We have recently written about a number of herbs that may not be familiar to most of us in the west but are extremely important in Ayurveda. The traditional Indian system of medicine has long made use of various herbs like lodhra and manjistha and today we are going to be looking at another important Ayurvedic herb called vacha or calamus.
What is Vacha?
Vacha is an extremely important and highly valued herb in Ayurveda. The herb is also referred to as calamus or vasambu and Sweet flag in English or by its scientific name – Acorus Calamus.
Vacha is a perennial herb that grows between 30 centimeters to a meter in height. The plant comprises tufts of leaves that rise out of a rhizome. Vacha is a native of southern Russia and India where it is commonly used as a medicine. It can also be found in Japan and China and was introduced to North America and Western Europe for its medicinal uses.
While the herb is very popular in India, the Food and Drugs Administration (the FDA) in the USA has prohibited the use of calamus in any food products. The reason for this is that three out of four calamus species contain a carcinogenic chemical known as beta-isoasarone. This chemical content does however vary enormously from nothing to 96% and some products are likely much safer than others.
Nevertheless vacha remains a very widely used medicinal herb in India where it is used to treat a host of conditions from fevers and indigestion to skin care. Let us take a more detailed look at the potential benefits of vacha.
Health Benefits of Vacha / Calamus
1) Traditional Uses of Vacha for Children
Bear in mind that the FDA warnings should be taken seriously but in India, vacha herb is often used as a treatment for infants.
Indian moms will often treat their baby’s digestive problems with the herb. Young children often suffer from stomach irritations like bloating, gas and indigestion and vacha is commonly used to treat these conditions. You can buy ready-made vacha root powder online but the traditional way of using it is to burn dried vacha root in a flame and letting it cool before grinding it into a powder. A tiny amount of the powder is added to the baby’s milk to ease the stomach upset.
2) For Sore Throats and Colds
Vacha is also used to treat sore throat and colds. There are several traditional ways in which the herb is used as a sore throat and cough remedy.
One method is to break up a piece of calamus root with a pestle and mortar. You then simply take a piece of the root and suck on the root for a while. According to Auyrveda, the healing properties found in the herb have a soothing effect which can ease a sore throat and can help reduce coughing especially dry coughs.
An alternative treatment is to mix a pinch of the powdered root with some good quality honey and milk and to drink it down.
3) For Bloating and Indigestion
As well as being used to treat digestive troubles in infants, vacha herb is commonly used to treat indigestion, bloating and flatulence in adults.
The traditional method is to combine an 8th of a teaspoon of vacha powder with an equal amount of dried ginger powder. Put it in a cup and add boiling water. Let the mixture steep for at least 10 minutes to extract the goodness. Add some good quality honey to taste and drink up several times a day.
4) For Diarrhea
Vacha is regarded as a very effective treatment for diarrhea in adults and children. In India, a small piece of vacha is burned and them made into a fine powder with a pestle and mortar but you can also use ready-made powder. Add a small pinch of vacha powder to some honey and swallow it down and it should help settle your stomach and diarrhea.
5) For The Skin
Vacha or calamus is also available in the form of an essential oil. It has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties making it suitable for a host of skin conditions. Like any other essential oil you should dilute it with a suitable carrier oil before applying it to your skin.
6) For Joint and Muscle Pain
Calamus essential oil can also be massaged into your muscles to help relieve pain. Its anti-inflammatory properties make it a suitable natural treatment for rheumatism, arthritis and headaches. Again, make sure that you dilute it in a carrier oil before applying it to your body.
7) For Stress and Depression
Vacha has traditionally been used in Ayurveda to treat a number of cognitive issues and it is said to improve memory and help people to improve speech. More recently, research has demonstrated that it may be a useful natural treatment for depression.
An Indian study published in 2010 found that when rats were treated with vacha for 4 weeks, the treatment had a significant antidepressant effect. However the same test failed to indicate any anxiolytic effects. (1)
In India, vacha is typically prepared as a decoction to help treat emotional issues like depression and stress and to improve memory.
8) For Head Lice
As well as being used topically on the skin, vacha can also be applied to the hair and scalp and is especially useful for treating lice and nits. Calamus oil has excellent, natural insecticide properties which are ideal for killing head lice.
Calamus oil is considered safe to use on the hair and scalp and despite being effective against head lice, it is gentle acting on the skin. It does not have any of the harmful chemicals contained in commercial head lice preparations.
9) As an Insect Repellent
As well as its many uses for the body, vacha is an excellent way to keep creepy crawlies away from your home. It makes for an excellent natural insecticide free of the harsh chemicals found in commercial products.
You can simply mix some vacha powder in water and add it to a spray bottle to eradicate insects from the home. The oil can also be burned outside your home to repel mosquitoes and other invaders.
Precautions and Side Effect
Despite being so widely used in India, calamus or vacha should be treated with caution. The FDA has prohibited its use in food because it contains a chemical – beta-isoasarone that is known to cause cancer.
- Potential side effects of taking calamus orally include seizures, shaking and kidney damage.
- Pregnant women and breastfeeding moms should avoid using vacha internally.
- Calamus or vacha may lower your blood pressure and reduce the heart rate. Large doses could make heart conditions worse in people with preexisting heart issues. It may also reduce blood pressure even further in people with hypotension.
- Do not use calamus in the two weeks leading up to surgery as it may affect the nervous system and cause sleepiness when combined with medications given during or after surgery.
Vacha may also interact with the following medications so please check with your doctor before using the herb:
- Sedative medications like Klonopin and Ativan since the herb may make you even more sleepy and overly sedate.
- Antacid medications because vacha might increase stomach acids thus reducing the effect of the medication.