What is Haritaki?
Haritaki, or Terminalia chebula, refers to a species of flowering deciduous trees native to several countries in South Asia, including India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and southwest China. These trees are medium-to-large in size, growing to a maximum height of thirty meters and a maximum trunk diameter of one meter. The fruit borne of the Terminalia chebula tree is oval in shape and has a fleshy, ribbed outer shell that transitions from green to brownish-black as it ripens. Both the leaves and nut-like fruits spawning from the tree have strong odors, and the fruit is known for its sharp taste, which is somewhere between sweet and sour.
Haritaki fruit is well-regarded in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, one of the world’s oldest systems of holistic healing. Perhaps most notably, this type of fruit is one of three utilized in the triphala formula, an Ayurvedic herbal formulation purported to have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-diarrheal properties (the other two fruits being bibhitaki, or Terminalia bellirica and amla, or Emblica officinalis). Haritaki is often called the “King of Medicines” and is always listed first in the Ayurveda in honor of its potent therapeutic benefits. Haritaki can be used externally as an ingredient in topical medicine for the purposes of healing wounds and inflammation, as well as treating fungal infections. When ingested, it is also known to have rejuvenative, cardioprotective, antibiotic, anti-diabetic, antiviral, antibacterial, and hepatoprotective properties, as well as a purgative/laxative effect.
According to the Ayrvedic materia medica, haritaki fruits can be divided into seven different types based on the regions in which they are harvested:
- Vijaya: Cultivated in the Vindhya Mountains of western India. This type is believed to have the broadest range of therapeutic applications.
- Rohini: Cultivated in Sindh in the southeast of Pakistan. This type is more round in shape and is particularly beneficial for wound treatment.
- Putna: Cultivated in the Himalayas. This type has a small, round fruiting body with a heavy inner seed. Like Rohini haritaki, it is most beneficial in external healing.
- Amrita: Cultivated out of the Bhagalpur district of the Bihar state in India. This type has a fleshy, thick fruit pulp and is known for its common use in panchakarma, an Ayurvedic system of detoxifying the body and strengthening the immune system.
- Abhaya: Cultivated out of the Champa area, close to Bhagalpur. This type is known for its multiple layers of fruiting skin (five “lobes” in total), and is commonly used in the treatment of ophthalmic disorders.
- Jivanti: Cultivated in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. This type of fruit is yellowish in color and, like Vijaya haritaki, has a broad range of medicinal use.
- Chetaki: Cultivated out of Himachal Pradesh in northern India. This type has three layers of fruit skin and is commonly ingested as a powder. It is known for having a stronger laxative/purgative effect than the other types.
While haritaki is commonly used in traditional Southeast Asian medicine, the fruit is also available as an ingredient for pharmaceutical use in powdered, dried, liquid, and capsule form.
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Haritaki Benefits and Uses
In the Ayurvedic tradition, haritaki is frequently used as a therapeutic agent for promoting healthy digestion. There is some clinical evidence to indicate that haritaki’s efficacy as a remedial solution for diet-induced obesity is an extension of its pro-digestive characteristics. In a study published by Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, researchers investigated the effects of haritaki on symptoms of visceral obesity syndrome in laboratory mice fed a high-fat diet. After administering a haritaki treatment to 42 obese Swiss albino mice for ten weeks, the research team examined daily energy intake, fasting plasma glucose, serum lipid profile, and liver cytology in the subjects. They observed significant reductions in overall body weight, HDL cholesterol levels, serum cholesterol levels, and relative weights of visceral adipose fat pads in liver tissues. Further, an observational pilot study conducted by the Govindbhai Jorabhai Patel Institute of Ayurvedic Studies and Research in conjunction with Gujarat Ayurved University validated these findings in 2014. Researchers observed the effects of haritaki on obesity management in twenty-one patients. Data indicated statistically high relief in both weight reduction and body mass index in supplemented subjects.
Haritaki is traditionally used as an ingredient in topical treatments for dandruff, a scalp disorder that can affect around 50% of the population. The Ayurveda recommends external application of a paste that blends haritaki with Amra beeja (or Mangifera indica, another fruit from a flowering tree) and milk. Haritaki is also believed to ameliorate alopecia, or hair loss, when mixed with honey and ghee (ingested). The hypothesis that Terminalia chebula has the ability to combat hair loss stems from its anti-anemic mechanisms, which have been clinically validated. For example, researchers at Korea University observed that haritaki had ferric-reducing antioxidant activity in a laboratory rat model, allowing for easy iron absorption and decreased anemic symptoms. Hair loss is a known cause of iron-deficiency anemia. However, there is no experimentation to date that can directly confirm haritaki’s therapeutic impact on alopecia.
Haritaki inhibits melanin production and is thus frequently used to repair sun damage or pigmentation. Research has validated that haritaki’s inhibitory activities against melanogenesis take affect by acting on B16 melanoma cells induced by α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone. Traditionally, haritaki is utilized in a topical paste form (either mixed with honey or curd) to remediate skin pigmentation.
In Ayurvedic medicine, haritaki is often administered to patients suffering from bronchial asthma and/or chronic cough. In a comparative study conducted by the Institute for Post Graduate Teaching and Research in Ayurveda in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India, researchers examined the effects of haritaki (5 grams twice a day) vs. the herb Shvasahara Leha (5 grams twice a day) for two months when administered to individuals suffering from adult asthma. The results of the study indicated that haritaki provided more significant relief than its study counterpart. Haritaki is also frequently used in the treatment of common coughs, sore throat, and post-nasal drainage.
