Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lesson #27: The Qualities of Taste

The Qualities of Taste

By Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.

Ayurveda is known as a qualitative science. Like all qualitative sciences it honors each person’s experience of life. Ayurveda also makes use of quantitative methods such as carefully studying cause and effect relationships or determining the specific nutrients that can be isolated in a particular food or herb. However, ayurveda remains qualitative first and quantitative second. One expression of this is observing quality over quantity in the diet. You may know how much vitamin C is in an average orange, but you probably don’t know how much vitamin C is in the specific orange you are about to eat. Qualities such as freshness, taste, aroma, color and shape become more important in our assessment of the orange. The quality of each substance has to be experienced first hand. In our day-to-day life we experience life, people, foods and herbs in our own subjective qualitative way. We experience things with our senses. Ayurveda is therefore a common-sense approach to health care. We examine things with our senses in terms of their qualities and we experience them in their full context, not in an isolated way. We honor the complex holistic context of each person’s life and resist reducing our conclusions to isolated variables, events or causes. Indeed, we often consider a-causal and synchronistic occurrences to be meaningful. We look to see the over-all patterns and connections that run through our lives and we honor the meanings we each find in our lives. This web of life and meaning is the field of our study.

On the other hand, as mentioned above, it is also a tenet of Ayurveda to look for specific causes to specific illnesses or conditions, or to see that specific qualities have specific effects. These laws of cause and effect are known as the karma or action of the person, food or herb being studied. In this more quantitative approach, if a single cause can be determined, the principle is to eliminate the cause of the suffering.* However, when there are multiple causes or no known single cause such as in a syndrome, then the qualitative holistic approach is taken. For this reason Ayurveda has a good success rate dealing with chronic conditions and syndromes.

In our most recent series of articles, we have been exploring the qualities of the six tastes and also their actions, taste being one of our senses and one of the ways we experience the world around us. Nature sometimes presents us with a substance that is of a single taste such as salt. We have also made the habit of extracting and concentrating certain tastes like sweet from their natural form. Ayurveda teaches that a single taste has a very specific action that leads to a very predictable effect. Repeated use of single tastes often leads us to an extreme, a fault, an imbalance. This is the meaning of the word dosha in Sanskrit – tending towards an excess or a fault. Single tastes can be most helpful for short-term use in a therapeutic context where a strong action may be needed to move the person away from an opposite extreme. For everyday use however, a blend or balance of tastes is recommended as they tend to balance or harmonize each other’s actions. For example, it is recommended to include all six tastes in a meal – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.

Before proceeding, let’s review and compare the qualities of the six tastes. Pungent taste is the most heating, followed by sour taste then salty taste as least heating. Bitter taste is the most cooling, followed by astringent taste, then sweet taste as least cooling. Sweet taste is the most wet, followed by salty, then sour. Pungent is the most drying taste, followed by bitter, then astringent. Sweet is the heaviest taste, followed by salty, then astringent. Bitter is the lightest taste, followed by pungent, then sour as the least light. For example, sweet taste is the least cooling, most moistening and the heaviest of the tastes.

We have already examined foods and herbs that typify the six tastes in previous articles. Here we shall explore those foods and herbs that contain multiple tastes:

Two tastes: There are many everyday foods and herbs that combine two tastes. Sweet and astringent are combined in such foods as nuts, poultry, corn, fish, beans, peaches, pears, asparagus, green beans and squash. Sweet and sour are found together in hawthorn berries, oranges, pineapple and yogurt. Sweet and pungent combine in cardamom, ginger and onion. Sweet and bitter herbs include dandelion, red clover, sarsaparilla and shatavari. Sour and astringent are together in cherries, cranberries and tomatoes. Pungent and bitter herbs are coriander, cumin, dill and myrrh. Pungent and astringent are found in bayberry, horseradish and turnips. Bitter and astringent are together in burdock, eggplant, golden seal, kale and yellow dock.

Three tastes: Many cooking spices and foods combine three tastes. Consider the complexity of basil, cinnamon, fenugreek, raw honey, pomegranate, rosemary, sage and tarragon. Many medicinal herbs also combine three tastes including many herbs that are favored in Ayurvedic herbology such as ashwagandha, brahmi, boswellia, ginseng, guduchi, sandalwood and turmeric. Turmeric for example is a complex of bitter, astringent and pungent tastes. The complex taste indicates a complex yet balanced action when ingested.

Four tastes: Substances that combine four tastes are rare. They include aloe vera, rose flower and guggul. Ayurveda has a whole group of medicinal preparations based on guggul.

