Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word which is actually a linking of two words: ayur means life and veda means knowledge. Ayurveda is a system of knowledge, not just medical knowledge but knowledge about life and knowledge of the self. Ayurveda has survived to this day because it has been continuously in practice for the last 5,000 years. The earliest records of Ayurveda are written records from 1500 B.C. So Ayurveda is a mother medicine that has influenced Arabic medicine, Hippocratic medicine, and in turn western medicine as well.
The Three Constitutional Types: Vata, Pitta and Kapha
The concept of constitutional type states that we are all similar (after all we are the same species), but we also have many differences. Ayurvedic medicine recorded the differences it observed in the human population and noted that people have three basic tendencies or archetypal reactions in various situations. Over a lifetime, the tendency toward one reaction over the other two will give us a constitutional type. The three constitutional types have different physiologies. Their nervous systems are set at different tensions. They eat and digest foods differently. They have different preferences, and different foods upset them. When they are upset, they have a tendency to express different emotions. Most people are a combination of the different types, so it takes some observation to determine how much of each type is in a person. We can get an idea of what a person is like even before they have an illness and can offer some preventive approaches. Once we know what constitutional type the person is, we know what type of environmental stimuli, what kinds of foods, cooking techniques, colours, clothing, or sleep patterns are better for him. Some of these influences will be imbalancing to one type but not to another.
Constitution is measured according to the symbols air (vata), fire (pitta) and earth-water (kapha). For example, the element air or wind represents quickness or mobility. Fire symbolizes aggression and forwardness, and earth and water symbolize stability, form and heaviness.
VATA: The vata person is usually lean, tends to be anxious, and has a very quick mind. These qualities indicates the element air or wind which is very mobile. It dries, it moves very fast, and it is connected with the nervous system. When you take that to excess and there is an accumulation of air, it produces extreme tension in the nervous system including the autonomic nervous system. When this occurs, the digestion becomes impaired first and there is a tendency to have gastric disorders and gas after meals, even simple meals. Quite often vata types will get constipated. So anxiety, stress, and deadlines produce weakness in the large intestine. Vata individuals are hypersensitive. They experience dryness in the skin, anxiety, fear, nervousness and sleeplessness. Climactic and seasonal influences such as wind, cold and dryness will tend to accumulate vata in a person and if you are a person who is predominantly vata you will get symptoms at that time of year. Since the digestion is very weak, fasting should not be done by vata types without some preparation. Fasting for a vata is different than fasting for a kapha. I would not recommend that a vata fast with no food for any more than a day or a day and a half, but a kapha can go up to seven days. If you can design a life-style, dietary guidelines, a work schedule, music, and books to read that will tend to reduce tension and reduce vata, this is preventative health care and health promotion.
PITTA: The element fire (pitta) represents the metabolic capacity of the body and the endocrine system. The fire type is a more muscular person who easily tends to anger. You can't really push this person too far. They will push you right back. They have to really use the counsel of philosophy to do otherwise because that is their tendency and it is a built-in tendency. If these behaviours are taken to excess over the years, their symptoms are a lot of burning, inflammation, heart attacks, ulcers, and hyperacidity, because pitta individuals tend to secrete acid. They get so worked up, so angry that it results in a physiological effect. If you are a fire type, and if you get too close to fire or heating influences such as anger, hot climate, very pungent hot spices and coffee, all that charges you up. You know people who already tend to be fiery. If they consume alcohol, red meat and coffee, they are all set to explode. Other types are not. They can handle it.
KAPHA: Earth and water symbolize the lymphatic system and the cell structure. Kapha or earth-water type people have a tendency to be heavier set, gain weight more easily, lose it with difficulty and they really like their foods. They have to watch out for congestion, stagnation and gout, and they are predisposed to all the diseases of rich living. Kapha individuals have a tendency toward mucous. They will tell you how much mucous they get when they eat dairy products, whereas a vata person won't have nearly the same problem.
So you have to distinguish whether a person is mostly a vata, mostly a pitta, mostly a kapha, or if they are a combination such as vata-pitta or pitta-kapha and so on. Everyone has all three elements, but in different proportions. We know that there are different disease tendencies which apply to each constitutional type, and once we have identified the constitution of the person, we use these parameters to form a diagnosis of the disease itself. If the diagnosis is AIDS, is it AIDS with an air excess, or a fire excess, or a fire deficiency? Is the digestion weak? Are the lungs always congested? With that kind of variation, you can't just treat all patients the same. From an ayurvedic standpoint, the person with digestive difficulties may have an accumulation of air. So the overall therapy will be to reduce air. In order to do that, we make specific recommendations regarding the diet. Certain foods and other influences like climate and season can also increase either air, fire or earth-water.
The Ayurvedic Diet
Ayurveda guides a person toward a life style, a choice of foods and how to cook them. Nutrition is very important. The ayurvedic diet is based upon individual constitutional need, as well as digestive ability, type of illness, lifestyle, and environmental factors. What kinds of foods should a person of constitutional type symbolized by air be eating? How do you cook beans so you don't get gas? Which beans are best? Which grains are best? Which fruits are best, the sweet ones or the sour ones? One is able to choose the correct foods using ayurveda. Ayurvedic food combining, the use of spices, and cooking techniques, can help you to create a balancing meal from foods which could be unbalancing when taken alone. Excessive disease is caused not only by toxins. Food is not digested if it is hated, when it is burnt or overcooked, when it is heavy, dry, cold, unclean, or taken with excess water. Food which is consumed by a person tormented by grief, anger or hunger is not digested. You can have the best food, but if you are not eating it with a tranquil spirit, it will not be digested. In addition, there are thousands of medicinal substances in nature which are helpful, many of which are unfortunately classified as weeds. For instance, dandelion reduces pitta. You do not have to purchase ayurvedic products or buy things which come from India. Ayurvedic medicine is only a framework, a way to look at life. It is very similar to the old Hippocratic medicine.
