Tuesday, July 20, 2010
In accordance with Ayurvedic teachings, upkeep of the skin is an important aspect of maintaining health. While the aura represents our body’s first level of protection from disease, and the immune system represents the third level of protection, the skin, along with the digestive system, composes the body’s second level of protection. This is due to the fact that both come in contact with foreign objects and represent the physical barriers separating the internal from the external. Bodily wastes are excreted both through the skin and through the gut. Sweating is one of the body’s ways of excreting Mala. If the amount of waste in the body surpasses the ability of the excretory organs to remove them, then excess waste is directed outward through the skin. Therefore, the skin and the digestive tract are closely related. The state of the skin improves when the state of the digestive tract improves and vice versa. (Svoboda, 95)
It is important that the skin is kept healthy and strong in order to keep the body balanced and disease free. The skin is an organ that absorbs anything applied topically. Therefore, it is very important never to apply anything to the skin that contains chemicals. By taking into account each individual person’s unique body constitution, Ayurveda provides clear recommendations and routines regarding how to best care for the skin and promote health.
II. Anatomy of the Skin
Color, texture, temperature and other qualities of the skin vary depending on an individual’s Prakriti or unique body constitution. Each individual’s Prakriti is made up of varying levels of the three Doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Those whose constitution is dominated by Vata Dosha (air and ether) tend to have skin that is darker (darker than those of the same racial/ethnic group), or tan easily and rarely burn. Their skin is generally cold, dry and may have a grayish cast to it. They may suffer from eczema, dry skin or psoriasis. Individuals with predominant Pitta Dosha (fire and water) in their constitution may have reddish, pink or coppery colored skin. Their skin is usually warm to the touch and delicate. Pitta predominant skin is often irritable and prone to rashes and acne. Their skin may wrinkle early. They have a high volume of blood beneath the skin and usually blush quite easily. The hair on their skin is usually very fine and pale. Kapha Dosha (water and earth) predominant people have a tendency towards pale, smooth skin than may be oily. Their skin tends to be cooler, thick and have a moderate amount of hair on the skin. The coolness of Kapha allows them to easily withstand moderate amounts of sun exposure. (Svoboda, 34)
The skin is associated with the sense of touch. The sense of touch is associated with the air element. Therefore, the skin is closely related to Vata and is prone to Vata. Pitta is also closely related to the skin. Bhrajaka Pitta is the subdosha that is associated with the skin. Bhrajaka Pitta is situated within the skin (Murthy, Pandey, 32) and presides over the color and luster of the skin, linking it closely to the western concept of melanin. Bhrajaka Pitta controls the absorption of sunlight into the body as well as the sweat glands (however actual sweat itself is a Mala of Meda Dhatu). It serves as a barrier between the external and internal world and also maintains blood flow and body temperature. The skin itself is an Upadhatu of Mamsa Dhatu, therefore, Mamsa Dhatu is also associated with the skin as it is responsible for keeping the skin smooth. Rakta Dhatu, associated with the blood, is also closely related to the skin, as many skin disorders are caused by vitiated blood. Healthy, glowing and lustrous skin is usually a sign of healthy Dhatus in general. (KAA 102)
There are seven layers or levles of skin according to Ayurveda and each layer is associated with a specific Dhatu. For example, the surface layer of the skin is connected to Rasa Dhatu. The second layer is associated with Rakta Dhatu. The third layer, which is also the subcutaneous tissue, is directly connected to Mamsa Dhatu. Each subsequent layer is connected to each Dhatu in the same sequence of Dhatus that digested food travels through (from grossest to subtlest) in the process of subtle digestion. However, all layers of skin (except for the topmost layer) can be grouped together as the Upadhatu of Mamsa Dhatu. (Lad, “Textbook of Ayurveda” 125).
