Triphala, meaning “three fruits” in Ayurvedic medicine, is a blend of the haritaki, bibhitaki, and amalaki fruit. These fruit feature natural chemicals that are believed to contain potentially beneficial medicinal properties when eaten whole, taken in a powdered form, or when used in tea.
The first knowledge about the potential benefits of triphala was acquired about 2,000 years ago in ancient India. (1) In this era, practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine, known as vaidya, meaning “physician,” would formulate unique herbal compounds in pursuit of Rasayana.
Rasayana is a Sanskrit word meaning “path of essence.” This phrase speaks to the pursuit of herbal formulas that might support healthy aging, promote vitality, support a healthy brain, support healthy-looking skin, and may support a healthy immune response to microbial or pathogenic challenges.
Whether or not vaidya felt that the use of triphala achieved rasayana, this herbal blend quickly spread beyond the borders of India and into surrounding nations. In fact, today the western world is beginning to embrace Ayurvedic medicine and its many herbal formulations. The growing popularity has even encouraged the modern sciences to study triphala further to understand better what Ayurvedic practitioners may have figured out centuries ago. (2)
Potential Benefits of Triphala
Both scientists and practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine appear to agree that triphala may provide several potential benefits in the body when taken as a dietary supplement, when mixed into tea, or when the whole fruit is eaten. Some studies have focused on the antioxidant content of tannins, flavones, and vitamin C. (3) These natural chemical compounds are believed to provide many of the potential benefits of triphala.
Triphala May Support
- A healthy immune response to microbial or pathogenic challenges
- Colon health
- Female reproductive health
- Comfort in the stomach or lower abdomen
- Bowel regularity
- The Three Doshas
Triphala: The Three Fruits of Ayurvedic Medicine
In Ayurvedic medicine, the three fruits of triphala are said to help fill in the gaps of “nature’s intelligence.” (4) This phrase speaks to the organizational force that guides how cells should form to create something, such as skin, bone, or the brain. However, disruptions to these final forms may result in a disconnect between cells. When the connection between the organizational force and cells are broken, it is believed to have a negative result on the body.
Some practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine believe that the three fruits in triphala may hold the key to opening new lines of communication and may support the development of cells, including where they should go and how they should form. In order to understand this idea, Ayurvedic practitioners might suggest looking at each fruit individually.
Haritaki fruit, also known as Terminalia chebula or harada, is sometimes called the “king of medicine.” (5) In Buddhism, some depictions of Buddha show his hand outstretched holding this fruit. Tibetan medicine, which may be guided by Buddhist texts, states that the cause of any illness may be associated with conflicting emotions, specifically passion, aggression, and ignorance. (6) The image of Buddha holding this fruit may be interpreted as a guide to help correct conflicts of emotions, the body, and spirit.
In contemporary scientific literature, haritaki has been found to contain compounds such as alkaloids, saponins, tannins, gallic acid, and several other chemical compounds. A research study conducted in India found many potential benefits from using this fruit as a medicinal supplement. "It can be concluded from the present data that the levels of total serum cholesterol, triglyceride and total protein which are actually raised in atherogenic diet, may be lowered significantly with haritaki. Haritaki can be utilized for providing dietary management in the prevention of atherosclerosis in hyperlipidemic patients." (7)
An atherogenic diet is described as eating habits that include food that promote the formation of fatty plaques in arteries. In this research, it was shown that introducing this fruit into your diet may have the potential to help maintain cholesterol levels already within the normal range. This may also include support for a healthy cardiovascular system and the movement of red cells in healthy arteries and vessels.
Bibhitaki fruit, also known as Terminalia belerica or bihara, means the “one who keeps you away from disease,” in Sanskrit. In his book, Rasayana: The Fountain of Life, Dr. Mayank S. Vora writes, “bibhitaki fruit is a true gift of nature and possesses unique healing properties like very few other plants on this earth. Since thousands of years this herb is widely used as a remedy for the treatment of diseases affecting the lungs, intestine, and urinary tract.” (8)
In Ayurvedic medicine, the compounds in bibhitaki may provide support for healthy-looking hair, as well as a healthy throat, eyes, digestive system, lining of the gastrointestinal tract, bowel regularity, and abdominal comfort.