Beans, Kichadi and The Medicinal Use of Spices
There is a very old and simple formulation for people with digestive problems called kichadi. It is described as very sattvic (pure), and very calming. It has been called the food of the gods because it keeps you very centered. It is very simple, similar to the macrobiotic idea, and very nutritious and easy to digest. It is a combination of basmati rice, which is a very fine white rice, very easy to digest, with mung beans. Mung beans are very small beans. The reason beans cause gas is because they have so-called indigestible starches which cause fermentation and gas. Mung beans, of all the beans, have the least amount of these indigestible starches, so they are the least offensive. Combine basmati rice and mung beans in a ratio of two parts rice to one part mung beans. Cook this together with the appropriate spicing for the person, but not a lot of spicing. Aduki beans are also one of the more easy to digest beans. We get into trouble with beans and peas and chick peas and sometimes kidney beans. But the smaller beans are generally easier to digest and aduki beans are definitely in that category. With black beans you have to add a fair amount of the seed spices, like cumin seeds.
Seed spices have a tendency to relieve the flatulence and the gas, so the use of fennel seeds, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, and anise seeds while you're cooking your pulses, beans and lentils, will reduce flatulence. So will ginger and garlic, so if you're cooking beans or lentils, it's often very helpful to throw in a clove of garlic or some chopped ginger while it's boiling away. And of course change the water after soaking the beans and before cooking. Sometimes you can awaken a weak digestive tract by taking a very weak ginger tea a few times a day and that will gradually awake the agni, the digestive fire in the food. You take a little ginger and you chop it into very fine chunks or slices and you simmer it for a few minutes until the water takes on the ginger colour, put it in a cup and add a little honey or a little lemon juice. That will produce the warmth that is required. When dairy produces mucous, the addition of cardamom seeds or a little ginger reduces the mucous. Another medicinal spice is turmeric. Turmeric is one of the most potent anti-inflammatory substances known. Turmeric reduces pitta. There are ways to alter the nature of foods. That was the original purpose of the use of spices. They were not just for taste, but were medicinal as well. Using them every day in cooking is very helpful. If there is sensitivity to milk, avoid it. In order to make milk more digestible, traditional societies have always boiled their milk. Even if it's right from the cow, they boil it first because it's a high protein, high fat food just like grains and beans. Ayurveda looks at milk in the very same way. If it's a high fat high protein food you have to cook it, and then you have to impart some heat to it like maybe cardamom or some ginger. Some people, though not all, who have not been getting along with milk can do so following this regimen.
I hope that in the future, organic food will be the norm, because if you can get organic food it's certainly better for you. The amount of actual nutrients in organic versus non-organic is quite different, and it's an appreciable difference, depending on the food item.
Ayurveda recognizes three disease pathways. All three disease pathways have different prognoses and require different types of treatment. The first phase is the digestive tract disease pathway, or the digestive disorders. If that is not checked, then problems emerge in the outer disease pathways, like skin conditions. Once that has occurred, then problems begin to move to the internal organs: the liver, kidneys, lungs and heart. The problems are deeper still. Finally, severe immune disorders occur.
Disease Process: The Six Stages of Disease
The first stage of disease is reversible local accumulation of vata, pitta or kapha. At stage two, the local symptoms are accompanied by symptoms that are not local. In a vata person, everything gets tight, the skin is dry, muscles are tight, and the joints crack. In a pitta person, there is inflammation, and they get hot because they haven't adopted a lifestyle or dietary guidelines to check it. For kapha, they are on the road toward diabetes ten years down the road. In stage three, there are further accumulation of symptoms. At stage four, the symptoms begin to accumulate in the areas of the body which are weak, either hereditarily, or because of lifestyle. Stages five and six are where the western medical system is first able to distinguish a disease entity. It is now distinguishable and they can give it a name. But in ayurveda, we can detect imbalance at what is known as stage one, which gives us a great advantage in preventing health problems and doing it on a constitutional basis. It is very practical to know ayurveda. It was designed not for the expert but for everybody. So the language used in ayurveda is that of nature, earth, water and air, which calls certain associations to your mind.
Vata, pitta, and kapha change as cycles of life change. When a person is very young up to a few years, there is a lot of kapha influence. They're growing, they're building and they need the kapha foods: the milks, the fats, really rich foods are important for babies whereas if they were taken later on they'd get gout. As we move on in our middle years, we tend to accumulate more pitta. Later on we tend to get more vata and so we get more dry and we need more warmth in our digestive tracts.
Cinnamon is sweet and also warming. In excess it can not only increase pita or fire, it can also increase kapha or earth/water because it's so sweet. Cinnamon for kapha is not as good an idea as ginger, but it is warming overall nonetheless.
Pankaj Seth is the director of the Renaissance Naturopathic Centre in Toronto which uses the treatment methods of Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, homeopathic medicine, clinical nutrition, botanic medicine and bodywork.
This article is published by permission from http://www.consumerhealth.org