With a unwholesome diet there is no need for separate medical treatment;
with an unwholesome diet, even treatment becomes questionable.”
In Ayurveda, food is considered mahabhaisajya, the most superior medicine. This is true for both prevention of disease and disease management. Food is poornabrahma, which satiates the mind, body, and spirit. An important mechanism encompassed within Ayurveda is epigenetics whereby gene expressions can be up regulated or down regulated as needed to restore balance through proper management of diet, digestion, lifestyle, behavior, stress, and environmental factors. This, in turn, can have a trans generational impact.
This approach to healthcare is highly relevant in today’s world where lifestyle-based disorders abound, and we are inundated with processed and convenience food. An apple often costs more than a bag of chips!
Ayurveda as a lifestyle-based, preventive form of medicine is uniquely poised to provide solutions with its emphasis on diet and lifestyle. In a world widely plagued by an epidemic of stress, a meaningful definition of health must encompass becoming grounded (svastha—being centered and well established in the self) and the three pillars of health, Trayopastambha, which are ahara (a diet that supports physical and mental well-being and facilates efficient digestion of of the four inputs of life: nutrition, breath, water and liquids, and perception), vihara or brahmacharya (balanced lifestyle in alignment with your higher consciousness and higher purpose) and nidra (sleep).
There are special dietary indications for various types of vikruti, and shamana (pacification through diet, lifestyle, and formulations) or shodhana (cleansing) routes of management. We formulate what Dr. Jayarajan Kodikannath calls the Namaste Protocol—matching the current vyadhi avastha (stage of disease) and stage of samprapti (as determined by assessing the status of agni, ama, and the doshas, dhatus, and srotas) with the recommended chikitsa for samprapti vighatana, or breaking the pathogenesis.
A basic principle would be individualization for rogi and roga. Even if, for example, we advise langhana with fasting for jwara. Besides yukti (our logic), we are blessed with aptopadesha like Sushruta’s Dvadasha Ashana Vichara for formulating a diet beyond the samanya or normal diet advised for healthy people. For instance, ahara with ushna guna, heating potency, is advised during shodhana and for vata-kapha vikruti. Shita guna, cooling potency, is appropriate for those who have burning or daha, alcoholism, emaciation, or pitta vikruti.
Eight factors determine whether food is wholesome (or unwholesome) as per Charaka Vimanasthana,
- Prakriti: Nature (rasa, virya, vipaka, prabhava); for example, heavy meats like pork pacify vata (by balancing vata’s inherent lightness)
- Karana: Processing; churned yogurt becomes takra
- Samyoga: Combination of foods changes their qualities
- Rashi: Quantity (even good food in the wrong quantity is harmful)
- Desha: Habitat and climate
- Kala: Time; the ripening of fruits can make them sweet instead of astringent; similarly, seasons impact what we should or shouldn’t be eating; for instance, we should avoid consuming foods that are very heating in nature in the summer
- Upayoga samstha: Rules governing food intake, which include eating warm, unctuous, cooked food, in the proper quantity (eating an anjali of food, with half the amount of space in the stomach for solid food, a quarter of it for liquids, and the remaining quarter should be left empty); eating mindfully, when hungry, well-paced, so you’re not eating too fast or slow, or on the go, washing up before eating, and chanting mantras (offering gratitude) before eating
- Upayokta: The person who consumes food that is satmya (that they have grown habituated or adapted to, in accordance with what is suitable for their given state and level of health or illness)
A 19-year-old with ulcerative colitis has been eating processed food for years; he cleans up his act by skipping lunch, having a chilled protein smoothie in the evening with berries, milk, and a synthetic protein mix, chugging a lot of cold water, and exercising after dinner. He loses weight but develops vicharchika. A year later, many kids in his dorm get gastroenteritis, but his case persists, presenting with atisara (bloody diarrhea), and finally results in a colitis diagnosis.
Virudhahara: Incompatible combinations. For example, milk and sour fruits are considered incompatible. Ayurveda places a lot of emphasis on avoiding combinations of incompatible foods, as they can generate ama and over time lead to autoimmune conditions. Protein mixes, especially synthetic ones, are heavier to digest, and chilled foods dampen agni. A warm, cooked lunch made with whole foods, would have been better for this youth, and years of consuming processed food were additionally detrimental to his health and well-being. By developing an understanding of the causes of imbalances (nidana parivarjana), we can help to eliminate many simple apathyas we unknowingly commit.