The skin serves as our primary protection from the environmental toxins and pathogens surrounding us. And as a result, it takes a beating every day.
Most acute skin problems, like the temporary blisters and swelling associated with contact dermatitis, stem from reactions to external irritants, such as nickel in jewelry, poison ivy sap, or insect bites, or from the swelling and pain of an infected cut. Chronic skin conditions, such as psoriasis, eczema, chronic hives, or acne, on the other hand, have internal causes, which ayurveda attributes to toxins generated by imbalances in the blood, lungs, and liver.
Ayurveda says that chronic skin conditions, such as psoriasis, eczema, and acne, are caused by toxins that are generated by imbalances in the blood, lungs, and liver.
From ayurveda’s perspective, skin-disrupting toxins arise from excess rakta dhatu (blood tissue), which together with rasa dhatu (plasma) nourishes the skin. Rakta dhatu becomes imbalanced when we ingest heating foods, imbibe alcohol or other liver irritants, endure intense sun exposure, work excessively, or experience intense negative emotions—anything, in short, that has the attributes of the pitta dosha. Not surprisingly, pitta-dominant individuals experience more skin diseases than vatas or kaphas, if only because pitta tends to overheat the blood. In contrast, when rasa and rakta dhatus are well balanced, the skin is smooth, moist, and glowing.
Cool the Fire
Since most cases of contact dermatitis exhibit the effect of too much pitta—red, hot rashes and blisters—they respond well to cooling topical remedies, such as aloe gel and calendula cream, once the source of irritation is removed.
Cases of contact dermatitis—red, hot rashes and blisters—respond well to cooling topical remedies, such as aloe gel and calendula cream.
Ayurveda also uses these and other topical remedies to treat the symptoms of chronic skin disorders (see “Ayurvedic Topical Treatments” below), but because these conditions stem primarily from excess rakta dhatu, the main focus is on purifying the blood. And since the blood is nourished and cleansed by the lungs and liver, supporting and cleansing these two organs—by taking expectorants and diaphoretics for the lungs, and alteratives (blood purifiers) and bitter tonics for the liver—can have a dramatic impact on the skin.
Herbal alteratives, which are taken internally, are primarily cooling and have bitter and astringent tastes. Along with cleansing the blood and thus healing the skin, they also kill bacteria and reduce fever. Alteratives common to the West include aloe, burdock, dandelion, echinacea, and red clover; while gotu kola, guduchi, manjistha, neem, and turmeric are their ayurvedic cousins.
Blood-purifying herbs and formulas are best taken in warm weather when pitta is rising or any time heat symptoms worsen. Take alteratives no longer than two to three months at a time, and avoid during pregnancy or when vata is high.
Aloe juice or gel (made from the internal sap only) has both cleansing and rejuvenating qualities and is safe for anyone. As a blood purifier, take two tablespoons one to three times a day for six to eight weeks.
Ayurveda also prescribes bloodletting (rakta moksha)—a pancha karma treatment—as a way of lessening rakta dhatu, though this is not approved in the United States in its classic form. Donating blood is a legal alternative, and pitta types would help their skin stay healthier by donating blood, especially during or following summer.
As always, seek professional medical attention for your health when serious problems arise.
Ayurvedic Topical Treatments
Though skin conditions are largely pittic in origin, they can be characterized by an imbalance in any of the doshas. In general, any remedy you apply to the skin should counter the dominant qualities of the dosha involved.
Pitta skin conditions are distinguished by redness, swelling, and infection. Apply cooling topicals like coconut oil or aloe gel.
Vata manifests as dry, scaly, itchy skin. To pacify, choose warming, nourishing oil-herb blends made with sesame or avocado oil and ashwagandha, brahmi, or comfrey.
Kapha skin conditions show up as oozing or weepy rashes. Avoid oily topicals in favor of washing with decoctions of burdock root or yarrow.