On a subtle level, the skin is also related to the functions of the mind. The skin is associated with the Anahata Chakra or the heart chakra. The literal translation for Anahata is unstruck sound. Ahahata Chakra is the heart center Chakra and it rules the sense organ of touch and the skin, which is the organ of action associated with touch, along with the hands. (KAA 103, 33) Skin is connected to the emotions through Prana as the skin breathes Prana (Lad, “Textbook of Ayurveda” 65). A person’s emotions are displayed through the skin; for example the skin may become flushed when angry, pale when anxious, etc.
III. Ayurvedic Skin Care and Prevention
Ayurveda focuses a great deal on prevention, which is the easiest, most painless and cost effective way to health. Through proper diet, exercise (both physical and mental) and daily and seasonal routines, a person can effectively prevent the vast majority of disorders. Depending upon the individual Prakriti, age and mental state, different types of diet, exercise and routine are recommended. For example, a person with Vata dominant Prakriti should emphasize salty, sour and sweet foods that are warm, moist, stable and smooth. They should focus on consistency when it comes to eating, sleeping and exercise. Due to the fact that Vata is comprised of Ether and Air, a person with high Vata must strive to incorporate foods, thoughts, actions, etc. that are grounding, warm and stabilizing into their life. People with high Kapha need action, variability, lightness and heat, while those with Pitta dominance need cooling, dullness and sweetness. Time of year, stage in life and time of day should also be taken into consideration, as the seasons, phases of the life cycle and hours of the day are dominated by the Doshas as well. Through a comprehensive understanding of Prakriti, a healthy diet and routine may be established for an individual to maintain health and keep the body disease free. This section examines some simple practices to incorporate into the daily routine to prevent disease and promote skin health while taking into consideration individual Prakriti. Section VI introduces some Ayurvedic herbs that are particularly helpful to the skin.
Abhyanga is a daily skin treatment to strengthen, nourish and moisturize not just the skin, but all of the Dhatus. The skin is highly prone to Vata conditions, so performing a daily routine of Abhyanga can help to reduce Vata and is especially helpful under Vata-aggravating conditions. Abhyanga strengthens the body and muscles, smoothes the skin, and improves the sense of touch. Abhyanga also helps the body become more resistant to injuries and strenuous physical activity, and reduces the effects of old age on the body (Verma, 86). Abhyanga involves massaging the skin with warm oil 15-30 minutes before bathing. As the oil soaks through each layer of skin, the corresponding Dhatu is nourished and lubricated by the oil. Oil should be applied in the direction of the hair growth and massaged into the skin towards the heart. Special attention should be paid to massaging the joints, scalp, and soles of the feet. Massaging the head with oil helps to strengthen the hair follicles as well as the bones in the skull. It helps to sharpen the sense organs and memory and promotes sound sleep. Massaging the soles of the feet improves vision and increases stamina. (KAA 105, 16) If time does not allow for a full body oil massage, a mini-massage is better than no massage, concentrating on the head and soles of the feet (Chopra, 209).
Different oils are recommended to help balance different body constitutions. For example, coconut oil is recommended for Pitta Dosha predominant people, because of it’s cooling nature. Sesame oil is helpful for people with high levels of Vata because it is lubricating and warming. The use of mustard seed oil for Abhyanga is encouraged for those with Kapha dominance because of its inherent heating quality. It is important to take into account the season and life stage of a person as well. A Kapha dominant person in the Kapha period of their life (infancy to puberty) and in the Kapha season (late winter to early spring), may not benefit as much from Abhyanga, if they already have too much oil, liquid and heaviness (Kapha is aggravated). A good alternative for this individual would be an herbal powder rub that is drying as opposed to lubricating.
