One similarity between Ayurveda and Western medicine is the recognition that the body has different pathways and tissues, energetically and physically, within the body. These largely correspond to the physiological systems identified by modern medicine (e.g. the digestive, circulatory, urinary, skeletal, and nervous systems). Ayurveda also teaches us that certain substances have a particular affinity for specific tissues and channels in the body. A carrier substance (anupan or anupana, in Sanskrit) can be used to help catalyze the delivery of a particular herb or formula to a specific tissue or channel, to encourage its penetration deep into the cells, or to moderate its effect in some way. Some of these channels are easy to visualize - for example the circulatory system in modern medicine is referred to as Rakta Dhatu. This is second of seven dhatus (human tissues) in the Ayurvedic tradition; roughly equated with blood, but more specifically with the oxygen-carrying portion of the blood: the red blood cells, which Ayurveda distinguishes from rasa dhatu (the plasma, lymph and white blood cells); rakta dhatu is responsible for the maintenance of life, oxygenation, and the transportation of nutrients. Others are a little more difficult to comprehend. The channel of the mind (mano vaha srotas) - is far more subtle and energetic in nature. So it is essential to understand that, in Ayurveda, a channel (nadi ) can be physical, energetic, or, as is sometimes the case, both simultaneously. Anupans Are Not Necessary But they can be wildly helpful. It is important to note that they are optional. And while the use of them can help with absorption and targeting of specific herbs; the body is intelligent and seeks balance. Warm water is even a powerful carrier, which is wildy tolerated by all. The intention you are holding for your herbs is plenty potent to deliver them exactly where they need to go. What is an Anupan/Carrier Substance?
An anupan, or carrier substance, is a substance that is either mixed with or taken alongside an herb or formula with the idea that it will serve as a messenger, a catalyst, or a moderator for the herbs. Ayurveda recognizes that certain substances innately target and assist in the absorption of different body/energetic systems. Sometimes, they also assist in mitigating any negative effects that an herb might have.
The Ayurvedic tradition recommends a wide range of anupans for different tissues, systems, and subtle channels in the body It is worth exploring some of the most common Ayurvedic carrier substances—and the tissues, channels, and systems toward which they tend to direct herbal constituents. Some of those substances are:
Almond Milk. Almond milk has an affinity for the muscles, bones, nervous system, male reproductive system, and the mind. It is pacifying to both vata and pitta.
Aloe Vera Juice or Gel. Aloe vera has an affinity for the stomach and small intestine, the blood, as well as the female reproductive system, and is pacifying to all three doshas.
CCF Tea (Cumin, Coriander, Fennel). CCF Tea is sweet, mildly heating, and deeply detoxifying. It has a strong affinity for the urinary system, but can also be used to kindle the digestive fire, and remove natural toxins. It is pacifying to all three doshas.
Chyavanprash. Chyavanprash is an ancient Ayurvedic formula—a jam that combines the potent rejuvenating qualities of the amalaki fruit with powerful carrier substances that help its benefits penetrate the tissues. Chyavanprash is a powerful rejuvenative that is sweet, warming, and also has the capacity to kindle the digestive fire without aggravating pitta. While it has many uses and benefits in its own right, the original purpose of Chyavanprash was to increase virility in men, so as an anupan, it has a strong connection to the male reproductive system. While Chyavanprash is generally considered to be tridoshic (balancing to all three doshas), some may find it too heating—usually because pitta is predominant in one’s constitution or imbalances.
Coconut Milk. Coconut milk is sweet, cooling, and nourishing. It has an affinity for the bones and pacifies vata and pitta.
Coconut Water. Coconut water is sweet, cooling, and soothing. It has an affinity toward the urinary tract and it pacifies pitta.
Cranberry Juice. Cranberry juice is both astringent and sweet. It also has a strong affinity for the urinary tract and is pacifying to both pitta and kapha.
