Herb of the Season: Vacha (Calamus, Acorus calamus)

For centuries, Vacha (also known as Calamus and Sweet Flag) has been among the most revered herbs of traditional Chinese medicine and of Ayurveda, and has been one of the most renowned herbs used for mental and emotional disorders and for diseases of the nervous system. This is especially the case for disorders characterized by an impairment of concentrative ability such as ADD and ADHD, for which it is a specific. It is a strongly aromatic, semi-aquatic perennial herb with a ginger-like stem which spreads into the ground. This rhizome part of the plant is of medicinal use; its primary application is to open the mind, improve concentration, promote clarity and organization of speech. It is also often part of a formula made to treat depression where there is an accumulation of mental aam.

There has been some misguided and ill-informed concerns regarding Vacha’s safety. Calamus and products derived from it (such as its oil) were banned in 1968 as food additives and medicines by the United States Food and Drug Administration. This ban was the result of a laboratory study that involved supplementing the diets of rodents over a prolonged period of time with massive doses of isolated chemicals (?-asarone) from the Indian Jammu strain of Vacha. The subject animals developed malignant tumors, and the plant was thereafter labeled procarcinogenic, although it  is not clear whether the observed carcinogenic effect in rats was relevant to the human organism, particularly given the outlandishly-sized dosages and protracted duration of the regimen. As a cautionary measure, however, most authorities advise against ingesting the Indian Jammu strain. (Four varieties
of Acorus calamus strains exist in nature; diploid, triploid, tetraploid and hexaploid. Acorus calamus americanus is widely used and believed completely safe in appropriate therapeutic dosages). No health hazards or side effects are known in conjunction with the proper administration of designated therapeutic dosages of Calamus of European or American origin (triploid strain, up to 15% beta- asarone in volatile oil)  but long-term use of this herb should be avoided and use should be intermittent (one month on, one month off).

According to Ayurvedic tradition, Vacha is a 'sattvic' herb which feeds and transmutes the 'kundalini' energy in its action as a stimulating nerve tonic that helps support brain functioning. As a rejuvenative for the brain and nervous system, it is used to promote cerebral circulation, to stimulate self-expression (in Sanskrit vacha literally means speaking) and to help support overall brain health and functioning. Swami Thirtha calls this herb as "one of the best of the ‘mind herbs’," as it is known to remove the toxic residues and the effects of other drugs (including those resulting from hallucinogens, psychotomimetic and even heavy marijuana use) from fatty tissues within the liver, nervous system and brain. It is often used in post-Stroke (CVA) recovery protocols in the treatment of aphasia. By nourishing sadhaka pitta it specifically strengthens the ability of the mind to receive information and recall from memory.

In terms of Vacha’s Ayurvedic energetics, it is bitter in taste, of a heating virya and with a sweet vipaka. Ordinarily it pacifies vata and kapha and heightens pitta, although in some individuals and in higher dosages it may
heighten vata as well.

This is an herb with a wide spectrum of applications, including the treatment of inflammatory swellings and wounds, angina pectoris, severe sore throat, cough, arthritis, asthma, laryngitis, sinus congestion, sinus headaches, gastritis, gastric ulcers, colic pain, dyspepsia, diarrhea, anorexia, periodontal diseases, deafness, neuralgia, and shock. It is also used topically in the form of a dry bolus massage (podikizhi or udwartanam). Western pharmacology classifies the plant as a stimulant, emetic, nauseant, stomachic, aromatic, expectorant, carminative, antispasmodic and nervine sedative, antioxidant and antimicrobial.

Dosage is from 125 mg. to 500 mg. daily. Contraindications include pregnancy and lactation and its use should be avoided in the presence of bleeding abnormalities (including persistent nosebleeds and bleeding hemorrhoids). Excessive use or higher dosages may cause nausea, extreme vomiting, and the eruption of skin rashes.

Article provided by William Courson, BVSA, D. Ayur., an Ayurvedic Practitioner, faculty member and the College Dean of Institutional Development at Sai Ayurvedic College & Ayurvedic Wellness Center.

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