Five tastes: Substances with five tastes are extremely rare and much prized for their balanced medicinal action. Examples are amalaki (Indian gooseberry), haritaki, schisandra and garlic. Amalaki and haritaki are two of the three ingredients in the famous Ayurvedic formula known as triphala (three fruits). Triphala is used by itself and also as a base for other medicines. There is an entire Ayurvedic treatise dedicated to just the medicinal qualities of garlic. In Tibetan Ayurveda haritaki is known as the king of medicines. Depictions of the Medicine Buddha invariably show him holding a branch of haritaki.

Six tastes: I am not aware of any single substance that includes all six tastes although many formulas and meals are prepared to include all six tastes. This blending of tastes is an art in itself as they are not usually included in equal proportions. For example, in a meal perhaps ninety percent of the foods will include the sweet taste and ten percent will be split amongst sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent tastes. There is a saying to let food be your medicine. Ayurveda explains that the food is that which is digested and the medicine is that which helps digest the food. In the above example, the sweet taste is the nourishing food and the other tastes help digest and balance that food.

In summary, we have seen how foods and herbs are classified first into six tastes. This is usually done by the predominate taste. Then we consider the presence of secondary tastes that give the food complexity and balance. We can also combine foods, herbs and tastes to create complexity and balance.

References for further study: “The Yoga of Herbs” by D. Frawley & V. Lad, “Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing” by U. Lad & V. Lad, and “The Roots of Ayurveda” selected and translated by D. Wujastyk.

*This tenet is fully developed in the Buddhist approach to Ayurveda and leads to some enlightening views of the causes and cures of suffering based on the Four Noble Truths which we will save for a future discussion.

Lesson #26: Astringency

by Gary Gran CYT, DAy.

“You know something? My face used to be kind of puffy looking,” she was saying.
“Well your skin looks great now. What did you do?” he asked.
“I’ve been using a new astringent and it’s really toned up my skin.”
In Ayurveda, astringent is listed as one of the six tastes along with sweet, sour, salty, pungent and bitter. Like pungency, it is also an action in itself meaning it has a direct action on any tissue, not just the taste buds.
For example, if you put a pungent substance on the skin it will create a burning sensation. If you put an astringent substance on the skin it will create a drawing or firming effect. Webster’s dictionary tells us that astringent means to bind tight or the ability to draw together the soft organic tissues.
The sage Atreya, in the classic Ayurvedic text called Vagbhata Hridaya (VH), tells us that astringent taste is composed of earth and air. Earth is cold, dry, heavy and contracted. Air is cold, dry, light and expanded. Together astringent taste has the qualities of cold, dry, slightly heavy and contracted. Therefore, if applied to the skin or ingested, astringent substances will have a corresponding cooling, drying, nourishing and toning effect. Remember the basic rule in Ayurveda is that a substance’s qualities will indicate the substance’s effects. This rule is called “like increases like.”
“The astringent taste deadens one’s tongue and causes constriction of one’s throat” (VH1.10.5). Ayurveda is an experiential common sense approach to nature and health care. Tasting a substance is an immediate way to judge it’s qualities and effects. Astringent taste is recognized by a strong puckering or drawing effect on the mouth and throat. If you don’t know what that means, try eating a bite of pomegranate or persimmon.
“The astringent taste removes pitta and kapha” (VH1.10.20). Pitta (fire and water) tends to an excess of hot, damp and light qualities. Therefore, the astringent qualities of cold, dry and heavy are all helpful. Kapha (water and earth) tends to an excess of cold, damp and heavy qualities. Here the astringent taste is only helpful to counteract excess dampness.
“It is heavy and purifies the blood” (VH1.10.20). Heavy in this context means that astringent foods are not always easy to digest or that they can take longer to digest. This is due to the heavy qualities of earth. Astringent foods tend to be detoxifying unless taken in excess. They have the ability to “draw together” and carry toxins out of the body. For example, most beans are astringent. They may not make your mouth pucker, but they will help clear toxic heat and dampness from the body. There are many blood-cleansing herbs that possess the astringent taste such as alfalfa, aloe, barberry, nettle and yellow dock. Please note that many herbs are a complex blend of two or more tastes.
“It squeezes, is healing and cooling” (VH1.10.20). The squeezing action of astringent substances has the power to draw together and heal wounds and ulcers. For example, used topically, aloe can heal burns, and comfrey, plantain and self-heal can heal wounds.
Astringent taste by itself is cooling as noted above. However, there are some astringent foods and herbs that also have pungent taste and are therefore heating instead of cooling. Heating astringents include basil, bayberry, buckwheat, marjoram, rye, turnips and poultry.
“It dries out moisture and fat” (VH1.10.20). This emphasizes astringent taste’s anti-kapha drying action. A standard anti-kapha diet will include many astringent foods such as barley, buckwheat, corn, rye, beans, asparagus, celery, cruciferous vegetables, lettuce, parsley, apples, berries, tea and lemon.
“It can hinder digestion of other food, is absorbent, and extremely cleansing for the skin” (VH1.10.20). Astringent foods are potentially constipating due to their overall drying effect. The constipation is what hinders the digestion of other food. Therefore, astringents are good for kapha types who are naturally moist, but are potentially too drying for someone who is already dry.
Astringents are absorbent means that they can soak up excess moisture and stop excessive discharges. For example, barley, buckwheat, chicken or psyllium are used to counter diarrhea and improve the stool, eyebright and nettles are used for watery eyes and nose associated with allergies, mullein is used for excessive lung discharges and yellow dock is used for acne. Chicken soup and basil tea with honey are used for the common cold. Many women’s herbs have an astringent action that can help regulate the menses.
Astringents can be applied directly on the skin and other tissues for their cleansing and toning effects. Notable astringents for the skin are alum, blackberry leaf, raspberry leaf, burdock, lemon, raspberry leaf, rose hips, sage, witch hazel and yarrow. Please note that the leaves and fruits of the rose family make good astringents.
Also note that what goes on goes in. Ayurveda maintains that anything placed on the skin is “digested”, absorbed and assimilated into the body. Therefore take care as much as possible that all cosmetic products are made from the highest quality food grade ingredients without chemical additives.
“If it is used habitually, it causes constipation, flatulence, and pain in the heart region” (VH1.10.21). Too much astringent taste means too much coldness, dryness and congestion. The digestive system can become stagnant and start to back up causing gas and pressure against the heart.
“It causes thirst, thinness, loss of virility, blockage of the tubes, and the accumulation of impurities” (VH1.10.21). Excessive dryness can eventually cause thirst, loss of water weight to the point of thinness or emaciation and drying up of the reproductive fluids. This can also be called excessive air or vata. Remember that astringent taste is defined as the combination of earth and air. Excessive earth is called stagnation and can lead to blockage of the tubes and the accumulation of waste.
To summarize, astringent taste is an excellent corrective for for pitta and kapha types but are used in smaller amounts or in combinations for vata, vata-pitta and vata-kapha types. Also remember that most foods and herbs just like most people are a combination of several tastes, qualities and actions. Sometimes it is possible to match just the right food or herb to the right individual. Other times we will have to combine foods, herbs and tastes in an artful and balanced way to create the desired effect. For this reason, it is good advice for all of us to eat a balanced diet which includes all the food groups and all the tastes in some measure.