Dashamula Tea. Dashamula means “ten roots” in Sanskrit, which references the traditional ingredients in this formula. Dashamula tea (made from Dashamula powder) is a potent tonic that brings the grounding, nourishing, and calming qualities of these ten plants to the body. This formula is sweet, heating, and has a particular affinity for the bones and the lactation system in women. It is pacifying to both vata and kapha.
Ghee. Ghee (clarified butter) is an indispensable staple of the Ayurvedic tradition. It is considered the essence of milk, and therefore the essence of motherly love. Ghee has an incredible capacity to nourish and lubricate all of the tissues of the body. It is sweet, cooling, and in appropriate quantities, it gently stokes the digestive fire. As an anupan, it has a particular affinity for the blood, adipose tissue (or fat), and the nervous system. It is tridoshic (balancing to all three doshas), but as you will see below, as an anupan for the adipose tissue and the nervous system, it is best for vata and pitta.
Ghee with Honey. Ghee, when combined with honey, is a powerful rejuvenative that can serve as a tonic for all of the tissues in the body. It has a special affinity for the muscles and the respiratory tract. This combination of anupans brings complementary qualities together. The sweet taste is building and nourishing while the astringent and scraping qualities of the honey allow for deep absorption, cohesiveness, and detoxification. Also, ghee is cooling and soothing while honey is heating and stimulating. Ghee and honey should never be used in equal quantities by weight, so many Ayurvedic experts recommend mixing it in equal quantities by volume (such as ½ teaspoon of each). Their difference in density ensures that doing so will provide an appropriate ratio between the two. This combination is pacifying for all three doshas.
Ginger Tea. Ginger is pungent and heating, with a subtle sweetness. It is a powerful digestive that kindles the digestive fire and helps to eliminate natural toxins in the body. Ginger tea has a particular affinity for the upper portion of the digestive tract (from the mouth through the small intestine), and the lymphatic system. It is primarily pacifying to vata and kapha, but its action on pitta is fairly neutral.
Hibiscus Tea. Hibiscus tea is astringent and sweet. It has a particular affinity for the female reproductive system and is pacifying to pitta and kapha.
Honey. Honey is sweet and heating, but it also has a bit of astringency and a strong scraping quality that makes it good for clearing mucus and stagnation from the system. It has an affinity for the respiratory tract, the lactation system in women, and the mind. It is pacifying for both vata and kapha, but because of its scraping quality, when used alone as an anupan, it is best for pacifying kapha.
Hot Water with Honey. This mixture suspends all of the qualities of honey in hot water, which is exceptionally good for scraping fat and therefore has a strong affinity for the adipose tissue. Boiling water can denature active enzymes within honey, so it is best to let the water cool slightly before adding honey. This combination is pacifying for both vata and kapha.
Maple Syrup. Maple syrup is sweet, cooling, and has a nourishing, tonic quality. It has an affinity for the respiratory tract and is pacifying to pitta.
Milk. Cow’s milk is sweet, nourishing, heavy, and cooling. It has an affinity for the lymph, muscle, and bone tissues, and also the respiratory system, digestive system, male reproductive system, and the mind. It is pacifying for vata and pitta.
Pomegranate Juice. Pomegranate juice is sweet, sour, astringent, and cooling, with a smooth, oily quality. It has an affinity for the blood and the female reproductive system. It pacifies pitta and kapha.
Sesame Oil. Sesame oil is sweet, slightly bitter, and heating, with both tonic and lubricating qualities. It has a special affinity for the adipose tissue (or fat) and is pacifying for vata.
Shatavari Ghee. Shatavari ghee combines the deeply nourishing, rejuvenating, and strengthening qualities of ghee and shatavari. If you are unfamiliar with this formula, you can learn how to make your own using this recipe. As an anupan, shatavari ghee has a particular affinity for the lactation system in women and is primarily pacifying to pitta.
(From Banyan Botanicals Website - they're awesome!)
Ultimately... You don't need to make a difficult decision between different carrier substances and warm water is always a safe bet. However, if you'd like to attempt to really increase and target the absorption of certain herbs and remedies, then considering your carrier is a great way to boost the efficacy. Always listen to your body. It is so incredibly wise.