by Gary Gran CYT, DAy.
“You know something? My face used to be kind of puffy looking,” she was saying.
“Well your skin looks great now. What did you do?” he asked.
“I’ve been using a new astringent and it’s really toned up my skin.”
In Ayurveda, astringent is listed as one of the six tastes along with sweet, sour, salty, pungent and bitter. Like pungency, it is also an action in itself meaning it has a direct action on any tissue, not just the taste buds.
For example, if you put a pungent substance on the skin it will create a burning sensation. If you put an astringent substance on the skin it will create a drawing or firming effect. Webster’s dictionary tells us that astringent means to bind tight or the ability to draw together the soft organic tissues.
The sage Atreya, in the classic Ayurvedic text called Vagbhata Hridaya (VH), tells us that astringent taste is composed of earth and air. Earth is cold, dry, heavy and contracted. Air is cold, dry, light and expanded. Together astringent taste has the qualities of cold, dry, slightly heavy and contracted. Therefore, if applied to the skin or ingested, astringent substances will have a corresponding cooling, drying, nourishing and toning effect. Remember the basic rule in Ayurveda is that a substance’s qualities will indicate the substance’s effects. This rule is called “like increases like.”
“The astringent taste deadens one’s tongue and causes constriction of one’s throat” (VH1.10.5). Ayurveda is an experiential common sense approach to nature and health care. Tasting a substance is an immediate way to judge it’s qualities and effects. Astringent taste is recognized by a strong puckering or drawing effect on the mouth and throat. If you don’t know what that means, try eating a bite of pomegranate or persimmon.
“The astringent taste removes pitta and kapha” (VH1.10.20). Pitta (fire and water) tends to an excess of hot, damp and light qualities. Therefore, the astringent qualities of cold, dry and heavy are all helpful. Kapha (water and earth) tends to an excess of cold, damp and heavy qualities. Here the astringent taste is only helpful to counteract excess dampness.
“It is heavy and purifies the blood” (VH1.10.20). Heavy in this context means that astringent foods are not always easy to digest or that they can take longer to digest. This is due to the heavy qualities of earth. Astringent foods tend to be detoxifying unless taken in excess. They have the ability to “draw together” and carry toxins out of the body. For example, most beans are astringent. They may not make your mouth pucker, but they will help clear toxic heat and dampness from the body. There are many blood-cleansing herbs that possess the astringent taste such as alfalfa, aloe, barberry, nettle and yellow dock. Please note that many herbs are a complex blend of two or more tastes.
“It squeezes, is healing and cooling” (VH1.10.20). The squeezing action of astringent substances has the power to draw together and heal wounds and ulcers. For example, used topically, aloe can heal burns, and comfrey, plantain and self-heal can heal wounds.
Astringent taste by itself is cooling as noted above. However, there are some astringent foods and herbs that also have pungent taste and are therefore heating instead of cooling. Heating astringents include basil, bayberry, buckwheat, marjoram, rye, turnips and poultry.
“It dries out moisture and fat” (VH1.10.20). This emphasizes astringent taste’s anti-kapha drying action. A standard anti-kapha diet will include many astringent foods such as barley, buckwheat, corn, rye, beans, asparagus, celery, cruciferous vegetables, lettuce, parsley, apples, berries, tea and lemon.
“It can hinder digestion of other food, is absorbent, and extremely cleansing for the skin” (VH1.10.20). Astringent foods are potentially constipating due to their overall drying effect. The constipation is what hinders the digestion of other food. Therefore, astringents are good for kapha types who are naturally moist, but are potentially too drying for someone who is already dry.
Astringents are absorbent means that they can soak up excess moisture and stop excessive discharges. For example, barley, buckwheat, chicken or psyllium are used to counter diarrhea and improve the stool, eyebright and nettles are used for watery eyes and nose associated with allergies, mullein is used for excessive lung discharges and yellow dock is used for acne. Chicken soup and basil tea with honey are used for the common cold. Many women’s herbs have an astringent action that can help regulate the menses.
Astringents can be applied directly on the skin and other tissues for their cleansing and toning effects. Notable astringents for the skin are alum, blackberry leaf, raspberry leaf, burdock, lemon, raspberry leaf, rose hips, sage, witch hazel and yarrow. Please note that the leaves and fruits of the rose family make good astringents.
Also note that what goes on goes in. Ayurveda maintains that anything placed on the skin is “digested”, absorbed and assimilated into the body. Therefore take care as much as possible that all cosmetic products are made from the highest quality food grade ingredients without chemical additives.