Astringent: arjuna, bibhitaki, blackberry, green banana, nettles, red root, shankha pushpi

Astringent/Sweet: alfalfa, amaranth, artichoke, asparagus, bamboo, bilva, borage, Brazil nuts, chicken, comfrey, corn, fish, flaxseed, green beans, hazelnuts, hibiscus, lotus, macadamia nuts, mung beans, nutmeg, mullein, okra, parsnip, peaches, pears, pecans, pine nuts, plums, psyllium, raspberry, red lentils, rutabaga, soy beans, squash, sunflower seeds, strawberry, tofu, turkey

Astringent/Sour: cherries, cranberries, persimmon, rose hips, tomato

Astringent/Pungent: bayberry, coriander, gurmar, horseradish, marjoram, parsley, sage, turnips, vidanga

Astringent/Bitter: barberry, burdock, cramp bark, devil’s claw, eggplant, golden seal, henna, Jerusalem artichoke, kale, kutaj, lodhra, peony, plantain, self-heal, shepherd’s purse, squaw vine, uva ursi, wild cherry bark, witch hazel, yarrow, yellow dock

Astringent/Sweet/Sour: pomegranate

Astringent/Sweet/Pungent: cinnamon, honey, poppy seed, rosemary, tarragon

Astringent/Sweet/Bitter: ashwagandha, basil, boswellia, bhringaraj, fo-ti, guduchi, jatamamsi, phyllanthus, sandalwood, sesame seed

Astringent/Pungent/Bitter: turmeric

There are many foods which have astringent as either the primary or secondary taste:

Fruits: apple, avocado, green beans, cherries, cranberries, kiwi, green mango, peaches, pears, persimmons, plums, pomegranate

Vegetables: artichoke, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, burdock, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower,celery, cilantro, fresh corn, eggplant, green beans, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mushrooms, okra, parsnips, peas, peppers, white potato, rutabaga, spinach, sprouts, squash, tomato, turnips, zucchini

Grains & Beans: all beans, amaranth, buckwheat, corn, oat bran, rye, spelt, tapioca

