“If all you do is take triphala, eventually the body will return to a state of balance.”
These instructions were given to me more than once throughout my Ayurvedic education in regards to the classic blended formula triphala. It is one of the Ayurvedic powerhouses. Triphala is a must-have in the toolbox. Triphala is also the kind of remedy you would want to have with you if you are stranded on a desert island.
As its name suggests, triphala is comprised of three herbs. (The prefix tri- in Sanskrit means three, just as it does in Latin and Greek.) “Phala” refers to fruits. The three fruits of triphala may not necessarily be familiar to those of us who grew up in the West. Before my own Ayurvedic training, I had never heard of amalaki, haritaki, or bibhitaki, even though these are large tropical trees that grow throughout India and other parts of Asia.
The Three Herbs in Triphala
The formula triphala is made up of these three fruits, dried and powdered. Amalaki (Emblica officials or Phyllanthus embolic), haritaki (Terminalia chebula) and bibhitaki (Terminalia bellirica). Part of what allows this formulation to balance the body is that each of these three herbs addresses or balances one of the three doshas.
Of these three, amalaki may be the most famous. The fruit, also called Indian gooseberry, is known for having high levels of bioavailable Vitamin C. Amalaki is eaten fresh and dried, and in jams and jellies. (It is also the base for the rejuvenating Ayurvedic jam chaywanprash.) The fruit is used to make a hair oil beloved by Indian women to increase luster and shine. According to Ayurveda, amalaki is calming or balancing to the fiery hot pitta dosha. In addition, traditional uses of amalaki include its ability to help regulate blood sugar levels, enhance muscle tone, restore the skin, strengthen the immune system, reduce acidity and inflammation, and ameliorate high cholesterol levels.
Bibhitaki (Terminalia bellirica) grows throughout Asia, but is seldom eaten fresh the way amalaki is. It is highly astringent and a bit drying, which is what gives it its great benefits for reducing the accumulation of the watery and heavy kapha dosha. It can be a bit of a diuretic and helps promote elimination of all kinds. Bibhitaki is also one of the herbs traditionally used for the lungs.
Haritaki (Terminalia chebula) is the one of the three fruits that specifically balances the airy, dry vata dosha. Also known as myrobalan, this nourishing fruit can be eaten as a food and is beloved for its therapeutic properties. Haritaki, like the other two, supports proper elimination and also has anti-inflammatory properties as well as immune-strengthening ones. Its ability to support detoxification is thought to come from its anti-oxidant effects, particularly on the glutathione system.
Triphala: The combination
As a formulation, some of its many Ayurvedic benefits include: supporting healthy elimination, strengthening the immune system, cultivating healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and encouraging detoxification. We could fill pages with the wonders of triphala. As I mentioned at the beginning, triphala is believed to bring all three doshas into a state of balance. There is a powerful synergy to these three herbs when taken together.
While triphala is a combination of three fruits, in this particular combination is not a culinary herb (even though the fruits eaten alone can be mixed with food). It is recommended to take triphala either 30 minutes before or two hours after eating. When people ask me about adding triphala powder to their smoothies, I often dissuade them from that practice and suggest one of the other methods of taking triphala instead.
Ways to Take Triphala
Triphala can be pressed into pills, poured into capsules, or utilized as the dried powder for its therapeutic effect.
Pills or capsules
Take these with plenty of water. Triphala can be a bit astringent or drying for some people, so hydrate well. Pay attention to what works for you in terms of the number of capsules or pills and check with your practitioner or health care provider. Pay attention to your digestive system, particularly your elimination patterns. High levels of the pitta dosha can increase sensitivity to loose stools. High levels of the vata dosha can increase constipation when taking triphala. Drink more water, make sure there are adequate amounts of healthy oils in your diet, consult with your healthcare provider, or adjust your dose.
Personally, I am in a habit right now of taking some triphala capsules with a glass of warm water when I first wake up, as the beginning of my morning routine. It is convenient. I don’t have to remember to fix something the night before and I can easily take it with me when I travel. Currently, I keep a bottle on my nightstand, with a glass of water nearby for the first thing in the morning practice.
