Written by Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman N.D., M.S.W., DHANP
Ayurveda is a natural system of medicine, using diet, herbs, cleansing and purification practices, yoga, astrology and gemstones to bring about healing.This article focuses on the dietary principles of Ayurveda and how an ayurvedic diet can both prevent and heal disease. Ayurveda is from India and is at least 5,000 years old, and still as effective as when it was created by ancient sages known as Rishis. The Rishis, masters of meditation and observation, developed a remarkable system of healing based on the five basic elements of the universe, ether, air, fire, water and earth and their combinations, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, known as the doshas. Your dosha is your constitutional type. There are three main types and four combination types. By knowing your type, you have immediate access to useful information on what to eat, how to exercise, what to wear, how to cleanse and purify your body and how to prevent disease, as well as much, much more.
Contrary to most Western approaches to nutrition, Ayurveda does not prescribe one diet as best for everyone, such as raw foods, macrobiotics or the basic four food groups, but seeks to individualize and optimize nutrition for the individual, based on their constitutional type and the particular imbalances in the person which need to be corrected. Food is selected based on its elemental balance, its taste, its effects on the body, and qualities of the foods such as hot and cold, moist and dry, light and heavy, oily, rough, subtle, and others. The main intention of diet in the Ayurvedic system is to nourish the body’s tissues, known as the seven dhatus, ie. lymph, blood, flesh, muscle, fat, marrow, bone and sexual fluid. Each of these tissues, when it is fed, nourishes and forms the next in succession. In order to nourish the tissues, food must first be digested, which is the job of the digestive fire, or agni, which is seated in the stomach and small intestines. Food that is not properly digested, due to overeating, poor food combinations, imbalance of the elements, or toxins in the food creates a sticky, toxic substance known as ama, which coats the digestive tract and the tongue and which may also be deposited in the tissues, forming a breeding ground for chronic disease. Proper food nourishes without making toxic ama.
Ignoring the laws of correct living and allowing the accumulation of toxins in the body predictably results in disease. Ayurveda prescribes an individualized approach to the dietary and lifestyle practices which keep people healthy and promote longevity. Ayurvedic dietary and cleansing practices are among the simplest, but most profoundly effective in the world. By knowing your dosha and applying the principles of living prescribed by both the ancient Rishis and modern Ayurvedic practitioners, you can restore your health and live a long and happy life.
The three main doshas and their dietary principles are given below. A complete Ayurvedic examination includes pulse and tongue reading, your physical characteristics, your mental qualities and emotional temperament, and whatever symptoms you may be suffering from. Although the guidelines given below will probably be helpful for self-care, they are not intended to treat disease or replace the services of an Ayurvedic practitioner.
Vata. Vata is the principle of motion, and is responsible for everything in the body which moves. It is the combination of the elements air and ether (or space.) Vata is said to be mobile, light, dry, cool, rough, subtle, and clear. An excess of these qualities will aggravate Vata. Vata people tend to be thin, dark haired, wirey, fearful and nervous, with very active minds and bodies. They are often on the go (or on the phone!) Vata has its seat in the colon, and one of its main symptoms of aggravation is excess lower bowel gas. Vata is also prominent in the hair, nails, skin and joints and excess Vata will cause dry skin and hair, wrinkles, and cracking joints, and as you might guess, people become more Vata as they age.
The diet which balances Vata includes foods which are warm, moist, oily, heavy, mostly cooked, and emphasizing the sweet, sour and salty taste. Spicey foods are good for Vata people, because they increase the digestive fire. Dairy products help Vata in general unless there is an allergy to them. Although Vata is helped by the sweet taste, white sugar should be avoided. Yeasted products also may aggravate Vata. Many of the symptoms of Candida albicans infection are similar to a Vata imbalance in the colon. Vata people should avoid the cabbage/broccoli and nightshade (tomato, eggplant, green pepper and tomatoes) families of vegetables, and only eat raw vegetables if they are marinated or with salad dressing. Most beans aggravate Vata, but soy products like tofu or soymilk are okay. Regular meals are important.
Pitta. Pitta is the principle of heat. Pitta is composed of the elements fire and water, which may seem incompatible until you think of digestive juices like hydrochloric acid which is liquid, but also firey. Pitta people have a medium, often muscular build, ruddy complexion and often blonde or red hair. They tend emotionally toward anger, impatience and aggressiveness. They are the classic Type A’s. The seat of Pitta is in the small intestine, and it is responsible for digestion and assimilation. Pitta qualities are light (as in bright), oily, hot, mobile and liquid. Common Pitta conditions include skin rashes, ulcers, heart disease, fevers, inflammation and irritation.
The diet for pitta emphasizes foods which are cool, raw, green, soothing and emphasize the sweet, bitter and astringent tastes. Hot, spicey and acidic foods aggravate Pitta. Fruits, vegetables, grains and low fat dairy products are generally good for Pitta, if they aren’t too spicey or sour. Too much oil, salt, alcohol and red meat should be avoided. Pittas do well as vegetarians if they get enough protein.
Kapha. Kapha is the principle of groundedness and stability. Kapha is composed of the water and earth elements. Kapha qualities are cold, dense, oily, heavy, slow, slimey and static. Kapha people tend to be overweight, retain fluid, and are sluggish in general. They have a calm, jovial disposition, but can also be possessive or greedy. Kapha people need to lighten up and let go. The seat of Kapha is in lungs, and Kapha people often get lung congestion and excess mucus. They also are prone to diabetes, water retention, constipation, and depression.
The diet for Kapha emphasizes warm, light, dry foods, plenty of fresh, raw vegetables and fruits and foods with a spicey, bitter or astringent taste. Heavy, oily, creamy foods should be avoided. Wheat, rice and oats may create excess mucus, and fried foods and too much nuts and seeds are detrimental to Kapha people. Sweets (except raw honey), salty and sour foods will aggravate a Kapha person and make them gain weight. Citrus fruits, red meat and dairy products ahould also be avoided. Spicey foods are good for Kapha because they stimulate metabolism.
Try applying the dietary principles for your constitutional type. They are sure to make a difference in how you feel. We recommend Ayurveda, The Science of Self-Healing by Dr. Vasant Lad, The Ayurvedic Cookbook by Amadea Morningstar and Urmila Desai, and Prakruti, by Dr. Robert Swoboda as helpful references.
Drs. Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman and Robert Ullman are naturopathic and homeopathic physicians and cofounders of the Northwest Center for Homeopathic Medicine in Edmonds, WA. They are coauthors of The Patient’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicine and Beyond Ritalin: Homeopathic Treatment of ADD and Other Behavioral and Learning Problems. They can be reached at (206) 774-5599.