Animal Foods: chicken, fish, turkey, venison

Nuts & Seeds: Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia, pecan, pine nut, popcorn, psyllium, safflower, sesame, sunflower

Addendum: Here is a translation from the “Charak Samhita” 1.26.43 concerning astringency for further study and comparison: “Herbs and foods having astringent taste are sedative and constipative. They produce pressure on the affected part and cause granulation, absorption and stiffness. They alleviate kapha and raktapitta (disease characterized by bleeding from various parts of the body). They absorb the body fluid and are dry, cold and heavy. In spite of all these good qualities, if used in excess in isolation they cause dryness of mouth, affliction of the heart, distention of the abdomen, obstruction of speech, constriction of circulating channels, dark complexion and destruction of seed. They get digested slowly and obstruct the passage of flatus, urine, stool, menses and semen, cause emaciation, weariness, thirst, stiffness and by virtue of their roughness and dryness they produce diseases like spasm, convulsion, facial paralysis, etc. due to the vitiation of vata.”

References for further study: “The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from the Ayurvedic Classics” by Dominik Wujastyk, “Ashtangahrdaya or Heart of Medicine” by Vagbhata, “Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing” by Usha and Vasant Lad, and “The Yoga of Herbs” by David Frawley and Vasant Lad

Lesson #25: Bitterness

by Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.

“That sure was a bitter pill to swallow,” said the man who had just been turned down for a transfer.
“Yes, but it’s no reason to become cynical,” said his friend. “Try to think of it as a reality check. Did you really think that requesting a transfer was a good idea to begin with?”
“Well, I guess you’re right. It was kind of a pie in the sky notion, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, I think this way you’ll be better off in the long run.”
There is a saying in ayurveda that “bitter is better”. The bitter taste, whether from a food, an herb or an experience, has a strong clearing and cleansing effect. The resulting purification can leave a person better able to perceive reality. Let’s explore the ramifications of this saying by studying what the Ayurvedic texts have to say.
The sage Atreya, in the classic text called Vagbhata Hridaya (VH), tells us that bitter taste originates from the elements ether and air. Ether is cold, dry, light and subtle. Air is also cold, dry, light and subtle, but also reducing, moving and dispersing. Together, they create the image of wind (air) moving through space (ether). Students of ayurveda will recognize this as the image of vata, one of the three doshas. Therefore, bitter taste will strongly increase vata dosha. Or to put it another way, bitter taste has a strongly cooling, drying, reducing, moving and dispersing effect.
“The bitter taste clears one’s palate and inhibits one’s sense of taste” (VH 1.10.4). Bitter taste is first experienced in the mouth and is said to overpower or correct all the other tastes. This makes bitter taste one of our best sources of medicine. When we say that bitter corrects the other tastes, we are saying that bitter corrects the effects of over-doing the other tastes. For example, if you have been over-indulging in sweets you may be feeling a bit heavy, dull and slow. You can lay off the sweets and take some bitter herbs instead to clean out.
“The bitter taste is unpleasant on its own” (VH1.10.14). Let’s just say that bitter is an acquired taste and one that is often lacking in the average diet. The most common bitters are salad greens like endive or radicchio. Coffee can also be bitter. That’s probably why it is not always taken “on its own” but combined with cream and sugar.
“It overcomes a loss of appetite” (VH1.10.14). Another common use of bitters is as an aperitif. Digestive bitters are popular in liquid form. There are various recipes which usually include bitter herbs and roots like gentian. The theory is that the bitter taste strongly stimulates the tongue and causes the digestive system to counter or react by releasing digestive juices. Try a few drops on the tongue or mixed with water about 10 minutes before eating.
“It overcomes worms (bacteria, parasites, etc) and poisoning” (VH1.10.15). As medicine, bitter herbs can be strongly anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-parasitical due to their strong drying effect. The strategy is to dry out the environment within which the microbes are living, making it a less hospitable place. And bitters can counter-act many poisons and environmental toxins as well. We can think of bitters as strongly anti-fire and toxins as toxic fire.
It can be noted that most modern pharmaceutical medicines are extremely bitter, a sign of their strong medicinal action, and also a sign of their potential side effects.
Depending on one’s constitution, bitter taste should not necessarily be taken “on its own”. Often pungent and sweet herbs are added to bitter herbs to provide some heat and moisture respectively. Vata types (cold, dry, thin, nervous) need to be most careful. Pitta types (hot, oily, wiry, inflamed) don’t need to add heat. Kapha types (cold, damp, heavy, congested) don’t need to add moisture.
“Bitter taste overcomes skin disease, fever, burning sensations and pitta” (VH1.10.15). Pitta is the combination of fire and water and is usually recognized by heat symptoms and conditions such as skin diseases (the burning, irritated, red kinds), fever and burning sensations in general. Bitter taste is the strongest of the cooling tastes (the other two being sweet and astringent) and therefore the best when a medicinal corrective anti-fire action is needed. Bitter herbs that help clear the skin are known as alteratives or blood purifiers.
“Bitter taste overcomes fainting, nausea and kapha. It dries up moisture, fat, grease, marrow, faeces and urine. It is light (easily digestible) and increases intelligence. It is cold, dry and clears the throat and breastmilk” (VH1.10.16) This verse tells us that bitter taste is corrective to kapha conditions (cold, damp, heavy, sluggish, dull, slow, congested). It does this by virtue of its drying and reducing power. Please note that bitter is cold just like kapha. For this reason, as stated above, bitter and pungent herbs are often combined to correct kapha imbalances. Also note that bitter taste “increases intelligence.” Due to its subtle and clearing qualities, bitter taste can help clear the mind. Most of the herbs used to support mental function have a strong bitter component.
“If it is used too much, it makes the body tissues shrivel, and causes diseases of the wind” (VH1.10.16). Because of its strong cooling, drying and reducing effects, bitter taste can easily aggravate vata (“wind”) which shares the same qualities. This is according to the basic principle that like increases like. Typical vata disorders are constipation, dry skin, emaciation, palpitations, nervous twitches, shooting pains, dizziness and a scattered mind.
To summarize, bitter is an excellent corrective for pitta and kapha types and should be encouraged in the diet and as medicine. Vatas can use small portions of bitter but must be very careful to mix and balance the bitter taste with other tastes.

