When diet is right, medicine is of no need;
When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use.
This is a popular adage of Ayurvedic practitioners. This idea is what first intrigued me about Ayurveda, and why I decided to go study it. As someone who loves to cook, I could wrap my head around the idea of ‘healthy eating,’ but I wanted to know what that truly meant. It seems like diet and food could be more powerful than medicine. Why is this the case, and how could I learn more?
How does the food we eat become medicine?
One of the first books on Ayurveda I purchased was Eat, Taste, Heal. Half introduction to Ayurveda, half cookbook, the main focus in here is taste and their effect on the doshas. The doshas are really just the five elements that make up the cosmos, but in an imbalanced or aggravated form. The elements are always at work in our bodies, and when they becomes out of balance, we see them come out in certain qualities of our symptoms, and we name them Vata, Pitta or Kapha. We can affect the doshas through what we eat by the qualities, or gunas, of our food, as well as the taste of our food. Each of the 6 tastes contains the elements, and the increase or decrease of the elements effects the doshas.
Herbs and medicines also have these qualities, and tastes. The beauty of using food medicinally, is that we take in a larger quantity, and when we digest it slowly, as a mass, the effects come into our tissues gradually, and deeply – that food, that medicine, being integrated into our bodies more fully.
Whole medicines or herbs can have a much stronger taste, but come in at smaller amounts, and may be aimed specifically at one organ or organ system. This is of course very helpful, as well, and especially if we are working with a specific symptom or disease. But food, if we understand which diet and ingredients are appropriate for us throughout our lives, we can constantly be eating (and enjoying) our medicine.
The how and the what
We can understand the what by learning about the doshas, our current constitution, the season we’re in, and the 6 tastes. I promise to go into more detail on this in future post, but today I’m expounding on the how we can eat for better health, which I have found is just as (if not more than) important and effective for myself and my clients.
The how is just as (or more) important as the what. For us to get all the benefits of our food, we must be able to fully digest it. If you’re one to have obvious digestive symptoms, then finding better and easier digestion is probably obvious to you. If you’re someone who has easy, daily bowel movements, no gas, pain or bloating, no acid reflux, and a clear tongue, and you hope out of bed bright and shiny every morning – congrats! You’re in balance! We want to be like you!
If you have these things (seemingly) but you have other symptoms of disease, then there may still be an underlying digestive imbalance. Your constitution may be so solid, that these other symptoms are hidden. This may be well and good now, but sometimes those of you with strong constitutions may be fine one day, but wake up the next with a serious issue that seemingly comes out of the blue. (For more on the Strengths of a Weak Constitution, read this excellent blog post by Dr Claudia Welch.)
This how takes the doshas into consideration a bit as well. We learn to align our physiology with the natural flux of our external environment.
- One of the most simple and most effective ways to do this is to switch to eating 3 meals per day, and making lunch the largest meal of our day. Why three meals per day? Why move away from the trend of eating 5 or 6 times per day, or grazing? Coming back to the idea of maintaining optimal digestion for best health, it is important to digest one meal fully, before we eat the next, or we will be at risk to create toxins.
- Ama is the word for toxin in sanskrit, which literally means ‘undigested food stuff.’ It takes at least 3 or 4 hours to fully digest food once it is in the stomach. The timing differs on what kind of foods we put in – fruit being very short 20-30 minutes, and meats nuts taking the longest. When we combine many different types of foods, every half hour or hour or so, we are never allowing the previous meal to be fully assimilated before we throw in the next. When this food does not digest well it causes ama. Ama does not just sit in the GI tract. It can start to be absorbed into the body, especially if there is a lot of it, or if it has been sitting around for a while. Ama is said to be the cause of most disease – once it starts to get absorbed into the tissues, it starts in the blood stream, and then sort of like we imagine cholesterol (it has similar sticky qualities) it starts to get lodged in the weak areas of our body. We’re weak in the heart because our family has heart disease? Or because we are under constant stress? It may collect as cholesterol. We’re weak in the knees because of grief, injury or overwork? It may start to manifest as pain or swelling. Weak in the liver because we’re drinking a lot or eating alot of sugar? Might show up as skin trouble like psoriasis or eczema.
- Stop creating ama by changing how you eat. Back to the three meals per day, and eating lunch as your largest meal. When we start to understand how the doshas naturally cycle throughout the day, we come to learn that the Pitta dosha rules the times between 10 and 2 (midday and midnight.) Pitta is mostly made of the element of fire, and so is agni – a term for our digestive fire. Like increases like – so that means our digestive capacity, no matter who we are, is strongest at this time, so we should take advantage of this and eat our largest meal midday.
- If we eat three meals per day, we can allow enough time between each meal to fully digest before we take the next, lessening the chance we will create toxins. We must be sure to eat enough at each meal, in order to carry us through to the next.
- Do not eat unless you feel true hunger. This calls into question snacking. Snacking counts as eating between meals, and snacking can cause ama, if we do not have an empty stomach. It’s a personal exploration: am I not eating enough at my meals, and that’s why I am hungry? Or am I eating because I am bored, or not satisfied in some other way? Am I eating because I am stressed? Or am I just thirsty? This is one of the most important things I learned about myself through my regular experience with Ayurvedic Cleansing. It’s important to learn to listen to our body’s natural signs of hunger. We are very lucky, and many of us have never had to go hungry, always fed (or overfed). Ayurveda seeks to reconnect with those natural signals and cravings, which will ultimately lead us to better health in many avenues.
- Chew your food well, and sit down while you eat – and try to make the main focus of the meal time the food. This may seem obvious, but how often are we eating in our cars, standing up in the kitchen or break room, or eating AT OUR COMPUTERS?! Again, self-experiment: do you get discomfort when you eat lunch in the car, vs on the weekend when you’re most-likely at home, taking more time and sharing good company (hopefully!)
- It’s ok to eat cooked food, especially if you have a compromised immune system. There is so much talk of eating raw, and also this idea that we will lose weight or feel better if all we eat is salad all the time. By cooking our food, we actually make the nutrients – the prana – more bioavailable. It’s amazing the differences in digestion, especially for those with IBS, celiac or Chrone’s start eating cooked foods.
- This said, cooking for ourselves is one of the best ways to bring more awareness to the medicial value of what you eat. You’ll be able to choose your ingredients, your salt intake, and you’ll probably enjoy it more 🙂 In our culture, eating out is just something we do for pleasure, as well as to relax, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s simply important to be aware of the restaurants you’re supporting, and choose to patron places which care about their ingredients, as well as their customers.
- Drink warm or room temperature water and beverages – shun the false luxury of ice. The strength of our digestion is governed by the strength of our agni – our digestive ‘fire.’ The qualities of this fire are warm, sharp, hot and light. Foods (or spices!) with these qualities increase our agni. When we poor ice cold liquid on agni, it becomes impaired, and our ability to digest well is hindered, and the probability ama will form is higher. This is one of the first ‘ayurvedic’ lessons I learned before I even knew what Ayurveda was – I realized that drinking iced water lead to a stomach ache (as well as an ‘ice cream’ headache sometimes) so I made the switch and felt much better. If I am eating out, I almost always order a mug or a tea pot of hot water to sip along with my meal. It’s amazing how much it prevents any gas or bloating for me. (Vata imbalance. 🙂 )
- Eat whole foods. I am including this in the how, because it’s a slippery slope when we start to add in supplements or super foods, or powdered protein sources. These are often drying, and come packaged. Our physiology is built to digest whole foods. Cooking is all the processing we need.