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Ayurvedic Perspective on Diet and Digestion

by Dr Donn Brennan(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 139 - September 2007

Introduction

Ayurveda emphasizes the importance of dietetics. One verse from an ancient Ayurvedic text states:

With good dietetics there will be no need for medicines.

Without good dietetics medicines will be ineffective.

So, whether you are thinking of promoting health or treating disease, diet and digestion are fundamental.

Of these two, digestion is considered the more important. The best foods in the world are not much good if you cannot properly digest them.

Digestion is part of the relationship between you and the Universe. You consume and integrate a portion of the Universe when digesting. There are three considerations for good digestion. There is you, there is the food and there is, most important of all, your digestion.

The Importance of Digestion

Agni is the word in Ayurveda for your ‘digestive fire’. It includes not only the breakdown and absorption of food but also its further transformation in liver and cells to generate energy, create new tissues and eliminate toxins. There are 13 digestive fires. The first and most important is in your gut. Not only does your gut digest your diet, but it also lights all your other fires. In other words, it empowers your metabolism and is responsible for good energy and health.

If your fires burn bright they transform the fuel of your diet and produce ojas. Ojas is the finest product of good digestion that gives wonderful vitality, excellent strength, stamina and immunity, integration of mind and body and the projection of joy, love and intelligence. If your fires burn poorly, or are disturbed, they produce more smoke… Ama… which is a sticky toxic material that clogs fine channels. This blocks the entrance of nutrients into your tissues, the evacuation of toxins, and inhibits the flow of energy and of life. The eventual result of the build-up of ama is disease. So for good health it is essential to take care of your digestion.

Taking Care of Digestion

For good care of digestion you must be mindful of yourself, of your digestion, and of your diet.

Self Referral: Taking care of your self is the first requirement. The most important thing for good digestion is to eat when hungry. You may eat the best possible diet but still suffer disease if you eat inappropriately.

There was very interesting research done on two year-olds who were allowed to eat as much and when they liked. Each child was unique in his/her eating habits – some devouring a feast and not eating again for the rest of the day, while others constantly grazed. Yet every child took exactly the right number of calories to balance their needs. Our instincts around food are suppressed. We have been trained to eat at certain times, or to be sociable, or for comfort, and also to clean our plates.

However, if we eat for these reasons we are not in touch with our digestion. We disrupt it, resulting in ama and health problems.

So, the first strategy for good digestion is to eat when hungry, to stop when fulfilled, and not to over-eat. This is common sense. Yet, it is amazing the number of people who have not experienced true hunger for years.

Another aspect of being in touch with yourself in relation to food is to understand your own nature and needs. For this, Ayurveda describes three fundamental principles called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. If you are more Vata you move about a lot, are light in build, quick in mind and body, sensitive in nature, dislike cold, tend to be a little erratic, are enthusiastic and creative. If your Vata is excessive you may suffer such conditions as anxiety, insomnia, constipation, body pains, dry skin, cold extremities and numbness. If more Pitta in nature you are hot natured, passionate, determined, organized, a perfectionist, and have a more moderate build, strength and stamina. When Pitta becomes excessive you suffer such problems as irritability, guilt, heartburn, cystitis, skin inflammations and migraines. If Kapha is strong in your nature you are easy-going, with a big build, slow to get started, but you have great strength and stamina and easily put on weight. You are conservative and compassionate. If Kapha is excessive you suffer things like depression, lethargy, weight gain, sinusitis, colds and allergies.

So, if your nature is strong in one of Vata, Pitta or Kapha, or one of these is excessive and causing you problems, you ought to choose your diet accordingly.

Digestion: The second consideration for good digestion, after considering your own nature, is to stimulate the digestion itself. This is like using a fire lighter to enhance your fire.

Ayurveda does this through the use of kitchen spices in cooking. Hot spices like ginger, pepper, garlic, chilli, etc., add strength to the digestive fire. These are particularly important for Kapha where digestion tends to be slow. If digestion is too strong, with tendencies for heartburn and gastritis, which are Pitta complaints, spices like liquorice and fennel are useful. Erratic digestion is due to Vata, and all kitchen spices, except very hot curries, are good. If necessary, Ayurveda would advise more sophisticated herbal preparations to address particular problems with digestion.

Diet: The third and final consideration for good digestion is the diet. For example, the diet you choose will also depend on your strength of digestion. Some foods are heavy and hard to digest, such as red meats, oily foods and hard cheeses. It is important that your digestion is strong enough to handle these. We will consider diet further on.

