s of herbs, roots, flowers and extracts used across Ayurveda and other traditional medicines. Bulk of the alternative medicine literature focuses on which herb one should use for which ailment and in what quantity. However, for the medicine to be effective, we also need a right process and an efficient delivery medium. There were medicines even prior to injections, capsules and modern peel and consume packs. The apothecary was not just a retail outlet, which like a supermarket stocks various brands in aisles. They had a crucial job of making medicine out of herbs. The job of the Vaidya (Ayurveda doctor and pharmacist) was to create a right concoction that is capable of the following:
Extracting the medicinal essence out without denaturing them.
Standardize the strength and the right dosage.
Convert it into something stable, easy to store, administer and transport. In addition, it had to be palatable.
The medium needed the ability to be absorbed by the body and cure the ailment.
Depending on the patient, ailment and the nature of the medicine the apothecary (pharmacist) would alter the prescription. However, the delivery medium traditionally falls under the following eight categories.
Kashayam: It is an effective Herbal tea that is consumed in southern India. Here, the spices are freshly boiled along with medicinal herbs to make medicinal water. The most common Kashayam being the tea made from tulsi, ginger, honey and pepper, which is served in winters to children suffering from flu, cold or sore throat. If they are fermented, they are called Arishtam and if they are not heated, then they are called Asavam.
Lehyam or Chawanprash: Here the preparation is similar to Kashayam but is thickened using a sugar medium (Jaggery, malt or fruit jams) to make it into a semi solid paste or a spread. This paste is more stable, easier to store, administer and sugar masks the flavors of stronger and bitter medicines. If they are stored in a syrup form, they are called Rasayana (tonic).
Gulika: It means ‘Sugar tablets’. It essentially is medicine infused in jaggery. However, nowadays there are better and more compact binding agents available to make pills or capsules which are similar to western medicine and homeopathy.
Gritham: Instead of sugar/ malt medium, cow ghee/ fats are used to extract and preserve the medicinal extract. It is useful when the medicine is oil soluble rather than water-soluble. Some doctors replace the animal fat with Coconut oil, especially for Alzheimer medications and medications for vegans. The herb infused cooking olive oil used in European households, can also be called as a Gritham because of process similarities.
Thailam: These are herb infused oils. They were traditionally used for external consumption (like scalp treatment, pain relief or skin ailments). Gingelly oil and mustard were traditionally used but modern ones have olive oils too. Gritham is for oral administration while Thailam is for external application and massage. Sometimes, the oil is thickened like a balm, and then it is called Kuzambu and is usually used for joint pains and headaches. Sometimes the oils are supposed to be heated before application to achieve higher bio-ingredient activity and absorption.
Arishtam/ tinctures: The word means freedom from Injury or disease, it is a fermented medicine. The whole herbs are put into a sugar syrup and yeast is added to allow creation of alcohol. Alcohol is a unique solvent with its ability to dissolve both water and fat-soluble medicines. Since there is no heat to be applied, the aromatic oils do not get lost in the atmosphere or the proteins do not get denatured. Alcohol has a strong ability to mask the off taste and bitterness, and finally they get readily absorbed. Even modern medicine and homeopathy is moving from a sugar pill based medium to tinctures in order to harness these properties.
Choornam: The simplest choornam are powdered herbs or mixtures and are the tastiest medicines in Ayurveda. However, many of the digestive choornams are pickled or fermented herbs. The microbial growth through wild microbial fermentation on the herbs make them sour (and hence tastier) and infuses a lot of enzymes and probiotics to help aid in digestion. The microbes also break down the cell walls (cellulose) improving the bioavailability. They also reduce the pH, and improve the taste. Chooram is salted and sundried to make the mixture more stable. Black or pink Rock salt (Sendha Namak) is preferred over white sea salt because of the higher quantities of sulfur and minerals. Children like the sweet, sort and salty taste, so some powdered sugar is also coated on the chooram to get the bouquet of flavors.
Bhasma: They are traditionally used to treat mineral or blood pH imbalance. As the name suggests, these are mineral ash prepared from metals, minerals, pearls, stones and gems/ crystals. They are typically alkaline in nature and burning/ oxidation increases the bioavailability of the active ingredient (mineral salts). Metal ash, Pearls, Gems and crystals are used as in the era prior to nanotechnology, these natural crystals were the source of purest form of metals and minerals. Be careful, an improperly prescribed bhasma could lead to heavy metal toxicity, liver and kidney damage. Go for a second opinion and get your kidney function tests and blood tests done before consuming them for an extended period.
Choornam and lehyam are particularly popular amongst kids who do not like to swallow pills. Tailam is popular for those suffering from arthritis or knee cartilage loss and find a massage with warm oil useful in winter months. People turn to alternative medicines and Ayurveda for various reasons. Some are looking for natural therapy because of lower side effects and their ability to build up body immunity rather than just suppressing the symptoms of the ailments. Those suffering from chronic ailments; prefer alternative medicines for its superior ability to manage the disease with lower side effects. Others turn to Ayurveda due to the side effects from regular medicines. Elderly and kids switch to Ayurveda because the taste is more agreeable.
Whatsoever be the reason to switch towards traditional delivery vehicles (medicine base), the goal of this chapter is not to promote self-medication. What we want to impress upon you is that not all medicines need to be a bitter pill or a painful injection. Work with the doctor and we may be able to find a more agreeable way to administer the medicine without compromising on its efficacy.