Herbal Skin Rub
Applying an herbal powder to the skin has some of the same effects of Abhyanga such as pacifying Vata Dosha and cleansing the body. In addition, this practice helps to reduce both Kapha Dosha and Meda Dhatu, reduces body odor and prevents blemishes. A dry herbal rub will stimulate circulation. Herbal powder application to the skin improves stamina and the function of Bhrajaka Pitta. Sandalwood powder is an excellent powder to use for herbal skin rubs. (KAA 105, 17)
Cleansing the Skin
Another reason to perform Abhyanga daily is to counteract the drying effects of soap. Soap can alternatively be lathered between the palms and mixed with oil before applying to the body while bathing. As an alternative to soap, milk may be used to cleanse the skin and will not cause dryness. Another option is to use clay, barley flour or chickpea flour to cleanse the skin and soak up any oils or sweat. If Abhyanga has not been performed before bathing, oil can be mixed with chickpea or barley flour along with a pinch of tumeric and enough water to make a paste. This mixture can be applied to the skin. It serves as something like a full body mask if the mixture is left to dry and then washed off with water. Warm or cool water may be used to bathe, but not water that is overly hot or cold. It is also important to never use hot water on the head or face. The body can withstand a higher temperature of water than the head. Hot water applied to the head weakens the sense organs and loosens the hair follicles (Svoboda, 102). Also, the heating quality is intrinsic to the Sahasrara Chakra (the crown chakra), so hot water is not necessary. The best time to bathe is in the morning because morning is the best time to remove all of the Dhatu Malas in the body that have formed over night. (KAA 105, 17)
According to Dr. Vasant Lad, “The face is the mirror of the mind. The lines and wrinkles in your face are revealing. If disorder and disease are present, they will be indicated on the face” (“Ayurveda: The Science of Self Healing,” 62). The health of the body’s organs is reflected in the face, lips, tongue and eyes (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self Healing,” 64). Also, the face is home to the Panchagyanendriyas or 5 sense organs (ears, skin, eyes, tongue and nose). Therefore, proper care of the face is and important aspect of maintaining ones health. This paper will focus on skin care, and proper care of the facial skin as well. A healthy complexion is the sign of balanced Dhatus and Doshas. Listed below are some ayurvedic facial recipes.
? Milk-skin (the creamy layer of fresh milk that forms after it has been boiled) may be mixed with almond powder for an effective facial mask (Verma, 86). This is a good way to cleanse the face and avoid the drying properties of soap.
? In order to improve the complexion, an Ayurvedic facial pack may be applied. Mix equal proportions of Amalaki, Manjishtha and Sandalwood. Add this mixture to milk for dry skin or to water for oily skin. Make a paste out of the mixture and apply to the face. Leave the paste on for 10-15 minutes before washing off (Anjali, Herbology Lecture).
IV. Exposure to the Sun and Skin Care
The sun effects each person’s skin differently depending on the body constitution as well as the complexion. The complexion is based on genetics from a particular racial or ethnic group, as well as the three Doshas. Individuals who are Vata predominant can best withstand sun exposure. They tend to tan easily and rarely burn. In fact, those with high Vata need more heat to help balance their bodies, and they usually enjoy sunshine a great deal. Those with Pitta dominant constitutions naturally are hot, and therefore, they are not able to withstand much sun exposure. They tend to burn easily, may suffer from sun allergy, and may acquire freckles or moles from sun exposure. Kapha predominant people will tan evenly from being exposed to moderate amounts of sun. They are naturally cold but do not require as much sun as those with Vata predominant Prakriti. (Svoboda, 34)
Complexion also plays a major role in an individual’s need and ability for sun exposure. It takes a person with darker skin longer to absorb Vitamin D from the sun compared to a person with fair skin. People with very fair skin should avoid extensive sun exposure, particularly during times of day when the sun is strong (typically around noon depending upon proximity to the Earth’s Equator). It is best for those who burn easily to cover up with loose white cotton clothing and a hat or umbrella when exposed to bright sun. Shea Butter and Cocoa Butter also provide some natural protection from the sun. Sunscreen is not recommended because of the harmful chemicals it contains. These chemicals are absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream, affecting the Dhatus. (Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar, Ayurvedic Foundations Lecture)
V. Treatment of Common Skin Conditions
Many skin problems are most commonly associated with aggravated Pitta. Herpes, jaundice and inflammation are a few conditions listed as part of the forty innumerable disorders of Pitta by Caraka (Verma, 47). This section of this paper provides some ayurvedic herbal remedies to common skin problems.