Scientists have identified a number of natural chemical compounds that may be linked to these potential benefits. Chemical compounds such as triterpenoids, sterols, tannin; and active compounds such as glucosides, gallo-tannic acid, lignans, and flavone may be responsible for these potential benefits. (9)
Amalaki fruit, also known as Emblica officinalis or amla, is nicknamed “mother,” “nurse,” and “immortality,” which speaks to the ways that the fruit may provide support and feelings of health and wellness during the normal aging process.
The potential benefits of amalaki include support for metabolism, digestion, and the elimination of waste through a healthy digestive system. Amla may also support the normal production of red blood cells, a healthy cardiovascular system, and the normal function of the liver, spleen and respiratory systems.
Amalaki shares many of the same compounds as the previously mentioned fruit, but as mentioned earlier, amla contains a dominant amount of vitamin C and bioflavonoids that may provide optimal support for a healthy immune system.
How Triphala Promotes the Three Doshas in Ayurvedic Medicine
Now that we understand how the three fruits of triphala may provide potential medicinal benefit, it is important to understand how they relate to the three humours, which are also known as doshas.
These doshas relate to space (ether), air, fire, water, and earth. According to Ayurvedic traditions,these elements form the building blocks of life, and give humans their unique personalities, moods, and behaviors. The role of each dosha in life is ever changing with the weather, relationships, and work, and is believed to manifest in nearly every aspect of life.
The Three Doshas
The vata dosha is typically characterized by movement and change, and governs the central nervous system. (10) This dosha combines air and space, and is activated by the haritaki fruit. Qualities of vata include:
When you experience low energy, rapid shifts in emotion, constant hunger, infrequent sleep, irregular habits, or digestive challenges, your vata may be out of balance. Those with balance will likely experience enthusiasm, bursts of creativity, and a lean body.
The pitta dosha is associated with the digestive system, metabolism, and transformations. (11) This dosha combines fire and water, and is activated by the amalaki fruit. Qualities of pitta include:
If your pitta is out of balance, you may experience agitation if dinner is late; resent not strictly adhering to a schedule; wake up hot or thirsty; feel controlling or arrogant; or endure stomach or intestinal challenges. When in balance, you will experience a desirable complexion, healthy digestion, sustained energy levels, harmony, and a healthy appetite.
The kapha dosha is said to guide the structure of the body, including muscle, fat, bone, and tendon, as well as protection. (12) This dosha combines earth and water, and is activated by bibhitaki fruit. Qualities of kapha include:
If your kapha dosha is out of balance, you may experience weight gain, fluid retention or bloating, breathing challenges, excessive sleep, stress and frustration, or a bad mood. When in balance, you will experience healthy eyes, healthy joints, healthy sleep habits, and healthy digestion.
What Modern Science Tells Us About Triphala for Immune System Support
Similar to many fruits, haritaki, bibhitaki, and amalaki contain vitamins and natural chemical compounds that seek to support essential biological function in the body. As one study notes that "fruits and vegetables supply dietary fiber, and fiber intake is linked to lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and obesity. Fruits and vegetables also supply vitamins and minerals to the diet and are sources of phytochemicals that function as antioxidants, phytoestrogens, and anti-inflammatory agents and through other protective mechanisms." (13)
While triphala contains compounds that may provide one or more benefits listed above, these fruit also contain some notable compounds, including tannin. Tannin is a yellow or brown substance that is normally derived from plant material. One study suggests that tannin may have anticarcinogenic and antimutagenic potentials as a result of its antioxidative properties. "Many tannin molecules have also been shown to reduce the mutagenic activity of a number of mutagens. Many carcinogens and/or mutagens produce oxygen-free radicals for interaction with cellular macromolecules. The anticarcinogenic and antimutagenic potentials of tannins may be related to their antioxidative property, which is important in protecting cellular oxidative damage, including lipid peroxidation." (14)
In the same study, researchers report that tannins may also exert other physiological effects. Tannins may provide support for clotting factors, may help to maintain blood pressure and cholesterol already within the normal range, and may help to regulate the normal immune response to internal challenges.
