Benefits of amla (Phyllanthus emblica or Emblica officinalis)
As Indians, we all know amla very well. At some point or the other we have all enjoyed an amla pickle or chutney, or even used amla oil for hair. If you talk to anyone who swears by Ayurveda – the traditional Indian system of medicine, you will find that they will hold this berry (“gooseberry”, as the common name in english goes) in reverence, because of its magical health benefits. I have heard about it from many people, and have been eager to understand the benefits of amla. More specifically, I was keen to uncover the beauty benefits, and not the medicinal benefits. This article is about my journey into trying to understand amla’s benefits.
My quest to uncover its real benefits, along with the responsibility that I owe to my readers for giving them the best possible advice on any topic. I decided that I will try my best to separate facts from bullshit.
Does amla have medicinal benefits?
It is claimed in numerous articles and forums that amla is helpful in alleviating a wide range of ailments – from cold and fever, to diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. Initially, I didn’t want to go deep into this area (the medicinal part) – as my interest was only in uncovering if amla had any beauty benefits. But I couldn’t stay away from the gravitational pull of all the powerful stories about amla and its medicinal value. It was fascinating to read. Before you read further, I must make a customary disclaimer: I am not a medical practitioner and all readers must attend to their own facts about any potential medical advice they read on this blog.
So what are the true facts about benefits of amla?
Before we can logically answer this question, we need to get some facts on what does amla contain? I mean really, what is inside an amla fruit? Amla contains:
- ascorbic acid (vitamin C), 445-600 mg/100g  – an antioxidant
- class of chemicals called ellagitannins  – in cells and animals, reduces blood glucose
- punicafolin – it may hav health benefits (tumor suppressive effects in dogs)
- flavonoid – has antibacterial properties
- kaempferol – potential life-prolonging effects
- ellagic acid – an antioxidant, but with no proven benefits
- gallic acid – a weak carbonic anhydrase inhibitor (what?!? – well, it helps with mountain sickness and gastic ulcers etc – see link)
Once its clear what is inside an amla – and some potential benefits of its constituents, it was time to check if there have been studies on “amla” itself, as opposed to its constituent chemicals. So here is what I slowly uncovered:
- a casual search for amla (its biological name: phyllanthus emblica) on google scholar brings up 8,900 results.
- even though it is less than the 70,000 search results for (Malus domestica – commonly known as “Apples”), it is definitely more than results for Musa balbisiana – i.e. “Bananas”, which produces 4,980 results
- this was oddly comforting as it became somewhat clear that scientists are more interested in studying amla than studying bananas
- as I was tempted to read all the research on “bananas”, I felt that it would be bananas to do so. In time, I managed to composed myself, happy with the knowledge that amla was more scientifically researched, and got back to reading about it.
When I dug deeper into the journals, more than half of them led me to paywalls (why?! shouldn’t important medical research be free!). The ones I could read, to my completely untrained/layperson eye, seemed like incomplete or ‘required further study/analysis’, or claimed benefits based on studying the effects on rats. I discarded all such journals – as a layperson, I can do so easily :). The only study where there was a human trial, was related to amla benefits being good for the heart , . In short, the research on amla being good for the heart seemed pretty solid to my completely unscientific eye. This was very significant, since the “amla benefits” territory comes with plenty of hollow claims. Even the webMD entry seems to support my finding.
A side note about Ayurveda. Ayurveda seems to have its own institute with its own set of publications. However, I was unable to verify citations, and therefore I couldn’t go very deep into ayurvedic journals. Ayurveda clearly claims that this magical berry can improve many ailments such as common cold and fever and the digestive system – what really caught my attention was its use as a powerful hair tonic. All this may be true, but I wasn’t able to verify this through citations, hard facts or experiments mentioned in ayurvedic literature (whatever little I peered into). Most of the evidence about amla benefits seemed to just stated – or heavily anecdotal.
So I drew 3 conclusions about medicinal benefits of amla:
- Amla is good for the heart
- It has tons of vitamin C (if Vitamic C is recommended for you, then amla is a definitely a good source. Btw, wikipedia article on vitamin C in itself is a good read)
- There is very limited human evidence on Amla at this moment in time, but it appears to be very promising as it could lower blood glucose in both healthy persons and diabetics.
I was unable to establish more facts than these 3 above. Any die hard amla fans must please pardon my ignorance. All I am saying is that in my personal research, undertaken over a period of a few hours, as a segue while trying to understand beauty benefits of amla, is by no means comprehensive. One can of course always choose to believe that Ayurveda, despite being thousands of years old, is more “advanced” (and it probably is! I don’t know), and understood all the benefits well before today’s science could catch up.
What was the most surprising finding for me?
The thing that blew my mind while researching this was not directly about amla, but something else. It was about antioxidants. So those journal articles I read revealed that ascorbic acid and some other stuff present in amla are antioxidants. Obviously, I asked: what is an antioxidant? The wikipedia entry on antioxidants says that jury is still out about antioxidants having any health benefits whatsoever. And that this finding is supported by a study which conducted human trials. What??!! It took me a while to absorb this. I recalled all the good stuff I have been hearing about antioxidants. Someone even forwarded a TED talk to me very recently about health benefits of antioxidants. So what was this? Aren’t antioxidants supposed to be good things?
Well, dear reader – the fact is that according to wikipedia the answer is very clear: Although some levels of antioxidant vitamins and minerals in the diet are required for good health, there is considerable doubt as to whether antioxidant supplements are beneficial or harmful; and if they are actually beneficial, which antioxidant(s) are needed and in what amounts. I read the 3 references for this claim, and it does indeed seem to be the currently held scientific view.
