Our ancestors, living amidst bounteous nature and familiar with the flora around them as food and medicine, seem to have decoded a close relationship between the habitat and the human body.
The Yajurveda – an early Indian literature that documents various practices and rituals – describes the human body as a replica of its external world or the universe (brahmanda).
Taking it a step further, the Samanya Vishesha Siddhantha, one of Ayurveda’s fundamental theories, says consuming food items that have physical features similar – or common (called samanya in Sanskrit) – to body parts or organs enhances and takes care of those organs.
A similar Western theory, The Doctrine of Signature, chronicles how humans discovered medicinal uses of plants and vegetables; and those certain plants, fruits, and vegetables may hold the key to health and healing of the very organs they resemble.
According to Samanya Vishesha Siddhantha, consumption of meat enhances muscle bulk as the two have similar qualities. Similarly, using foods or substances with opposite qualities to a body condition mitigates those conditions. For example, rubbing oil on a rough, dry skin softens the skin.
Many tell-tale features
Both Ayurveda and the Doctrine of Signatures touch upon the shape, colour, smell, and texture of fruits and vegetables, with these attributes having a bearing on the body organs. Some as listed here.
Habitat: The environment where animal and plant species coexist also holds clues to their medicinal needs. The cyperus plant (mushta) grows in waterlogged places and swamps and has a cooling effect on one’s body. Studies support Ayurveda’s use of these rhizomatic or nodular roots for treating fever.
Colour: The colours of herbs, flowers, decoctions, vegetables, and fruits may proclaim their goodness on corresponding organs. The colour yellow is associated with bile and relates to the liver and the gallbladder.
A common example is turmeric (Curcuma longa). Turmeric has been found to play an important role in balancing the levels of free fatty acid, cholesterol, and liver functions. Likewise, yellow flowers, roots, latex, and dyes are a few traditional remedies for jaundice.
Smell: Sometimes, the clues to the benefits of a plant can be in their odours. The plant Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) smells of horses and hence its name: in Sanskrit, ashwa means horse and gandha means scent.
While the horse symbolises power and virility, this plant is commonly prescribed to enhance sexual performance, or simply to strengthen a weak person. A pilot study involving 50 women participants established the efficacy of Ashwagandha in improving their sexual function without adverse effects.
Look-alikes also heal
- Centella leaf and the brain: The centella leaf, called the Indian pennywort, resembles the human brain. It is known in Ayurveda for its role in improving memory and cognition. Studies have shown that consumption of centella reduces anxiety and slows down age-related decline in cognitive functions.
- Walnut and the brain: Walnuts have long been known as brain food. The shelled edible nut resembles the brain, its folds and wrinkles appear similar to the neocortex of the brain. They contain the essential nutrients omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, Vitamin E, magnesium, and potassium. Because of their high nutritional value walnuts are found to be beneficial for brain health. Studies have established that walnut supplements can improve one’s mood and have a direct effect on triggering the release of two neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine: the two are commonly called the `happy hormones.’
- Carrots and the iris of the eye: Carrots are ranked tenth in nutritional value among 39 fruits and vegetables. A sliced carrot disc resembles the iris of the eye and its beneficial effects on eye health are well known. Carrots get their orange colour from beta-carotene, the pigmented and richest source or precursor of Vitamin-A. Beta-carotene is rich in antioxidants, which protect the body from free radicals and promote healthy skin and eyes. Studies have shown that beta-carotene and lutein in carrots protect vision, especially night vision, and protect against macular degeneration and development of senile cataract.
- Bauhinia leaf and thyroid: The bauhinia tree has a cleft or bifid leaf. The unsplit compound leaf resembles the thyroid gland. There is reference in Ayurveda to using the bark of this tree to treat swellings and inflammation. specially swollen thyroid glands, a symptom which is the hallmark of hypothyroidism. A case study has examined the positive effect of this plant in managing thyroid-related issues. It is a preliminary finding and needs further studies involving a larger sample size across multiple centres.
- Grapes and alveoli of the lungs: Grapes are one of the most widely consumed fruits worldwide in both fresh and dry form. A bunch of grapes looks like the tiny alveoli of the lungs. The alveoli are tiny air sacs which enable rapid exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide when we breathe. Grapes have been shown to have anti-allergic, anti-anaphylactic properties. (Anaphylaxis is a severe life-threatening allergic reaction.) An animal study has demonstrated that grapes can help the mast cells to defend the respiratory system against asthma-causing pathogens.
- Tomato and the heart: Tomatoes, when cut open, remind one of the chambers of the heart. Whether taken freshly sliced in salads, juiced, processed or cooked, they are known to protect the heart from diseases. Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, beta-carotene, potassium, Vitamin C, flavonoids and Vitamin E. Lycopene gives it its redness. A 2012 study highlights the role of ripe tomatoes in the prevention of blood clots (thrombus) and cardiovascular diseases.
- Ginger and the stomach: Ginger are a go-to home remedy for stomach-related issues. The ginger rhizome’s shape resembles the human stomach. Ginger is used to treat conditions such as nausea, vomiting, indigestion, and constipation. Studies have clinically proven ginger to be a potent gastro-protective agent.
- Bitter gourd and pancreas: Bitter gourd is commonly used as a traditional household remedy for diabetes. The gourd reminds one of the pancreas, the organ that regulates blood sugar levels. Its juice acts like insulin and stimulates amino acid uptake into skeletal muscle cells. Studies have shown that the extract of bitter gourd can stimulate peripheral glucose uptake and regulate the amount of glucose absorbed by the gut.
- Cissus stem and long bones: Cissus is a succulent plant with a squarish, nodular stem resembling long bones. This plant is popularly known as hadjod (a Hindi word for bone setting) and is used to heal fractured bones. Its healing property is due to the rich presence of calcium and phosphorus, besides plant oestrogens. Studies have shown that cissus stimulates metabolism and increases the uptake of essential minerals by osteoblasts – cells that synthesise bones. This heals fractures. A study suggested that administering cissus to pregnant women can stimulate the development of foetal bones.
- Cassia tora leaf and ringworm: The plant, popular as wild senna, is also called the ringworm plant as its leaf resembles a ringworm, which is a fungal infection. In Ayurveda, the plant is used against skin infections. Studies have proven the anti-fungal activity of the cassia tora plant.