Some herbs are almost completely bitter in taste. They are considered to have the strongest action. Others have secondary tastes which makes them more palatable and balanced in their action. There are some special herbs that exhibit a combination of 4 or 5 tastes which makes their harmonizing and healing potential the greatest in and of themselves. Single, double and triple taste herbs can be combined to provide a more balanced action.
Because of the balancing action of multiple tastes, it is not recommended to extract the most medicinal compound from an herb or food to make a medicine as is routinely done in modern medicine. The idea of isolating the active principle may increase the action of the medicine, but also may increase undesirable side effects. Most herbalists feel it is better to go with nature. The natural compounds which bind together with the active principles are there for good reason. The action may be slower but it will be safer.

Single taste bitter herbs include bhringaraj, blessed thistle, cascara sagrada, chaparral, chicory, chiretta, eyebright, gentian, gotu kola, gymnema, jasmine, neem, nettles, oregon grape, passion flower, pau d’arco, pokeroot, rhubarb root, senna, skullcap, usnea, vervain and willow bark.
Bitter herbs with a secondary sweet taste include blue cohosh, chickweed, chrysanthemum, dandelion, honeysuckle, manjishta, milk thistle, red clover, sarsaparilla and wild yam. The secondary sweet taste makes these herbs better choices for vata and pitta types.
Bitter herbs with a secondary pungent taste include andrographis, barberry, black cohosh, boswellia, bupleurum, burdock, calendula, chamomile, cilantro, coriander, cumin, dill, echinacea, elder flowers, eupatorium, forsythia, guduchi, hops, horehound, hyssop, motherwort, myrrh, osha, picrorrhiza, rue, St. John’s wort, tansy, tarragon, thuja, tulsi, turmeric and vitex. The secondary pungent taste makes these herbs better choices for vata and kapha types.
Bitter herbs with a secondary astringent taste include crampbark, devil’s claw, ginkgo, goldenseal, peony, self-heal, tea, wild cherry and yellow dock. The secondary astringent taste makes these herbs better choices for kapha types.
Good digestive bitters are barberry, cilantro, coriander, cumin, dill, gentian and tarragon.
When an alterative or blood cleansing action is needed choose from barberry, burdock, chaparral, chickweed, chicory, chrysanthemum, dandelion, forsythia, gentian, goldenseal, gotu kola, honeysuckle, manjishta, neem, nettles, oregon grape, pau d’arco, pokeroot, red clover, sarsaparilla, self-heal, turmeric and yellow dock.
Good women’s herbs for cleansing the blood and balancing the menstrual cycle and hormones are black cohosh, blessed thistle, blue cohosh, chamomile, crampbark, dandelion, jasmine, motherwort, myrrh, peony, red clover, rue, tansy, turmeric, vitex and wild yam.
For antibiotic action, choose from andrographis, chiretta, echinacea, forsythia, goldenseal, honeysuckle, oregon grape, osha, pau d’arco, picrorrhiza, tulsi and usnea.
For anti-viral action, choose from chiretta, echinacea, elder, goldenseal, honeysuckle, hyssop, osha, St. John’s wort and thuja.
Neem and barberry are anti-parasitical and pau d’arco and usnea are anti-fungal.
For colds and flus choose from these bitter herbs: andrographis, chiretta, echinacea, elder, eupatorium, forsythia, goldenseal, honeysuckle, horehound, hyssop, myrrh, oregon grape, osha, poke, st. john’s wort, thuja, tulsi, usnea and willow bark.
Gymnema is known as gurmar or sugar destroyer as it blocks the sweet taste. It is an excellent tonic for diabetics as it helps control blood sugar.
Good anti-inflammatory bitters are bhringaraj, boswellia, bupleurum, chiretta, devil’s claw, eyebright, gentian, guduchi, honeysuckle, myrrh and turmeric.
Good bitters for the liver are barberry, bupleurum, burdock, chrysanthemum, dandelion, eclipta, milk thistle, neem, sarsaparilla and turmeric.
For a laxative or purgative action, choose cascara sagrada, rhubarb and/or senna. Please note that bitter laxatives are habit forming and only recommended for occasional use.
Several bitters have special action on the nerves and the mind. They include chamomile, chrysanthemum, gotu kola, ginkgo, jasmine, passion flower, skullcap, tea and tulsi.
Some bitter herbs are favored for food use. Coriander, cumin and turmeric are used in masala for their balancing and flavoring action. Cilantro, dill and tarragon are used as potherbs. Burdock root, chicory, dandelion and nettles are used as vegetables.
Other foods which have some bitter taste include artichoke, arugala, bitter gourd, bitter melon, bok choy, brocolli, brussels sprouts, coffee, collards, cress, cucumber, eggplant, endive, escarole, kale, lettuce, mesclun mix, parsley and radicchio.