It doesn’t mean that all this is bad!! 🙂 They are good, but good for different reasons than just because they are high on antioxidants.
Now, lets come to the part which I am personally most interested in. Does amla have any beauty/skin/hair related benefits?
Before I continue, I must share something with you that I personally found to be fascinating. Did you know that Merck, the pharma company, sells a product called Emblica to cosmetic brands – and calls it a material for “Skin Tone Optimization” – where did they come up with this? 🙂 I was ROFL. I was amazed reading that a multi-national pharma company sells amla extracts as a proper product to cosmetic brands. Don’t you find it fascinating? Surely, amla has beauty benefits in that case! I felt that I was on the cusp of a great discovery. I was excited. So I continued in my quest.
I searched for scientific literature on amla’s beauty benefits. It revealed this – about 576 search results. None of the top searches, bar one or two were of peer-reviewed journals – but were infact general articles. I didn’t want those! I was in serious fact-checking mood today, and only wanted to see proper scientific journals! I soon gave up on beauty benefits, and searched for skin benefits. This was certainly more promising – it returned 3650 results.
The first result revealed: “A standardized extract of Phyllanthus emblica (trade named Emblica) was found to have a long-lasting and broad-spectrum antioxidant activity. The product has no pro-oxidation activity induced by iron and/or copper because of its iron and copper chelating ability. Emblica helps protect the skin from the damaging effects of free radicals, non-radicals and transition metal-induced oxidative stress. Emblica is suitable for use in anti-aging, sunscreen and general purpose skin care products.” First, this study smelled like its related to Merck. Second, no human trials. Third, I had just spent time trying to unlearn that antioxidants were good. So you can only imagine the feeling of emptiness that was gradually taking over me.
I looked further down the page. Then the next page. No human trials. Papers said it had “potential benefits”. I wasn’t happy. I narrowed my search further. Still no satisfactory papers in peer-reviewed journals, that concluded with a simple sentence that amla had skin benefits. This study looked promising – does amla has benefits for those with acne prone skin? The conclusions are clear to the level that some x,y,z chemicals are acne inhibitors, and that those may be present in amla – but the authors don’t say anything about the delivery mechanism. Are we supposed to eat it? Apply its juice? Dry, crush it and apply as a powder? Its not clear. In the end they list about 30 herbs with these benefits, and amla is one of them.
Dear reader – if you find any peer-reviewed papers on benefits of amla for human skin, please (please!) send it my way. I would be very eager to learn more about this. For now, it was time for me to change tact and look down another road. I redid all my searches with another official name for amla : Emblica officinalis. I still couldn’t find facts. I searched for “Emblica officinalis + beauty” etc and still didn’t find anything that could pass my bar on facts.
Amla benefits for hair
There seems to be one paper with evidence that amla oil is beneficial for hair. I wasn’t able to establish that the journal is indeed a peer-reviewed journal. But the good news is that this was a lab study which showed significant enlargement of the hair shaft and prolongation of the anagen growth phase when hair was treated with amla oil. This means, in simple words – thicker hair and longer growth. There is no evidence, other than vast body of cultural knowledge to support the fact that hair becomes shiny and soft.
Mainly, we can conclude that amla is good for hair as a main carrier oil, but it doesn’t make hair any more lustrous.
Beyond this, there wasn’t much more evidence about beauty benefits of amla. I was so eager to find support for skin, beauty, and cosmetic benefits for amla – but the science on it seems to be on thin ice. I started to doubt whether I had indeed done this correctly. So I came back to “the web” – i.e. http://www.google.com and searched again for “amla”. As you can imagine, I found things like:
- 10 Amazing Benefits of Amla
- 41 Amazing Amla Benefits And Uses You Should Know
- Why amla is so great for your health
There are a lot of things that these articles get right, but there are also quite a bit that isn’t supported by any reference to facts.
I think its time to re-examine Amla – the ayervedic wonder fruit – and summarize what facts we know about Amla
- Amla is good for the heart
- Amla is good for hair
- Amla has a lot of Vitamin C (probably more than oranges)
- Amla has fairly high levels of antioxidants (you be the judge of – are antioxidants good? there is a big question-mark about whether antioxidants do anything for us at all.)
- There is tons of ongoing research on potential health benefits of amla, specifically related to diabetes and cancer
- Amla extracts are used by companies as “antioxidant, skin lightener, and hyperpigmentation reducer” – this was surprising, because I had never heard about amla being used in this context
And, what myths we have debunked today?
I believe we can safely say the following (with scientific backing ;-p)
- Amla is great for the skin – this has little supporting evidence
- Amla gives more lustrous hair – very little evidence – you may just be better off simply massaging the scalp very gently for a few minutes, as it increases blood circulation to roots 🙂
I will revisit this post in the future, as and when new evidence comes to light. However, for today, I shall conclude my quest that began with an optimistic hypothesis about benefits of amla, and while we clearly found some very important benefits – they aren’t as all encompassing and broad as they are purported to be. For now, I am just going to enjoy my amla pickle, just because its a damn yummy pickle!
Enjoy! .. Next up, Aloe Vera. Stay tuned.
 Amla whose common name in English is Indian gooseberry. In Hindi: it is आँवला (pronounced as “Aonla”). In Tamil and Malayalam its called “Nelli”. In Telugu it is known as Usiri, Usirikaya. In Kannada, the name used is Betta nelli, Amalaka. In Oriya it is called Aonla. In Gujarati, it is called ambala – and finally, its biological name is Emblica officinalis or as wikipedia tells us, it is Phyllanthus emblica. In this article, I needed to befriend this magical berry, so I just call it by its childhood name: “amla” 🙂