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Ayurveda 101: Mustard Seeds

If you have ever cooked with mustard seeds you’ve watched them release their potency in pops while being sautéed in hot oil. 

The seeds are tiny, and given their size it’s hard to imagine they could be a powerful addition to your diet.  But they can and there is a long history to prove it. 

Archeologists have evidence of the use of ground mustard seed in stone age settlements where it was mixed with grape juice. The seeds were also used in ancient Egypt were they were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Explorers and traders carried them to Europe where they were ground up and sold as a condiment as early as the 9th century. The famous Grey Poupon Mustard company got its start in 1777 in France when its founders discovered a winning formula that combined ground mustard seed with wine.

These fiery seeds also have a history as an herb in long use by traditional healers from ancient Greece and Rome to India where they have been a staple in Ayurveda for centuries. The Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama—who died in Cochin, India on Christmas Eve of 1524—is thought to have been the first to bring mustard seeds to India.  

The power packed into a mustard seed’s small size is what makes it a popular metaphor for great things that come from small amounts of faith, whether it’s moving mountains or producing mountain sized hope.

What are the health benefits of mustard seeds?

While mustard seeds have been popular with traditional healers for centuries, modern research give clues about why they are so powerful.

For example, an important component of  mustard seed is rutin, an element often added to Vitamin C capsules to increase their effectiveness. An antioxidant, it may be used to treat inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, viruses or allergies.

Mustard seeds also contains a lesser know component called arabinogalactan that has proved effective against colds, flus, ear infections and conditions of the liver. 

Inflammation in your scalp can lead to hair loss as can free radicals caused by daily stress and exposure to pollution that damage hair follicles. Mustard seeds’ antimicrobial and antioxidant properties plus the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids found in mustard oil can help. The oil’s antifungal properties make it useful for treating certain skin conditions as well.

A Google search will suggest even more uses for this powerful seed, but before you rush out to purchase it in bulk, the Ayurvedic perspective sheds critical light on who will benefit from its use, and for whom its use may actually aggravate existing problems.

Ayurveda’s Holistic Approach

Ayurveda’s power comes from treating clients holistically. The focus is on  discovering unique solutions to imbalances in your system rather than treating symptoms. Once balance is restored, your body can begin to heal itself.

Practitioners ask about your physical issues as well as about what causes stress in your life  due to everything from work to family situations to conditions like being stuck in a pandemic. They will also quiz you about lifestyle variables such as your diet and exercise routine.

Long established diagnostic techniques help them determine your dosha, a sanskrit term that roughly translates to constitution. The three doshas, vata, Ppitta and kapha, are each characterized by two elements, which provide clues as to how best to help you restore balance.

Vata’s elements are air and ether (or space), which are both cold and dry. Vatas are the creative folks who come up with great ideas and need help from more practical types to make them reality. Vata controls movement in your body and, when you are out of balance in this dosha, the excess dry cold promotes digestive upsets, constipation, anxiety and insomnia.

Pitta’s elements are fire and water. Pitta controls metabolism and pitta folks have excellent digestion. They may suffer from firey conditions such as skin ailments, heartburn, ulcers and hemorrhoids. Pittas are driven to accomplish great things, but are prone to burn out.   

Kaphas are the nurturers, characterized by earth and water, who may also feel weighed down and prone to sluggishness. Kapha controls the moist tissues and kaphas tend to suffer from colds, congestion and lung concerns. They also have a tendency towards obesity.  Like vatas, kaphas often feel cold.

We all have elements of all three doshas, and can at any time be out of balance in any of the five elements. A good first step is to take a dosha quiz to give you an idea of your particular constitution. But the most accurate way to determine your dominant dosha and where you are out of balance is to consult a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner.

Meanwhile, if you don’t feel quite right, you can help yourself achieve greater balance by noticing how different foods make you feel, then seeking out alternatives that help shift that to something that feels better. 

Mustard seeds, which pack a fiery wallop, are a good example of how this works.

Ayurveda and Mustard Seed

Mustard seed is know for its spicyness or pungency. Pungent foods heat up the body and the digestion and speed up the metabolic process. Eating mustard seed helps spread heat throughout the body.

Its heat spreading and spicy qualities make mustard seed a good choice for vatas and kaphas, both of whom are often cold, especially when out of balance. The heat also helps break up congestion that is common in kaphas, and improve the digestive fire in both kaphas and vatas. If you are out of balance in either of these two doshas, mustard seed can be a good choice.  

On the other hand, pittas don’t need to speed up their digestion and chances are good they are warm enough, throwing off excess covers during the night and wearing shorts and sandals long before the weather turns warm enough for kaphas and especially vatas to venture out. 

In fact, mustard seed can actually aggravate pitta characteristics creating imbalances that lead to health challenges. For this reason these seeds, loaded with nutrients though they are, are are not recommended for pitta types.

How to use Mustard Seed

Ayurvedic practitioners use mustard seeds externally and occasionally also internally.

Externally they are used as plasters or poultices, made by mixing the ground seed with water, oil or other liquids.  For example, a traditional treatment for tonsillitis is a paste made of lemon juice and ground mustard seed and applied externally to reduce swelling and pain. 

A paste of mustard seed and sesame oil can be applied to wounds to help speed healing, while one made with mustard oil (squeezed from the seeds) and turmeric can be a good antidote for rashes and other itchy skin conditions.  

Individuals with rheumatoid arthritis and sore joint issues can benefit from applying mustard oil (mixed with salt or garlic and cloves) to inflamed areas.

Conditions of the respiratory system such as colds, bronchitis or pneumonia may be helped by applying a poultice of ground mustard seed with water or oil to the chest.

If you suffer from dandruff or hair loss, there is evidence mustard oil can help. And you may also notice that your hair looks healthier and shinier after its application. It’s use may even slow  the onset of grey. Mix a small amount of mustard oil with sesame or coconut oil and massage into your scalp. Leave it on for an hour before washing it out.  

Internally mustard seed helps stimulate and heat your system, speeding the movement of blood, improving digestion and enhancing blood flow to the brain to improve mental clarity and focus.

What are the side effects of mustard seeds?

Mustard seed’s fiery quality means it may irritate sensitive skin or even cause blisters. Before using on your skin or scalp, apply a small amount in one spot as a test. Also, avoid getting it in your eyes or nose.

Mustard oil is used in cooking many places in the world, but is sold in the United States with an FDA required warning that it is for external use only.  This is because research shows it has high levels of erucic acid, which has been linked to heart disease.  

Most important, when using mustard seeds in any form, pay attention to how you feel, which could change from time to time depending on your imbalances. Do you feel energized and clear-headed? Are you breathing easier and enjoying shinier, dandruff-free hair. If so, mustard seed in some of its many forms may be a good solution for you.

On the other hand, if your skin is blistered, or you experience diarrhea due to an over-stimulated digestive system, you may be pitta imbalanced, in which case these powerful little seeds may aggravate your constitution and create rather than resolve existing health challenges.

For best results, consult your Ayurvedic practitioner for advice.  

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