Addendum: Here is a translation from the “Charak Samhita” 1.26.43 concerning bitterness for further study and comparison: “Drugs and diets having bitter taste are by themselves not delicious but when added with other things they promote deliciousness. They are antitoxic and germicidal. They cure fainting, burning sensation, itching, obstinate skin diseases...and fever. They promote firmness of the skin and muscles. They promote carmination and digestion, purify milk, cause drying and help in the depletion of moisture, fat, muscle-fat, marrow, lymph, pus, sweat, urine, stool, pitta and kapha. They are rough, cold and light.
In spite of all these good qualities, if used singly and excessively, by virtue of their roughness, coarseness and non-sliminess they deplete the plasma, blood, muscle, fat, marrow and reproductive fluids. They produce roughness in the circulatory channels, reduce strength, cause emaciation, weariness, mental confusion, giddiness, dryness of mouth and produce other diseases due to the vitiation of vata.”

References for further study: “The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from the Ayurvedic Classics” by Dominik Wujastyk, “Charak Samhita” by Charak, “Ashtangahrdaya or Heart of Medicine” by Vagbhata, “The Yoga of Herbs” by David Frawley and Vasant Lad

Lesson #24: Pungency

by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay.

The basic tenets of Ayurveda have been handed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition. The oral traditions themselves have been committed to writing from time to time. There are two well-known compilations of ancient Ayurvedic theory and practice which are still studied today. They are the Charak Samhita (Compendium of Charaka) and the Susruta Samhita (Compendium of Susruta). Around 600 AD, there appeared a brilliant synthesis of the ancient traditions called the Vagbhata Hridaya (Vagbhata’s Heart of Medicine). It has been translated into numerous languages including Tibetan, Arabic, Chinese, German and English and it’s influence helped spread the teachings of Ayurveda around the world.
Traditionally, these texts have been put to memory as part of one’s medical training. Each passage can then be recalled and expounded upon as needed. As modern students of Ayurveda we too can look to these passages and add our own commentaries in light of our own times and our own understanding.
So let’s consider the passages from the Vagbhata Hridaya (VH) that relate to the taste of pungency and then amplify their meaning.

“’And now we shall expound the chapter on the different tastes,’ said Atreya and the other great sages. The tastes, ‘sweet’ and so on, originate from the physical elements being sequentially in dominant pairs: earth and water (sweet); fire and earth (sour); water and fire (salt); ether and air (bitter); fire and air (pungent); earth and fire (astringent).” VH 1.10.
When pungent or spicy taste is described as originating from fire and air we are to consider that the substance tasted is composed of primarily fire and air. Ayurveda defines all substances in terms of the five elements ether, air, fire, water and earth. Each element represents a specific set of qualities. Fire is hot, dry, light, sharp, intense, yet subtle. Air is cold, dry, light, moving, dispersing and subtle. When combined, we can say that pungent is hot, very dry, very light, sharp, intense, moving, dispersing and subtle.
When we taste a substance we experience first-hand it’s qualities and it’s effects. The basic theory is that the specific qualities (guna) lead to specific effects or actions (karma). Like increases like. So we can infer upon tasting a substance what it’s effects will be when ingested. Eating substances of pungent taste will have a heating, drying, lightening, cutting, intensely moving, stimulating and dispersing effect.

