Ghee, used in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years, has recently become a superfood. In this post, we will explore the health benefits of ghee in Ayurveda, tying in modern science. We’ll first discuss the history and composition of ghee and then its Ayurvedic uses. Last, we’ll learn to make ghee and use it in recipes.
Before we go on, let’s start with the core questions: Why are we thinking about this topic now, and is this where our focus should be?
You might be thinking about ghee for overall health or to treat a particular condition. Your goals and your medical practitioner will inform how you should use ghee given:
- Ghee contains fat soluble vitamins and some essential fatty acids
- In Ayurveda it balances vata and pitta dosha, but can increase kapha dosha
- It is preferable to butter for the lactose intolerant
- It may have some anti-inflammatory and coronary benefits from butyric and linoleic acid
- It has a high smoke point which makes it ideal for tempering and sauteing spices
- In Ayurveda it is considered helpful for anxiety when used with the herb brahmi
- It is useful for dry skin and for massages
- If you suffer from obesity it may increase weight and negatively impact health
Historical use of ghee
Animal fats like butter have been part of the human diet for a long time. Ghee, or clarified butter, has been widely used in the Indian subcontinent’s diet for over 3000 years for medicinal and nutritional purposes. In fact, the Rig Vedic ritual of chanting while pouring ghee over fire signifies the act of creation. Products like ghee are samuli in Africa, maslee in the Middle East and samna in Egypt.
The composition of ghee
Let’s take a look at what ghee is made of to better understand how Ayurveda uses its properties. Edible oils contain two broad kinds of fats: saturated and unsaturated. When these oils are from animals, they also contain cholesterol. Ghee has about 65% saturated fat, 35% unsaturated fat, and 5% cholesterol.
In addition, ghee may also contain fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and other organic compounds, particularly if the cows are grass fed and pasture raised.
Saturated fats are higher in grazing animals like cows as their gut bacteria ferment and break down grass into usable energy. Ghee also contains butyric acid which gives it beneficial anti-inflammatory properties.
Unsaturated fats, especially in ghee made from grass pasture fed cow milk, contain a higher ratio of anti-inflammatory omega 3 acids to pro-inflammatory omega-6 acids. This higher ratio is helpful since our lifestyle is already contributing to excess of pro-inflammatory triggers in the body.
Ayurveda recognizes and uses these properties.
Health benefits of Ghee in Ayurveda overall
Ghee (or Grihta) in Ayurveda is considered to be a nectar which helps maintain vitality and good health and has a harmonious (sattvic) energy. Ghee is sweet in taste (madhura rasa), heavy (guru), cool in potency, oily, and with a sweet aftertaste (vipaak) per Ayurveda.
Ghee is used as a source of fat/oil to counter bodily disbalances, and is a medium to deliver herbs to the body. It helps remove excess vata and pitta and their associated conditions like constipation and acidity. Ghee also may help:
- Treat skin, allergy and respiratory conditions
- Cleanse and remove toxins
- Improve digestive system (cools and helps increase appetite)
- Improve mental functions (learning, memory, soothing nerves)
- Lubricate connective tissues
- Support eyesight and voice
- Support immune system
- Increase weight
- Deliver various nutrients to the body, including those which treat aging
Ghee is referenced in all Ayurvedic texts in great detail. One Sanskrit sloka says:
Ghee is a coolant, a prime agent to maintain youth, and capable of acting in a thousand different ways utilising a thousand ways of processing.
Health benefits of ghee in Ayurveda by body type
In Western medicine, all people suffering from a condition are treated in a similar fashion. However, Ayurvedic treatment is very individualized, because it seeks to balance a person’s doshas. What is good for one person may be harmful for another.
When your doshas are in balance, you may use one to two teaspoons of ghee every day.
However, when doshas are out of balance, one must be careful. For example, ghee may be useful in tackling arthritic (vata imbalance) conditions or gastric issues (pitta imbalance). However, if you have a kapha imbalance it may aggravate obesity.
Follow the guidelines below if doshas are out of balance:
- Use ghee for massages
- Intake ghee to improve digestive capacity, weight and strength gain
- Intake ghee to balance the digestive fire (jatharagni) – its anti-inflammatory characteristics counter-balance the inflammations of excess pitta
- People with kapha imbalance must be careful in adding ghee to their diet since it is an energy dense food. One needs to balance the satiety inducing effects against the dense energy that ghee provides.
- Restricted use should be with bitter herbs like neem, guduchi or cardio-protective herbs like triphala.
- Ghee is used in very small amounts in light meals after fasting and in toxin cleansing (panchkarma) treatment.
For an example of how ghee might affect healthy and diseased rats differently, consider a study from Ohio and Oklahoma University. Diseased rats on a ghee supplemented diet experienced an increase in cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Healthy rats, however, did not show any negative impact on the same diet.
This sounds logical, doesn’t it? Excess weight is a first order problem and ghee is an energy dense food.
Now let’s tie in some of these uses with ongoing scientific research.
