An ancient medicinal practice, Tibetan medicine is a vital part of Tibetan culture. Practiced throughout Tibet, China, Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh, and Sikkim, it is now gaining popularity in India, Russia, Europe and North America as well.
The Tibetan name for this holistic healing system is Sowa Rigpa, which means the ‘science of healing’.
A unique practice, Tibetan medicine combines the holistic principles of Ayurveda and the natural bounty of the Himalayas with the philosophical and spiritual beliefs of the Buddhist faith. The medicinal practice helps one to maintain a sense of balance between the mind and body as well as the balance of the entire organism with the universe.
According to this ancient science, illnesses readily occur when a disruption in this balance arises.
Based on the teachings of the Gyu-zhi or The Four Tantras, this science has been handed down from generation to generation.
A Holistic Science
This time-honored medicine bases its practice on the Five Elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space) and traditional Buddhist belief that all illness ultimately result from the three mental poisons: desire, hatred and aversion.
Each of these three poisons can stimulate one of the three primary body humors, which are the ‘wind humor’ (Vata), the ‘bile humor’ (Pitta) and the ‘phlegm humor’ (Kapha).
A disruption of one of these humors leads to imbalance and illness within the body.
A Tibetan Doctor uses two methods to form a diagnosis - by studying the pulse and looking at the morning urine sample. He then prescribes diet and lifestyle guidelines, herbal and mineral medicines to re-balance body, emotions and mind.
Tibetan medicine specializes in using various herbs that are indigenous to the region. Tibetan medicine also uses many animal elements and minerals that have proved effective against certain chronic diseases.
Tibetan materiamedica; medicinal agents, are not used separately, but are mixed and processed into complex medicines. Ingredients are chosen according to their individual therapeutic properties and to their capacity of performing a coordinate and synergetic action.
Tibet’s Wonder Herbs The potency of Tibetan herbal medicine is unsurpassed. Complex formulas (typically containing 3-25 ingredients), include large amounts of unique Himalayan high altitude plants.
Interestingly the materiamedica shows differences according to the region, climate and vegetation and foreign influences. All these factors influence their therapeutic properties. Thus each herb is chosen based on its taste, its property, scent, environment grown and its effect.
Six Tastes Taste is key to assess a plant’s potency. In Tibetan medicine the 6 tastes (sweet, acid, salty, bitter, hot, astringent) are considered as curative properties. The taste has to correspond to the one indicated in the texts for that plant or according to the experience of the doctor.
Eight Properties Heavy, cool, smooth, soft, light, rough, acrid, and sharp are the eight main properties of Tibetan medicine. The heavy, cool, smooth, soft, are ones that combat what is typically called ‘chiba.’ (phlegm fire). The light, rough, acrid, and sharp are often used to combat ‘peigen’ (phlegm).
Scent The plant potency is also ascertained through the evaluation of its fragrance. Certain plants without their proper fragrance cannot be employed as medicines, since they would be lacking in therapeutic properties.
Environment Examining the environment where a plant grows is very important to make a selection as in Tibetan medicine the distinction between the shady side (srib) and the sunny side (nyin) of the mountains is fundamental as it affects the plants potency. If a particular plant has an inherent cold potency, then it would be wise to pick it from a higher altitude and the shady side of a slope as the hot power of the sun can decrease its potency.
Seventeen effects of herbs are as follows: cold, hot, warm, cool, thick, thin, moist, rough, light, heavy, steady, motive, blunt, sharp, tender, dry, and soft. The distinction of the different effects of herbs makes it easier to treat the ailment.
For e.g. for the doctor it is essential to note if the disease e.g. Lung disease is hot or cold in nature and to understand the disturbance caused to three humours. The humour might be in excess or insufficient and hence might require pacification or supplementation.
Common herbs include peppers, cumin, cardamom, clove, ginger, and other hot spices. These along with local aromatics such as saussurea and musk are often mixed in special formulas.
The chebulicmyrobalan is considered the ‘king’ herb in Tibetan medicine. An astringent herb, it is said to possess all the tastes, properties, and effects of different fruits.
Other important herbs include Rhodiola and Hippophae. These are often blended with sandalwood, saussurea, carthamus, bamboo, terminalia, licorice; geranium, emblica, gentiana, inula, and/or grapes.