“The Outward Form of the Tastes...The ‘pungent’ savour stimulates the tip of one’s tongue, making it tingle. It makes one’s eyes, nose, and mouth water, and produces a burning feeling in one’s cheeks.” VH 1.10
The pungent taste is not just a taste experienced in the mouth. It has a stimulating and burning action on any surface of the body. Cut and place a hot pepper on your arm and you will feel a burning sensation. Pungent herbs are often prepared as ointments, salves or liniments and placed on the skin to relieve pain or break up congestion. One example is to simmer ginger in a pot of water, place a cloth in the hot ginger water, ring partially dry and then apply as a compress. When it cools return the cloth to the hot water and repeat.
The fact that pungent substances ‘makes one’s eyes, nose, and mouth water’ is part of it’s stimulating action. It stimulates, moves and disperses water. If a person has excess water, dampness, mucus or phlegm, collectively referred to as kapha, the pungent taste can break up and disperse the congestion. Therefore, pungent taste is said to be anti-kapha.
It is interesting that kapha types will often complain that spicy food makes their noses run. Here is a case where something that is anti-kaphic and helpful in the long run is seen as not helpful and unpleasant in the short run. The play on words is not intentional. The point is that suggesting spices to kapha types may be a hard sell. To overcome this resistance it is necessary to teach the difference between the merely pleasant and the ultimate good. This is a teaching from the Katha Upanishad which bears repeating. We are too influenced by our notions of pleasant vs. unpleasant or likes vs. dislikes for our own good.
Going back to our quote, the degree of ‘burning’ felt (in the cheeks or elsewhere) will depend on the degree of pungency in the substance. A useful practice is to categorize pungent articles as mild, medium or strong in degree. For example, basil is mildly spicy, fresh ginger is medium spicy, and hot peppers are strongly spicy.

“The Effects of the Tastes...The pungent savour overcomes throat diseases, colds, and swelling. It reduces the size of wounds. It dries out oil, fat, and moisture. It stimulates the digestive fire, is digestive, an appetizer, and an evacuant. It dries out food. It cuts through blockages, opens up the tubes and removes phlegm.” VH 1.10
Throat diseases, colds and swelling are of different types according to the doshas. To use a sore throat as an example, you may feel intermittent discomfort, weakness or a scratchy feeling with dryness in your throat. This is a vata-type or vata-stage sore throat. You could also feel a sharp irritation with redness and acute burning. This is a pitta-type or pitta-stage sore throat. You could also feel dull pain, with chronic swelling and congestion in the throat. This is a kapha-type or kapha-stage sore throat. The key to the symptoms is vata is cold, dry and changeable, pitta is hot, burning and red, and kapha is cold, moist, slow and stagnant.
Pungent taste is best suited to overcome kapha-type diseases. Strong spices can heat up and move out the swelling and congestion. Mild spices can be used to overcome the vata-type diseases as vata is cold and pungent is hot. The precaution is not to be over-stimulating.
For example, some basil tea with honey may be soothing to vata without being overly stimulating. Kapha types might need dried ginger tea with a pinch of cayenne and honey. Pitta conditions are already hot, so something cooling like mint or bitters would be a better choice.
Pungent taste is known ‘to reduce the size of wounds’. Whereas I have not experimented with this approach, I believe using pungent articles topically on wounds would act something like cauterization.
Pungent taste ‘dries out oil, fat, and moisture.’ Oil, fat, and moisture when excessive are examples of kapha. Kapha is defined as water held in earth. The key qualities are cold, damp, heavy and unctuous. Pungent taste is defined as fire and air. The key qualities are hot, dry, light and sharp. These represent opposite qualities. Pungent taste is a perfect antidote for kapha. This passage is emphasizing the drying action of pungency.
Pungent taste ‘stimulates the digestive fire, is digestive, an appetizer, and an evacuant.’ The key word here is ‘stimulates.’ Pungent articles are used as stimulants in that they stimulate into action. They stimulate the saliva to flow in the mouth, they stimulate the digestive track to mobilize digestive enzymes which digest the food, and they can help stimulate the peristaltic action of the colon. However, please note that pungent articles, just like fire itself should be used judiciously, carefully and in moderation.
Pungent taste ‘dries out food.’ Here is another reference to pungent taste’s drying action. A safe way to use pungent taste is to mix it with food. This can be done as the food is cooked. It can be added to the cooked food before it is eaten (i.e. as with black pepper). Or, to bypass the runny nose, pungent spices such as ginger can be taken in a capsule while eating the food.
Pungent taste ‘cuts through blockages, opens up the tubes and removes phlegm.’ Pungent taste is said to have a sharp quality. This translates into a ‘cutting’ action. Pungent taste can cut through and break up congestion or blockages. For example, if your nose is blocked with excess phlegm, ginger tea may help ‘open up the tubes.’
On a more subtle level, yoga and ayurveda describe subtle tubes known as nadi’s that carry prana through the subtle body. Pungent taste can help keep the nadi’s clear. One practice of the yogi’s is to grind seven black peppercorns every morning, blend the fresh powder in a spoon of honey while repeating the fire mantra ‘ram’ or equivalent, and then swallow to break up any phlegm which has collected in the stomach over night. The effect of this practice is to break up phlegm, open the subtle channels, stimulate prana and clear the mind.

