With its long leafy branches and lotuslike flowers, the neem tree has long enjoyed a prominent place in the ayurveda">Ayurvedic tradition. Centuries ago, Sanskrit writings made mention of its medicinal applications, and healers in India continue to call neem the "village pharmacy" in acknowledgment of its versatile range of uses. Today, the benefits harbored in the leaves, fruits, oil, and bark of this plant are gaining recognition in the United States, and we now find the ingredient in everything from toothpaste and skin cream to natural insecticides.
But how exactly does neem work? According to Ayurvedic medicine, the tree possesses powerful cooling energies that act as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic in cases of excess heat. "Neem can be used to treat imbalances involving fire. It's therefore most often applied in cases of excess pitta," says Mary Jo Cravatta, a chiropractor and Ayurvedic practitioner in Northern California. In Ayurvedic medicine, an imbalance in one of the three constitutions—vata, pitta, or kapha—can cause discomfort and, ultimately, disease. By putting out the excess heat of pitta, the fire element, neem prevents problems down the road.
Skin eruptions are a classic pitta problem, and in India, neem has long come to the rescue against topical fungi, viruses, and other infections. "Conditions like eczema and hives always have a heat and toxic ama [bodily waste] component," Cravatta explains. But neem can counter more serious skin problems as well, says Ellen Norten, author of Neem: India's Miraculous Healing Plant (Healing Arts Press, 2000). "Because neem contains antibacterial properties, it is effective in treating epidermal conditions such as septic sores, infected burns, scrofula, and ringworm." Stubborn warts even clear up with neem, she adds.
A powerful blood purifier, neem is often used in Ayurvedic detoxification programs. David Frawley, author of Yoga and Ayurveda (Lotus Press, 1999) explains that neem serves to clean the blood and liver at profound levels, even to the point of ridding the body of heavy metals, and should be used with discretion. "Neem would be useful for anyone about to embark on a yogic spiritual path to counter the ill-effects of old diets and toxins." Before committing to a program of internal cleansing, consult an Ayurvedic physician.