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The Ayurvedic Approach to Mental Illness

By Renata Trister, DO


The Ayurvedic Approach to Mental Illness

Mental dysfunction is pervasive in our society, manifesting from mild loss of memory or lack of concentration to severe disabilities such as Alzheimer’s disease. Virtually everyone is touched directly or indirectly by mental dysfunction, imparting a serious impact on our personal health. Ayurveda uses revitalizing, balancing and nourishing herbs that have a long history of traditional use in improving mental function, such as gotu kola (centella asiatica) and brahmi (bacopa monniera). Some of these herbs are currently being investigated phytochemically to better understand their actions.

 Mental dysfunction

The problems associated with mental dysfunction such as loss of memory, Alzheimer’s disease, loss of clarity or acuity and other related conditions are very common. For example more than four million Americans has this debilitating disease, with the number expected to reach 14 million by the year 2040.

Those who are at greater risk for mental dysfunction include the elderly, the young with inherited or acquired disabilities, those who engage in highly stressful activities, those with diseases, and anyone exposed to toxic chemicals or lack of oxygen. Considering this, everyone is at risk to some degree at some time in his or her life. Whether suffering from “mental fog” or the early symptoms of a more serious problem, nearly everyone can benefit from a daily revitalization of mental function.

According to Ayurveda, an imbalance causing mental dysfunction is related to individual “doshas” or the elements of Vata, Pitta, or Kapha (air, fire or water). For example, a disturbance in Vata may contribute to poor memory, nervousness. Imbalances that may contribute to mental dysfunction are often related to Vata dosha, but may also be related to Pitta and Kapha dosha, which could dominate an imbalance. The element Vata is related to the control of the nervous system and the processes of intuition, nerve force, short term memory, intellectual concepts, mental dexterity, depression, insomnia, anxiety, attention deficit, hyperactivity, fear, loss of short term memory and over-sensitivity. Vata is also associated with kinetic movement in general, including nerve impulse movement, peristaltic motion, tissue growth movements, and other physiological motions.

Kapha is solid, liquid, inertial and organizing. Kapha may be associated with certain mental qualities such as deep intelligence, love, long term memory, steady emotions, loss of long term memory, deep depression, sadness, despair, resentment, sluggishness and slowness. Pitta may be related to certain mental qualities such as joy, happiness, enthusiasm, creativity, sharpness, intellectual discrimination, anger, rage, jealousy, irritability and hatred. The Ayurvedic approach for a condition such as mental dysfunction is to treat the whole person, including application of correct diet, lifestyle recommendations, and herbal supplements. Based on traditional use, Ayurvedic herbal formulas may be used to address specific individual health conditions with traditional herbs that are known to balance, or ameliorate an imbalance, and thereby improve health.

Medhya — Prominent Ayurvedic mental revitalizers

The traditional Ayurvedic herbs recommended for mental conditions are mainly mental revitalizers or Medhya (brain tonics), which are known to enhance general mental functioning. Specific Medhya herbs include bacopa (bacopa monnieria), gotu kola (centella asiatica) and ashwagandha (withania somnifera).


Bacopa, or brahmi, is a famous Ayurvedic mental revitalizing herb used traditionally for memory, insomnia, epilepsy, insanity and as a mild sedative.6 It is tridoshic, or balancing, for all body types. There is a connection of the name of the herb and its use for the mind. The name brahmi comes from the word Brahma, which is a name for the creator of the universe. Brahma is credited as manifesting his thoughts as the creation and everything is a manifestation from the mind of Brahma. If there was only one choice of Ayurvedic herb for general mental function revitalization it would probably be bacopa. There is a legend that describes bacopa as a favorite food of elephants, animals known for their long memories. It may be a favorite food of elephants because they are slow and dominated by Kapha and tend toward inertia, so they need to eat bacopa to be more alert and mentally revitalized. In any case, bacopa has been known for centuries as a common and popular Ayurvedic herb for general mental revitalization.

Contemporary phytochemical research has revealed evidence that bacopa acts as a potent antioxidant in inhibiting lipid peroxidation, which could be one of the reasons why it acts as a good mental revitalizer.6 Antioxidants have been linked to improved brain and nervous system function. Studies on the effect of the active constituents (bacosides) of bacopa on the mental retention capacity of rats have shown that the herb has a facilitatory effect on acquisition, consolidation and retention of newly acquired behaviors in response to both positive and negative reinforcement.

Gotu kola

The Ayurvedic herb, gotu kola, is used traditionally as a brain tonic for improving memory and intelligence, for mental stability, and as a sedative. Numerous animal studies have been conducted to evaluate the influence of the gotu kola leaf extract on the central nervous system. The studies demonstrate that the extract produces anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), sedative, and antidepressant effects comparable to the drugs, diazepam and imipramine, without any apparent toxicity.