“If it is used too much, it causes thirst, a diminution of seed and strength, fainting, cramps, trembling, and pain in the waist and back.” VH 1.10
It is always prudent to consider counter-indications. Because pungent taste is drying, too much could cause thirst. When considering fertility, water is seen as the key element. If you have studied the chakras, you may know that the second chakra is associated with reproduction, fertility and water. Too much pungent taste can literally dry out water and the reproductive ‘seed’.
‘Diminution of seed and strength, fainting, cramps, trembling, and pain in the waist and back’ are classic vata symptoms. Vata is the combination of air and space qualities, notably cold, dry, light, changeable with erratic movements. Pungent taste is composed of fire and air. Where the fiery qualities may benefit the coldness of vata, the airy qualities are more likely to aggravate vata. This is why only mild spices are recommended for vata types.

“Examples...The class of pungent items includes asafoetida, black pepper, mixed spice...and green herbs like sweet basil...” VH 1.10
Mild spices are called carminatives or digestives. They are generally sattvic (harmonious), good for all types and are used in cooking. They include the ‘green herbs like sweet basil,’ bay, chervil, cilantro, dill, fennel, oregano, tarragon and thyme.
Other examples are carminative seeds. They include ajwain, anise, black cumin, carraway, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and mustard. They are often ground just before use and cooked in ghee as a base for cooking vegetables, grains or beans. One famous combination is known as panch phoron or five seeds which include black cumin, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and yellow mustard. All of the mild spices are used to support digestion without increasing pitta.
Medium strength spices include asafoetida, black pepper, cinnamon, garlic and fresh ginger. Of these, fresh ginger and cinnamon are considered sattvic (harmonious). The others are rajasic (potentially over-stimulating). Asafoetida has a reputation for dispelling gas and countering intestinal yeast infections. It can be indispensable for vata types. It is also used as a substitute for garlic in taste and action. Black pepper is sometimes used by yogi’s despite it’s rajasic quality to ‘keep the channels open’ as discussed above. This is an example of using rajas to counter tamas (sluggishness).
Strong spices, such as the ‘mixed spice’ mentioned in the text, include dried ginger, cayenne and other hot peppers or chilis. One mixed spice recipe is known as trikatu, or three peppers. It is equal measures of dried ginger, black pepper and long pepper. It is used for it’s heating and stimulating action to counter coldness and phlegm or as an addition to herbal formulas as a digestive aid.
One aspect of pungency that our text did not address is it’s effect on the mental/emotional level. Pungency is an antidote for complacency and lack of focus. The sharp quality includes the helpful effect of sharpening and clarifying the mind. Of course, too many hot spices can make the mind and tongue too sharp. Watch out for the sharp language of angry people eating hot spices!

References for further study: “The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from the Ayurvedic Classics” by Dominik Wujastyk, “Charak Samhita” by Charak, and “Ashtangahrdaya or Heart of Medicine” by Vagbhata

Addendum: Here is a translation from the “Charak Samhita” 1.26.43 concerning pungency for further study and comparison:
“Pungent taste cleanses the mouth, stimulates digestion, absorbs food, causes secretion from the nose and eyes; makes the sense organs clear, alleviates swelling, corpulence, urticarial patches, channel-blocking,... gives relish to food, destroys itching , depresses wounds, kills organisms, scrapes muscles, checks the coagulation of blood,... opens the channels, pacifies kapha, and is light, hot and rough. This, though having so many properties, if used singly and excessively, damages sexual potency ... causes unconsciousness, weariness, emaciation, fainting, choking, giddiness, burning in throat, body-heat, loss of strength and thirst. And due to abundance of air and fire, it produces vatika disorders in feet, hands, sides, back etc. particularly with symptoms like movements, burning pain, tremors, piercing and tearing pains.”