Haritaki has been shown to have renoprotective and antidiabetic properties. In a study published by the BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine journal of the International Society for Complementary Medicine Research, researchers investigated a chloroform extract of Terminalia chebula and its antidiabetic activity in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats. After eight weeks of supplementation, data indicated a significant reduction in blood glucose in treated rats. Further research has also validated haritaki as efficacious in the promotion of faster healing in diabetic patients. A study published by the Shrinathji Institute of Pharmacy in Rajsamand, India examined a hydroalcoholic extract of T.Chebula in wound healing in alloxan-induced diabetic rats. Results were significant; supplemented animals exhibited an 82% reduction in wound mass in comparison to the control group, which exhibited a minor 40% reduction.
There is some clinical evidence that points to haritaki as both an anti-cancer herb and a therapeutic agent against chemo-radiotherapy-induced side effects in cancer patients. A particularly notable study caught public attention in 2007, when researchers presented their findings regarding the anti-cancer effects of haritaki at an annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research. Dr. Sanjay Srivastava, who led the study, revealed that an Ayurvedic triphala combination (including extracts of bibhitaki, amla, and haritaki) triggered apoptosis in cancer cell lines and significantly reduced tumor mass in treated mice without any unwanted side effects. Later, a 2013 study published by the Journal of Stem Cells examined various treatments championed by traditional Ayurvedic medicine in the alleviation of complications associated with chemotherapy treatments. Researchers found that Terminalia chebula demonstrated chemopreventive effects on renal oxidative stress, toxicity, and cell proliferation response in male Wistar rats.
Haritaki is known to have antibacterial properties, and has historically been used as a topical paste for the purposes of healing wounds. It also has a history of being ingested internally for the treatment of ulcers, and both externally and internally in the treatment of acne. However, randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trials examining the efficacy Terminalia chebula in treating acne remain to be conducted.
In Ayurvedic literature, haritaki is frequently discussed as a therapeutic treatment against cirrhosis, which refers to severe scarring of the liver/poor liver function. Clinical research has validated haritaki’s hepatoprotective properties. In a collaborative study conducted by several medical colleges in Bogra, Jesore, and Dhaka, India, researchers examined the hepatoprotective effect of haritaki on paracetamol-induced liver damage in a laboratory rat model. The experimental study, which was carried out for 120 days in total, yielded that serum bilirubin levels were significantly reduced in the haritaki-supplemented group. Elevated levels of serum bilirubin are indicative that the liver is not clearing properly, which means that Terminalia chebula may indeed have significant hepatoprotective effects. Another study published by the Applied and Natural Science Foundation examined the hepatotoxicity of ethanol in laboratory rats and the subsequent phytotherapeutic role of haritaki. Data indicated that ethanol treatment caused liver tissue injury, and haritaki supplementation exhibited a protective role against ethanol-induced hepatotoxicity.
In healthy adults, the typical recommended dosage of haritaki is 2.5 to 5 grams once or twice a day (1/2 to 1 teaspoon of powder, the most common form of haritaki supplementation). However, there is a lack of sufficient data regarding ideal haritaki dosage for particular ailments, and there is no proven safe dosage recommended for children’s consumption.
There is some contention regarding whether haritaki should be taken on an empty stomach or not. When taken as a part of the three-fruit Ayurvedic Triphala, haritaki is traditionally consumed without other food products. However, given the supplement’s strong activity on the gastrointestinal tract, it is advisable to take it with a coating agent like milk or honey to settle the stomach if one is new to taking the herb. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, the product is often consumed with honey or ghee (a form of clarified butter common in South Asian cuisine). Haritaki may cause nausea in sensitive individuals, but there are no existing reports of toxicity symptoms in individuals taking the herb.
Haritaki is infrequently sold as a tea blend, but many individuals opt to add a teaspoon of powder to their favorite tea twice a day. However, some researchers have espoused the benefits of consuming haritaki directly in its fruit form and recommend drinking haritaki juice as opposed to drinking it in a tea blend. Typically, individuals let approximately seven dried fruits steep in water overnight and then enjoy the resulting product. Haritaki is also available in tincture form, typically in a 100-milliliter bottle, though this form of supplementation is slightly more unusual for the product. Finally, haritaki extract is available in tablet form (typically 500 mg per tablet).
Haritaki Side Effects, Safety, Dangers and Warnings
Haritaki is arguably most therapeutic in terms of cleansing the digestive tract and has a laxative/purgative effect. If taken in excess, haritaki may cause diarrhea and subsequent dehydration. For these reasons, ingesting the substance when pregnant, already dehydrated, or severely underweight is not recommended. Haritaki may also lower blood sugar levels, so individuals suffering from hypoglycemia should exercise caution and consult a physician before starting a supplementary regimen.
Haritaki might interact negatively with other antibacterials, anti-inflammatory medications, anticancer supplements, and other gastrointestinal medications. More specifically, haritaki should not be taken alongside anticoagulants like Aspirin or Warfarin. It is possible to have allergies to haritaki or its constituents.