Acne is oftentimes a sign of aggravated Pitta, specifically Bhrajaka Pitta. However, aggravated Kapha may cause acne as well. During puberty, acne is common due to the fact that the individual is changing from the Kapha stage of life (birth to puberty) to the Pitta stage of life (puberty to menopause). Young people who have Pitta predominant Prakriti may suffer from acne more than those who have higher levels of Kapha or Vata. Depending on the diagnosis, a Dosha balancing diet along with Panchakarma may likely be all that is necessary to treat acne. A half-cup of aloe vera juice can be consumed twice a day to help clear up acne. Although aloe vera is cooling, it does not aggravate Kapha due to the fact that it acts as an expectorant. Aloe vera is balancing to all the Doshas. (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing” 130) It is important to find out if the acne is related to menstruation. If not, blood-purifying herbs that are bitter and astringent may be used both internally and externally (Dr. Manisha Krishangar, Conference Call). Also, anti-inflammatory herbs are helpful. Following is an herbal topical treatment for acne.
? Combine equal parts turmeric and sandalwood powder. Add water to make a paste and apply to the effected areas externally. (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing,” 157)
Eczema and Dry Skin
Dry skin and eczema are typically problems related to Vata aggravation. Performing Abhyanga daily will greatly reduce these issues. Also, eating a Vata pacifying diet with plenty of natural oils such as ghee will greatly reduce problems of this nature. Taking a bath with licorice tea water is helpful with soothing eczema.
? Apply fresh aloe vera gel directly to the burn, a pinch of turmeric may be added. (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing,” 158)
? Apply Manjishtha ghee directly to the burn (KAA 106, 29).
Insect Bites and Stings
? Drink cilantro juice and apply sandalwood paste directly to the bite or sting (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing,” 160)
? Drink a coriander tea made of one teaspoon of coriander seeds to 1 cup of water. It is also helpful to apply the pulp of cilantro leaves directly to the rash. (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing,” 161)
? Make a paste of Nagarmotha powder and apply to rash (KAA 106, 29).
? Apply cooked onions made into a paste directly to the boil. This will bring the boil to a head. Alternatively, one can combine equal parts of ginger powder and turmeric and apply directly to the affected area. ((Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing,” 157)
VI. Ayurvedic Herbs Promoting Skin Health (KAA 106, 22-30)
Amla: Amla is especially pacifying to Pitta by has the ability to pacify all Doshas. It is helpful for many skin problems including blemishes and acne. Amla improves the complexion overall.
Ginger: Ginger is helpful for treating skin diseases caused by an aggravation of Kapha. Ginger also purifies the blood, which is a major component of clearing up many types of skin disorders. Because of its heating quality, it should not be used or only used very carefully for skin issues related to Pitta.
Guggulu: Guggulu is an anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and disinfectant among other qualities. These qualities make it helpful for skin conditions caused by Vata or Kapha aggravation. Guggulu increases Pitta, so it should not be used for skin conditions caused by Pitta exacerbation.
Haritaki: This herb helps with elimination and is mainly astringent. It helps with alleviating swelling and prevents the accumulation of pus in the skin.
Manjishtha: Manjishtha effectively decreases Vata, Pitta and Kapha. It is one of the best blood purifiers, and is especially useful for treating acne, blemishes, blisters and skin infections.
Neem: Neem is a blood purifier and an anti-bacterial. To clear up skin infections, neem leaves may be added to bathwater. Neem can help treat itching, dermatitis, eczema and scabies.
Prevention through proper diet, daily routine, along with physical and mental exercise such as yoga and meditation is the path to health. Taking good care of the skin is an important preventative measure, contributing to increased health for the entire body. It represents just one aspect of preventative care that has immeasurable positive effects on the body. Healthy, glowing skin and a good complexion also has a healthy effect on the mind, as it increases confidence and self-assurance. As one of the body’s major natural layers of defense from the external world, taking proper care of the skin essential to health.