Other examples of Tibetan herbs include terminaliachebula, which is used for eczema and emblicaofficinalis, which is used to treat hypertension.
Some modern pharmacologists and herb enthusiasts have focused on certain herbs making them accessible as an over the counter product.
Two such herbs are Rhodiola and Hippophae
Tibetan Rhodiola: RhodiolaRoseais commonly as the Golden Root. It grows well in high altitudes on rocky slopes. It is native to the climates of Siberia, Tibet, Northeast China and Mongolia, where strong decoctions of the root tea has been consumed for centuries to help acclimate to high mountainous altitudes. Considered more potent than ginseng, Tibetan Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb revered by the Tibetan monks. An adaptogen is a substance that has no toxicity or side effects at normal dosages and that increases the resistance to disease and to physical and chemical stresses.
Scientists have determined the majority of its power and potency comes from two compounds, Salidroside and Rosavin. Each compound helps encourage physical performance, cognitive function, stress response, and internal balance. Thus it is a top supplement recommended for general weakness, adrenal exhaustion or recovery from paralysis.
This supreme herb improves endurance and stamina, memory and concentration and is extremely beneficial to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Ithas been found to prevent heart disease and is a revitalizing energiser and brain tonic.
Today the herb, taken as an extract, herbal tea or in capsule form, is particularly famous for its ability to reduce the secretion of cortisol, the "stress hormone", and is a top herbal aid for relieving daily stress and anxiety.Useful as a restorative herb for treating adrenal fatigue, it has also been shown to help effectively alleviate conditions such as insomnia and depression.
Revered as the ‘Holy Fruit of the Himalayas’ – Hippophae, more popularly known as sea buckthorn is a wonderful panacea and is found in many parts of Eastern Asia and Russia.
Described as sour, astringent and warm in nature, this wonder berry has an impressive nutritional profile that indirectly heals and fortifies the entire body. With 14 essential vitamins, omega’s 3, 6, 9, the rare omega 7, super charged anti-oxidants, hundreds of other nutrients, and anti-inflammation properties; Hippophae has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic, Chinese, Greek, Russian, and Tibetan medicine.
Anti-oxidative with radio-protective attributes Hippophae has cancer protective properties and improves blood counts after chemotherapy. Best known for promoting healthy skin (both internally and topically)—including healing from burns, sores, wounds, and eczema, it’s also used to treat conditions of the mucous membranes, such as ulcers and lesions. The health benefits are much wider ranging, though—traditional uses include treating abscesses, pulmonary disorders, cough, colds, fever, inflammation, toxicity, constipation, tumors, and gynecological diseases.
In the Handbook of Traditional Tibetan Drugs by T .J. Tsarong, 175 important Tibetan formulas are mentioned using Rhodiola and/or Hippophae.
Some are mentioned below for reference:
Blue Garuda Bird (9): For acute inflammation of the lungs and throat, as well as fever and dysentery
Bamboo (9): For cough, infections, fever and diarrhea (this formula is usually used for pediatric cases)
Eliminator of Lung Inflammation (13):inflammation of the lungs, cough, chest congestion
Blue Poppy (8): To control excess blood from the liver into the stomach lining (hematemesis)
Amla (25): Removes bad blood, reduces blood pressure, treats dryness of throat and mouth, and redness of eyes
White Nectar Pill (5):to promote digestion (increases stomach fire), disintegrates stomach tumors and mucus, removes phlegm accumulations, acts like a nectar for colic and cold parasites
Reed of Comfort (17):for phlegm accumulation, pain along with emesis of sour and watery vomitus, inflammation of the stomach, indigestion, hematemesis, irregular menstruation, painful menstruation
*The number of herbs in the formula is indicated in the formula name or added in parenthesis after the formula name.
Widely practiced by several thousand Tibetan doctors, there are around 57 hospitals, teaching and clinical units and 30 Tibetan medicine factories spread out over ten cities in China.
The centre of Tibetan medicine in India is Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh which treats, teaches and produces Tibetan medicine. Established in India in 1961 by the 14th Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Medical and Astro-centre Institute has 51 branches all over the country.