“If it is used habitually, it causes constipation, flatulence, and pain in the heart region” (VH1.10.21). Too much astringent taste means too much coldness, dryness and congestion. The digestive system can become stagnant and start to back up causing gas and pressure against the heart.
“It causes thirst, thinness, loss of virility, blockage of the tubes, and the accumulation of impurities” (VH1.10.21). Excessive dryness can eventually cause thirst, loss of water weight to the point of thinness or emaciation and drying up of the reproductive fluids. This can also be called excessive air or vata. Remember that astringent taste is defined as the combination of earth and air. Excessive earth is called stagnation and can lead to blockage of the tubes and the accumulation of waste.
To summarize, astringent taste is an excellent corrective for for pitta and kapha types but are used in smaller amounts or in combinations for vata, vata-pitta and vata-kapha types. Also remember that most foods and herbs just like most people are a combination of several tastes, qualities and actions. Sometimes it is possible to match just the right food or herb to the right individual. Other times we will have to combine foods, herbs and tastes in an artful and balanced way to create the desired effect. For this reason, it is good advice for all of us to eat a balanced diet which includes all the food groups and all the tastes in some measure.
Astringent: arjuna, bibhitaki, blackberry, green banana, nettles, red root, shankha pushpi
Astringent/Sweet: alfalfa, amaranth, artichoke, asparagus, bamboo, bilva, borage, Brazil nuts, chicken, comfrey, corn, fish, flaxseed, green beans, hazelnuts, hibiscus, lotus, macadamia nuts, mung beans, nutmeg, mullein, okra, parsnip, peaches, pears, pecans, pine nuts, plums, psyllium, raspberry, red lentils, rutabaga, soy beans, squash, sunflower seeds, strawberry, tofu, turkey
Astringent/Sour: cherries, cranberries, persimmon, rose hips, tomato
Astringent/Pungent: bayberry, coriander, gurmar, horseradish, marjoram, parsley, sage, turnips, vidanga
Astringent/Bitter: barberry, burdock, cramp bark, devil’s claw, eggplant, golden seal, henna, Jerusalem artichoke, kale, kutaj, lodhra, peony, plantain, self-heal, shepherd’s purse, squaw vine, uva ursi, wild cherry bark, witch hazel, yarrow, yellow dock
Astringent/Sweet/Pungent: cinnamon, honey, poppy seed, rosemary, tarragon
Astringent/Sweet/Bitter: ashwagandha, basil, boswellia, bhringaraj, fo-ti, guduchi, jatamamsi, phyllanthus, sandalwood, sesame seed
There are many foods which have astringent as either the primary or secondary taste:
Fruits: apple, avocado, green beans, cherries, cranberries, kiwi, green mango, peaches, pears, persimmons, plums, pomegranate
Vegetables: artichoke, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, burdock, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower,celery, cilantro, fresh corn, eggplant, green beans, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mushrooms, okra, parsnips, peas, peppers, white potato, rutabaga, spinach, sprouts, squash, tomato, turnips, zucchini
Grains & Beans: all beans, amaranth, buckwheat, corn, oat bran, rye, spelt, tapioca
Animal Foods: chicken, fish, turkey, venison
Nuts & Seeds: Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia, pecan, pine nut, popcorn, psyllium, safflower, sesame, sunflower
Addendum: Here is a translation from the “Charak Samhita” 1.26.43 concerning astringency for further study and comparison: “Herbs and foods having astringent taste are sedative and constipative. They produce pressure on the affected part and cause granulation, absorption and stiffness. They alleviate kapha and raktapitta (disease characterized by bleeding from various parts of the body). They absorb the body fluid and are dry, cold and heavy. In spite of all these good qualities, if used in excess in isolation they cause dryness of mouth, affliction of the heart, distention of the abdomen, obstruction of speech, constriction of circulating channels, dark complexion and destruction of seed. They get digested slowly and obstruct the passage of flatus, urine, stool, menses and semen, cause emaciation, weariness, thirst, stiffness and by virtue of their roughness and dryness they produce diseases like spasm, convulsion, facial paralysis, etc. due to the vitiation of vata.”
References for further study: “The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from the Ayurvedic Classics” by Dominik Wujastyk, “Ashtangahrdaya or Heart of Medicine” by Vagbhata, “Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing” by Usha and Vasant Lad, and “The Yoga of Herbs” by David Frawley and Vasant Lad