Ashwagandha is used extensively in the Ayurvedic system of medicine to promote health and longevity by arresting the aging process, revitalizing the body, promoting memory and intellect and reducing stress.

The likely active principles of ashwagandha appear to be withanolides. The antioxidant activity of these active principles have been investigated on rat brain concentrations of the free radical scavenging enzymes superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT) and glutathione peroxidase (GPX). Active withanolides administered once daily (10 and 20 milligrams per kilograms) for 21 days induced a dose-related increase in SOD, CAT and GPX activity in the frontal cortex and striatum, areas highly susceptible to oxidative damage. This antioxidant effect may explain, at least in part, the reported anti-stress, cognition facilitating and anti-aging effects of ashwagandha.

Ayurveda: A holistic approach

The tradition of Ayurveda offers some explanations for the function of mentally revitalizing herbs and their effects. The following sections will address how 1) balancing the constitutional elements can improve mental function, 2) how directly nourishing a tissue system or dhatu can improve mental function and 3) how improving digestion can enhance mental function.

Balance of the doshas and mental function

Balancing the doshas or elements in the body can improve mental function. For example, if the water element or Kapha dosha is over accumulated in the body it may create an imbalance that develops excess inertia, leading to an experience of mental sluggishness or dullness. An herb that may help to balance this condition by reducing the water element and increasing the air and fire elements, thereby creating balance and improving mental clarity, is nutmeg (myristica fragrans). Another example is the imbalance caused by an excess of the air element, or Vata dosha, which can affect memory and cause nervousness. Ashwagandha is another herb that helps to balance this condition by reducing the air element and increasing the water element, thereby bringing about balance and improving memory.

Triphala, a combination of three herbs including amla fruit (emblica officinalis), Indian gall fruit (terminalia chebula) and beleric myrobalan fruit (terminalia belerica), is known to encourage a general balancing of the doshas in all body types. An improvement in the general balancing of the elements in the individual as a whole can improve mental function along with other physiological functions, because in the Ayurvedic approach optimal balance is equivalent to optimal health. If the mental dysfunction is associated with an imbalance due to the over accumulation of Pitta dosha in the body, then cooling and anti-Pitta herbs such as amla fruit, asparagus (asparagus racemosus) and heart-leaved moonseed (tinospora cordifolia) may be given to balance the condition and improve mental function.

Mental revitalization and nourishment of the dhatu

Mental function may be improved by directly nourishing the bone marrow tissue system or Maiji dhatu to revitalize that tissue system. For example, if the brain and nervous system are fatigued from stress and over work, herbs such as bacopa, gotu kola, ashwagandha, asparagus, heart-leaved moonseed and giant potato root (pueraria tuberosa) may be used to directly nourish the Maiji dhatu or the bone marrow, brain, and nervous tissue system. Because Maiji dhatu comprises the brain and related nervous system, when it becomes nourished, it is revitalized and this revitalization enhances associated mental function.

Improving digestion and mental discrimination

Discrimination and digestion are both controlled by agni or fire which is related to Pitta, or the fire element. According to Ayurveda, poor digestion can negatively affect mental discrimination because mental discrimination and digestive discrimination are directly related. As an example, eating toxic foods may cause indigestion interfering with the digestive system’s ability to discriminate between what foods should and should not be processed for digestion. This may lead to headache or mental sluggishness, disabling clear intellectual discrimination. By improving digestion, digestive discrimination and mental discrimination can be improved. For the purpose of improving digestion, herbs such as ginger (zingiber officinale), Triphala (amla fruit, beleric myrobalan fruit, and Indian gall fruit), nutmeg, cardamom seed (elettaria cardamomum) and asparagus may be applied.

Ayurvedic herbs and contemporary science

Current phytochemical research demonstrates some links between a number of the Ayurvedic herbs used for enhancement of mental function and the respective biochemical basis for their effectiveness. For example, ginger has been shown to possess strong antioxidant activity, anti-inflammatory properties and digestive-promoting qualities that may protect brain and nerve tissue from free radical damage.  Amla fruit is known to be an antioxidant herb naturally high in vitamin C.  As another example, nutmeg acts as a smooth muscle relaxant and offers a sedative action.  It is generally known that a sedative action can produce a palliative effect on the brain and nervous system related to nervous mental conditions. It is believed that Indian valerian (valariana wallichi) may also have a sedative action.  A traditional Ayurvedic mixture focused on harmonizing gut, brain, muscle, and nervous system functions resembles a contemporary strategy for managing mental dysfunction — control the production of inflammatory prostaglandins, protect sensitive neurological tissue from free radical damage, improve digestion and assimilation to ensure optimal nutrition and improve circulation by controlling platelet aggregation.

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