There are many other important considerations for good digestion. Eat sitting, relax and enjoy the food. The fast food approach is a recipe for ama. Do not devour food in a state of anxiety or agitation, as this disrupts digestion. Cooked food (except for fruits) is recommended, as it is easier to digest than raw. Digestion is strongest in the middle of the day, and so eating the biggest meal at this time is best. A little warm or hot water during a meal helps digestion. Other fluids should be taken between meals. Avoid ice-cold foods and drinks, as these will weaken digestion.

Your Nature and Needs

The second consideration for good digestion, as mentioned above, is you. Are you hungry? What particular diet suits your unique nature? Have you any imbalances that can be eased through your use of food? Again, Ayurveda describes you and your imbalance in terms of Vata, Pitta and Kapha.

Meals for Vata should be small and frequent but regular. Food should be warm and cooked. Avoid instant or fast food and junk foods. Mild spices and salt should be used. Relax when eating. So watching television, reading, or other forms of nervous stimulation, should be avoided during meals. Avoid dry foods.

Fruit and vegetables cooked with oils and spices are generally good. However, the cabbage family, raw onions and mushrooms should be avoided. Grains in general are good, as they are nourishing and heavy. But not barley or dry grain preparations like granola and crisps. Beans, except mung and a little tofu, strongly aggravate vata as they are dry and cause gas and constipation. Nuts and seeds are excellent in small amounts. Dairy is good but should be taken with proper consideration to digestion. Meat and fish lower high vata, but red meat is a step too far. Oils are excellent, being moist and warm, but can be hard to digest. Sweeteners, but not refined sugar, are good. Salt and most spices, (except really hot spices), are very good. Plenty of nourishing fluids are recommended.

Pitta types require a diet that is cool, slightly dry and a little heavy. Their food can be raw but not heavily spiced. Avoid fried and rich diets as that clogs the liver. Also avoid overly cooked food. They should not eat when angry, irritable or upset. Three regular meals are usually sufficient.

Fruits and fruit juices are generally good, as they tend to be cooling and thirst relieving. Most vegetables are good and are best steamed. Most whole grains are good as they are not overheating, but use rye, corn and buckwheat less. Beans also are fine for pitta. Nuts are generally oily and warm and not advised, coconut being the exception. Oils are generally heating and so not good. But ghee is excellent, and sunflower oil acceptable. Dairy is excellent. The exceptions are sour or fermented dairy. Meat is hot and may provoke anger and aggression. But white meat may be tolerable. Sweeteners cool and calm pitta, but beware of overdoing it. Pitta needs plenty of fluids.

Kapha types do best with a warm, light and dry diet. Avoid sweet, sour and salty foods, and favour pungent, astringent and bitter tastes. The best strategy is for kapha to restrict food intake, as most foods are sweet, and to use spices to support their sluggish digestions. Two meals a day may be ample.

Fruits are generally not good as they are sweet and moist. Dry fruits can be taken, and some sour fruits like grapefruit and lemon, as they dissolve mucus and fat. Most vegetables are fine, as they are light and dry. They are best taken warm and steamed. Many grains are drying in nature (by being diuretic or expectorant) and are useful. Bread, however, is sticky and mucus forming. Beans are drying and light and so are good. Nuts and seeds are heavy and mucus forming and should be avoided. Oils should only be used in very small amounts and animal oils avoided. Dairy, except for lassi and goat’s milk, should be avoided. Meats are harmful but fowl is least detrimental. Sweeteners, except honey, are bad. All spices, except salt, are very good. Beverages are taken in moderation and should be warm or hot.

Your Diet

You digest food. So diet is the third consideration.

Ayurveda analyzes food in terms of its fundamental constituents, its qualities, its tastes and its potencies. Using all these considerations Ayurveda selects the diet appropriate for you – whether a Vata, a Pitta or a Kapha diet.

Another consideration is the season. Winter and spring are Kapha seasons, summer is Pitta season and autumn is Vata season. For example, a pitta-vata person can select pitta foods in summer and vata foods in autumn. A kapha-pitta person can have kapha foods in winter and pitta foods in summer. Generally, this is what a healthy person will intuitively do. We tend to choose cooler lighter foods in summer and warmer more nourishing foods in autumn.

Ayurveda warns against certain incompatibilities in diet. Examples are milk with sour fruits (beware the fruit milkshake) or banana with yoghurt.