The powdered herb can be made into a hot tea, which can be soothing for people with a predominately vata constitution, or activating for those with a lot of kapha in their bodies. Beware, it is a bit of an acquired taste and doctoring it up with milk or cream is not recommended for good digestion. Take about 1/4-1/2 tsp of triphala and mix with one cup hot water. Stir well. Drink. (I’ve heard different advice for drinking the powder—which is the more hardcore option, or letting the powder settle to the bottom a bit and just drinking the brown liquid—which still has a strong taste.)
If the hot tea doesn’t work for you, the cold infusion is a kindler, gentler option. Take 1/2 tsp of powdered triphala and mix it well in a glass of 8-10 ounces of room temperature water. Let it sit overnight. Drink the triphala water in the morning and let the powdered herb (which may be a little sludgy now) settle to the bottom. After drinking, fill the glass with another 8-10 ounces of room temperature water. Stir. Let sit all day and then drink at night before bed (wait two hours after eating) or drink the following morning. With this method, you alternate a stronger dose of triphala with a weaker dose.
While drinking the cold infusion has beneficial systemic effects, a mouth wash of triphala is encouraged for Ayurvedic dental hygiene.
Mix with Honey
One of first ways that I learned to take triphala was mixed with honey (mix a 1/8-1/4 tsp of powder with raw honey to make a paste). Raw honey is traditionally used in Ayurveda as a delivery vehicle for herbal remedies, helping them to be absorbed by the body. Since honey is a little heating, it is believed that it actually helps activate some of the toxin-burning effects of triphala.
Mix with Honey and Ghee
One of my teachers claims that this remedy is better than chocolate. Well, since I think chocolate is a food group, that might be a stretch, but this combination is definitely satisfying. Tradition suggests using proportionally more honey than ghee if you are trying to encourage detoxification or lose weight. Use proportionally more ghee than honey if you are trying to build, rejuvenate, or gain weight.
Modern Scientific Research and Triphala
Because triphala is so well-loved and utilized in Ayurveda, there are now a growing number of studies investigating (and confirming) triphala’s multiple benefits. These are only a few of hundreds of studies. Some of the most investigated benefits of triphala include effects on the immune system (including antimicrobial effects), anti-inflammatory effects, effects on the digestive system, and rejuvenating and anti-oxidant effects (including protecting against the negative side-effects of radiation in cancer treatment).
Triphala and the Immune System
A 2014 review published in the Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences found that triphala is a potent immunomodulator. This means that it can stimulate immune system function when needed. (For example, if the body is under assault from an outside invader). It can even be an immunosuppressant, which is important in the allergic response or in inflammation. Studies confirmed triphala’s traditional anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and balancing effects.
Other studies investigating triphala’s antimicrobial effects find that the traditional uses stand up to modern research. It has significant antibacterial effects against the Streptococcus bacteria that can build up in the mouth and around the teeth, as shown in a 2014 study published in the Indian Journal of Dental Research.
Triphala and Inflammation
Much of the Ayurvedic lore loves triphala for its anti-inflammatory effects. A 2015 study in Pharmaceutical Biology confirms this, saying that is has promising anti-inflammatory effects in arthritis.
If I were to choose one herbal formula to take every day, it would easily be triphala. (And I walk the talk, since it is my go-to by my bedside.) Other herbs and formulas enter my life for periods of time. Yet for more than 20 years, I have relied on the magic of triphala for overall strength and balance.
Felicia Tomasko has spent more of her life practicing Yoga and Ayurveda than not. She first became introduced to the teachings through the writings of the Transcendentalists, through meditation, and using asana to cross-train for her practice of cross-country running. Between beginning her commitment to Yoga and Ayurveda and today, she earned degrees in environmental biology and anthropology and nursing, and certifications in the practice and teaching of yoga, yoga therapy, and Ayurveda while working in fields including cognitive neuroscience and plant biochemistry. Her commitment to writing is at least as long as her commitment to yoga. Working on everything related to the written word from newspapers to magazines to websites to books, Felicia has been writing and editing professionally since college. In order to feel like a teenager again, Felicia has pulled out her running shoes for regular interval sessions throughout Southern California. Since the very first issue of LA YOGA, Felicia has been part of the team and the growth and development of the Bliss Network.