What science says about the health benefits of ghee in Ayurveda
Modern scientific research is slowly and steadily confirming ghee’s importance. The potential benefits of most ghee-based Ayurvedic mixtures are yet to be fully investigated.
1- Maybe helpful in digestion- inflammations and control of bad bacteria
One of the health benefits of ghee in Ayurveda is to treat digestive and gastric disorders. Ghee stimulates digestion when used with certain spices. It can have a cooling and calming effect when used with porridge-like gruels like moong dal khichdi.
Issues with digestion are generally triggered by the inflammation and irritation of the single cell lining of our intestines. This often results in growth of harmful bacteria and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Butyrate, which is present in ghee, can have multiple positive effects related to inflammation, colon cancer, oxidation and epithelial defense. It can be used as a supplement to the butyrate produced by the gut bacteria in our bodies through fermentation of dietary fiber.
Researchers from University of Warsaw found that butyrate producing bacteria suppresses the growth of harmful bacteria like E.coli. Butyrate supplementation offers a promising therapy for IBS and helps relieve constipation.
2- May help deliver herbs and drugs to the body
To deliver drugs to the body, we usually need to use a carrier agent. Ayurveda has used ghee as a carrier agent in formulations for thousands of years. Ghee helps the body assimilate and process minerals and vitamins.
Recently, researchers in the Nanoscience Nanotechnology Journal studied use of ghee as a therapeutic delivery system. They found that it had favorable drug carrier and cancer inhibiting properties for certain aggressive brain cancer cells.
There are hundreds of ghee-based formulations including the general tonic called Chyawanprash. Ghee has been used as a delivery mechanism in formulations like Ashtang Grihta, which contains herbs like Brahmi that have been used for a range of brain conditions like Alzhiemer’s, Parkinson’s, and ADHD. Research in this area is yet to catch up.
3- May help in lactose intolerance
Lactose intolerance happens when the body fails to process lactose sugars, leading to bloating. Ghee does not contain lactose and casein (a kind of protein), which makes it well-suited for these conditions.
Researchers from the European Nutrition Committee analyzed ghee and butter oil and concluded that both products are good food choices for patients with galactosaemia, which is a condition related to lactose intolerance.
4- May help control pancreatic inflammations
When the pancreas is chronically inflamed, you may experience pancreatitis. In this case, the body loses the ability to regulate enzymes and sugar. In Ayurveda, this is treated as a Pitta disorder. Practitioners use various formulas to treat it, including pomegranate processed ghee and ghee with fried asafetida.
Ghee has been observed to have anti-inflammatory effects that help manage cases of acute pancreatitis in mice.
Now let us get down to making this golden nectar.
How to make ghee
Boil milk well, then cool it. Store overnight in the refrigerator to separate the cream (malai) on top. Remove and store the cream, then convert it into butter by churning. To make ghee, give the butter a low temperature heat treatment. During this process, any leftover milk solids will settle down and you can strain the ghee. A natural deep yellow color indicates beta carotene from green pasture raised cows.
One alternate way to make ghee is to separate the cream from the milk by making yogurt. Researchers report that the ghee made via yogurt has more fatty acids, which are beneficial to health.
Remember, the source of your milk matters: make sure it comes from animals that are humanely treated.
We made ghee at Ayurkula by using a fermented slow cook method on a full moon night in true Vedic fashion.
Now let us try our hand at a simple recipe that uses ghee.
Recipes using ghee
Generally, ghee is used as an additive on top of a meal. However, when it is occasionally used as a cooking medium, its high smoke point works in its favour.
Desserts like jalebi and halwa are really tasty but one has to be careful to earn the indulgence!
Dal (lentil soup) with ghee
Traditionally basic dal is made by soaking lentils and then boiling them with salt, turmeric, and 4-5 times water. You can add condiments like cloves or greens, like chopped spinach.
Once your dal is ready, it must be flavored with tadka! To make your tadka, add a few tablespoons of ghee to a ladle. Add a pinch of hing (asafetida), cumin seeds, mustard seeds, red chili powder, curry leaves, or dry chilies. If you want to get fancy, you can add finely chopped green chili, garlic, ginger, onion and tomato.
Once the seeds have popped, take the ladle in which tadka was prepared, pour the tadka in the dal, then dunk the hot ladle in and cover the pot! Let it stay covered for a few moments for the flavor to get absorbed in the dal.
Dal may be as simple or complex as you want, but the tadka must be of ghee or you’ll be missing the real flavor!
When thinking about the health benefits of ghee in Ayurveda, it’s important to keep in mind that no one plant, herb, or food alone is a magic pill. Ghee should always be used along with other holistic healthy practices.
We have seen swings from low fat to high fat diets as users fall for fads that tinker with carbs, fats and protein for weight loss and nirvana. In many cases, people I speak with are looking for the one magic food they can add to their diet. Often, they’d benefit much more from removing one or two harmful foods or behaviors.
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All content is for educational purposes only. Please consult your medical practitioner before attempting any therapeutic, nutritional, exercise or meditation related activity.