Particular foods can address special needs. Even a particular organ can be targeted. For example, ghee is a good tonic for the eyes. For the heart, saffron, rose, pear and ginger are useful. For the liver, turmeric and curry leaves are good. The lungs are benefited by black pepper. The brain is strengthened by ghee, almonds and celery. If energy is required use fruit juices, orange, lemon, grapes, raisins, prunes, beetroot, rice and wheat, cumin seeds and lassi (a diluted yoghurt drink). For osteoporosis, and to strengthen bones, the appropriate foods include dairy, dates, almonds, raisins, oats, raw carrots, beetroots, soup made with pulses, tahini, broccoli, kale and asparagus. Barley both promotes elimination in constipation and is cooling for the urinary tract in urinary infection. It is helpful for weight loss. Carrots revitalize heart and liver, and are useful in piles and fevers. Celery is a good food for the brain. Bitter gourd helps to reduce blood sugar. Ginger is good for appetite and digestion and cures motion sickness better than any medicine

Another consideration would be how food affects your mind.

Food and Mind

Sattvic foods produce love, compassion, forgiveness, harmony and balance. They restore lost health and stabilize the imbalanced mind. Rajasic foods disturb the mind and increases vata and pitta. They cause hyperactivity, restlessness, insomnia, irritability, increase in toxins in the blood and may cause bleeding and hypertension. Tamasic foods dull the mind, increase kapha and ama and cause hypo-activity, lethargy, apathy, excess of sleep, and may accumulate phlegm and waste materials.

Sattvic meals are simple because too many types and tastes of foods over-excite the system. Choose organic foods properly cooked and avoid irradiated foods and microwave ovens, stimulants and alcohol. A balance of all six tastes is chosen.

Fruits, except for banana, and most vegetables used fresh and in season, are generally sattvic. Exceptions include the onion family of onions, garlic, leeks, chives and scallions, and pungent vegetables like radishes and chillies which are rajasic. The cabbage family, consisting of cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and mustard, create gas and are rajasic. Mushrooms and potatoes are tamasic. Grains are generally sattvic, especially rice. Beans are rajasic except for mung, aduki and tofu which are sattvic. Nuts and seeds are sattvic, especially when taken fresh, lightly roasted and in small quantities. Dairy is sattvic but heavy.

Therefore, it has to be taken in reasonable quantities and with the appropriate preparation. Hard cheese is too heavy to be sattvic. Oils generally are too heavy and not recommended. However, ghee and olive oil are good. Sweeteners in small amounts, (but not refined), are sattvic. Spices tend to be rajasic, including ginger, cardamom, fennel, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, anise and turmeric.

Rajasic foods include excessively tasty foods. Examples are the use of excess salt, spices, or sour tastes. So chillies, garlic, onions, pickles, excess salt, vinegar, mayonnaise and sour cream are rajasic. Red meat is both rajasic and tamasic. Fried, roasted, pickled and salted foods are rajasic. Also beverages that are stimulating, like alcohol and coffee. Too hot (temperature wise) foods become rajasic.

All stale, old, rancid, greasy, heavy, re-cooked and artificial food is tamasic. As is all dead food, such as meat and fish. Excess oils, sugar and pastries cause tamas, as does pasteurizing dairy. Canned foods and refined foods are tamasic. Cold temperature foods also create tamas.

Summary

To get the full flavour of Ayurveda’s approach it is essential to consider its holistic and integrated perspective. You are not merely a machine requiring fuel, but also a dynamic vortex of energy, intelligence, feelings and individuality. Then, beyond all this dynamism is a silent Presence – the one who has the individuality, feeling, intelligence, energy and physical structure. This Presence is a field of infinite and unbounded Pure Consciousness. Pure Consciousness manifests as this individual. However, it is the same field of Pure Consciousness that manifests as the whole Universe. So the Essence of food is none other than that same Essence within us. Eating is a way of relating to our own Universal Being. It is a profoundly nourishing and even holy preoccupation. Through diet and digestion we renew ourselves from the bottom up. The food is simultaneously nourishing our body, energy, intelligence, feelings, strength of individuality and connection with our Universal Being.

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About Dr Donn Brennan

Dr Donn Brennan MB BCh BAO DCh D Obs MRCGP qualified in medicine in 1979 at University College Dublin. During the following decade he worked in different specialties in hospitals and then as a GP. Also during this time he trained in Maharishi Ayurveda and became a teacher of Transcendental Meditation. Since 1990 he has worked full-time promoting, lecturing and consulting in Maharishi Ayurveda. He has lectured and consulted in almost all the major cities in Ireland and Britain, as well as Iceland and the Channel Islands. He was the Founding President of the Ayurvedic Practitioners Association. He lives in Dublin with his wife Ann, and works mainly in both Dublin and London. Dr Donn may be contacted on Tel: 00 353 128 45742;
brennandonn@hotmail.com

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