Also found in triphala are flavones, which contain phenolic structures that are synthesized by plants in response to oxidative challenges from the sun, microbes, and insects. Inside the body, the same potential benefits that help plants to maintain the structure and integrity of cellular walls may provide this same effect in the human body. Also, flavones may help to disrupt the membranes of oxidative challenges that are essential to completing the detoxification process.
The vitamin C content in triphala is largely located in the amalaki fruit, but is also available in the fruit of haritaki and bibhitaki. All three fruit also contains bioflavonoids, which may be an ideal source of antioxidants, and may provide optimal delivery through the digestive system for support of a healthy immune system. Vitamin C is also important for the utilization of protein in the body. Protein is the fifth most abundant nutrient in the body and helps to structure cells, which is important to the development of the skin, muscles, and tissue that make up the internal organs.
Additionally, immunological studies in humans have found that ingesting triphala multiple times a week results in “significant immunostimulatory effects on cytotoxic T cells and natural killer cells.” (15) However, the study goes onto note that there is no significant change in cytokine secretion.
Cytokine secretion is essential to signaling in the immune system, which may mean that triphala does not affect cellular responses to internal challenges, but its effect on cytotoxic T cells and natural killer cells is still of note.
Cytotoxic T cells are a type of white blood cell that binds with specific antigens. Antigens are molecules that are created by a pathogen, microbe, or other foreign entity that enters the body and triggers the immune system to respond. When a substance enters the body that it does not recognize or want, it formulates a response in an attempt to remove or destroy that substance.
Natural killer cells (NK cells) work alongside cytotoxic T cells to help prepare the aforementioned foreign substances for destruction or removal. NK cells contain special proteins such as perforin and protease that, when released, will open pores in the cell membrane of the targeted substance. This process allows the immune system to shut down the foreign cell from the inside out, which is essential to helping prevent the release of mutated or diseased cells.
In clinical studies, triphala was used in to show the effects of Ayurvedic herbs that may support the structure and function of a healthy female reproductive system during normal aging. (16) The research found that the compounds found in the fruit may promote comfort in the lower abdomen, and may support the normal development of tissue in the uterus, including support for new or expecting mothers.
Where To Buy Haritaki, Bibhitaki, and Amalaki Fruit
If you are looking to buy whole haritaki, bibhitaki, or amalaki fruit, then you may have a hard time unless you live in a region near the subcontinent of India. But you can still enjoy the benefits of eating each fruit by shopping for the powdered versions. Online stores and natural health shops in your area may carry capsules with the powder, or bags of the powder so you can make your own herbal formulas, or mix the powder with your favorite tea.
Get The Most From Triphala with These Complementary Herbs
Triphala may be the ideal way to support feelings of health and wellness, as well as help to balance the doshas. However, Ayurveda and other systems of medicine that focus on how to use herbs for their potential medicinal benefits might argue the need to supplement your healthy diet with other herbs such as:
- Aloe leaf and aloe vera – may support bowel regularity and promote abdominal comfort.
- Barberry root – supports detoxification and the healthy function of the liver, gallbladder, and spleen.
- Chinese rhubarb – may promote the normal function of the ducts in the liver and gallbladder, healthy mucus membranes, and detoxification.
- Dandelion root – seeks to support a healthy liver, the movement of bile, and removal of waste through the gastrointestinal tract and urinary tract.
- Ginger – may promote abdominal comfort and provide temporary relief from occasional gas, bloating, and nausea.
- Licorice root - may help to balance herbs during digestion.
- Peppermint – may support a healthy liver and gallbladder, and may support the removal of waste from the colon and gastrointestinal tract.
- Plantain – may promote abdominal comfort and support the healthy lining in the gastrointestinal tract.
Like triphala powder, shop sometimes sell these complementary herbs as a whole plant or in powdered form. Use these herbs in drinks or recipes just like you would triphala. For convenience, you can also find supplements already formulated with triphala and one or more of these and other herbs.
Harmony Between Ayurvedic Medicine and Modern Science
Today, thanks to advancements in technology, scientists are studying ancient systems of medicine to discover how herbal combinations might be potentially beneficial in the modern world. While we might think that modern science has all the answers, there could be a vast amount of knowledge to be unlocked by looking into the past, and further examining and adopting the methods and approaches to health and wellness during every stage of life.