Lessons from a 5000 year old nutritionist (pt 1)

If you were to meet a nutritionist from 5000 years ago, what advice would they give to improve our modern day diet?

One of the things that captivates me the most in the world of nutrition is the practice of Ayurveda – an ancient philosophy of healing that dates all the way back to over 5000BC. In a world where crash diets and clean eating ‘trends’ come and go like the wind, Ayurveda has stood the test of time for thousands of years and forms the basis of modern day health and wellness practices in both the East and the West.

Ayurveda, roughly translating to The Science of Life, is a holistic approach to wellbeing that looks at health as a combination of mind, body and spirit. Ayurveda began when Indian monks were looking for new ways to be healthy, believing that preserving their health would help them develop mentally and spiritually. They gathered their observations over thousands of years and preserved them for future generations, in a practice that we now know as Ayurveda.

Although not a direct contrast to modern medicine, there are a few key differences you could expect if you went to see an Ayurvedic doctor today:

  • In Ayurveda, prevention is key. Ayurveda focuses on giving dietary and lifestyle advice to maintain a long term balance of health, rather than simply treating the symptoms of imbalance.
  • Every individual is unique. There is no perfect diet or miracle pill that works for everyone.
  • Ayurveda considers emotional, spiritual and environmental factors as key healing principles, rather than simply focusing on the physical.

Over recent years, science has started to prove what the ancient art of Ayurveda always knew to be true. Combine this with a modern day lifestyle that has left us more out of touch with nature and our own health than ever before, and it is no surprise that more and more people are returning to Ayurveda for answers.

So the big question is; how can we take the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda and apply it to the modern diet?

Over my next two articles I will attempt to answer that question, and look at the main lessons we can learn from the practice of Ayurveda.

Let’s get to it!

#1 - Balance your doshas

In Ayurveda, we all hold three energy systems within us. These are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Each dosha can be found in all of us, but each individual typically has one or two that are more dominant.

Your unique balance of doshas are what help to determine your physical and personality types, as well as your likes and dislikes. For example a Pitta dominant type is more confident and assertive, whilst a Kapha dominant type is more calm and grounded.

Vata Dosha: Vata (wind) is the energy associated with motion, including blood circulation, breathing and your heartbeat. Vata predominant types are creative, energetic and impulsive. They have a tendency towards cold hands and feet and prefer living in warmer climates. Typically tall and slender build. 

  • When in balance: Creative, fast learners, lively, fun, lean and athletic.
  • When out of balance: Racing and disjointed thoughts, anxiety, dry skin and hair, constipation.

Pitta Dosha: Pitta (fire) is the energy associated with heat and transformation, controlling your body’s metabolism, digestion and temperature. Pitta predominant types are of medium build and a warm body temperature, usually with a strong appetite and fast metabolism. They typically burn in the sun and perspire easily, and prefer cooler climates. Pittas are confident, fiery, assertive and strong willed. 

  • When in balance: Intelligent, confident, passionate, strong.
  • When out of balance: Angry, argumentative, impatient. Suffers from inflammation, insomnia, and heartburn / indigestion.

Kapha Dosha: Kapha (earth / water) is the energy associated with grounding, and controls growth and structure in the body. Kapha predominant types have a strong build and excellent stamina. They are loyal, loving, and deep thinkers. Sensitive to cold and damp conditions, preferring warmer climates. Tendancy towards warm / clammy hands and feet, and oily skin.

  • When in balance: Loving, loyal, supportive, calm, strong immune system
  • When out of balance: Insecure, envious, possessive, headaches, respiratory problems, weight gain, slow metabolism.

It is very rare that someone ticks all the criteria of one particular dosha. However, we can normally see a theme in one or two that make up many of our physical and personal characteristics.

According to the art of Ayurveda, our diet and lifestyle should be adapted according to our dominant dosha(s). For example, a Vata dominant type should eat more warming and cooked foods, whilst a Pitta dominant type should eat more cooling and raw foods. This is why there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ diet and why different people respond in different ways to different foods, exercise routines and lifestyle habits.

Learning about the three doshas was a key part of my own healing journey years ago. After reading about the art of Ayurveda I discovered that my Vata dosha was out of balance; which was manifesting itself in a lack of prana (life force), dry skin, constipation, and difficulty sleeping. I was anxious and highly strung and would overthink EVERYTHING.

Looking back on my lifestyle then, this imbalance was no surprise. My attempts to eat more healthily consisted mainly of kale salads, green juices and ice cold smoothies. My life was hard and fast, I worked long hours and my mind was always juggling 1000 things at any given time. 

As I studied more about Ayurveda I learnt that Vata dominant types needed warmth and stability, both in the food that they eat and in their self-care practices. So I began to eat more cooked foods and incorporated warming spices like cinnamon and ginger into my meals. I drank more hot drinks such as chai tea and turmeric lattes and avoided cold water at meal times. I traded long and intense bouts of exercise for 3 – 4 shorter workouts each week. I prioritised sleep more and started going to bed on time. I learnt to meditate and properly chill out for the first time in my life.

Getting my Vata back under control allowed my Pitta and Kapha doshas to awaken and breathe new life into my body. My natural creativity began to flow and I felt stronger and more grounded. My anxiety was replaced with confidence and a new enthusiasm for life. 

Nowadays my doshas tend to move with the seasons. My Pitta energy becomes most alive in hot weather when I crave raw and cooling foods, and I become more fiery, free spirited and confident in nature. However as the cold creeps in I still feel a Vata dominance and have to be mindful to eat more warming foods and prioritise self-care practices to keep this in balance. When that fails, a winter escape to somewhere hot always helps.

Whether or not you choose to apply the concept of doshas to your own life is up to you, however the biggest thing to take home from this is that we are all different and require different diets and lifestyle habits to be at our best! What is considered healthy for one person may not be the same for you, so take time to listen to your body and focus on the practices that make you feel the best.

#2 - Eat with the seasons

As I write this article we are coming to the end of one of the hottest summers on record. I’ve lived off a diet of predominantly raw foods, fresh salads, ripe seasonal fruit and smoothie bowls for the past 2 months. Its fair to say that my Pitta has been in full flow!

But as the season draws to a close and Autumn begins to creep in, I feel my body starting to call for a different kind of nourishment. My cravings for juicy peaches and crunchy raw vegetables are being replaced with a desire for more grounding foods such as hot soups, roasted root vegetables, oatmeal, nuts and seeds.

This is no co-incidence and is our bodies’ natural way of staying in tune with the seasons. At this time of year my Vata dosha is awakening, wanting to store vital energy and life force for the winter that lies ahead.

The practice of seasonal eating is one of the foundations of Ayurveda, and is considered one of the key principles for maintaining year round health and vitality whilst also helping to retain our connection with nature.

According to Ayurveda, all foods contain ‘prana’, or life force energy. Foods that are in season are fresher, riper and contain more prana. Foods that are canned, old, processed and packaged lose their nutrients and lack prana, making them hard for our bodies to break down and result in the accumulation of toxins within our cells.

Therefore, Ayurvedic wisdom tells us that we should eat according to the availability of the season as much as possible.

Not only do they contain more prana, but local and seasonal foods are fresher and therefore contain more nutrients than imported produce that can spend weeks in transit. If you eat tomatoes picked fresh from your garden at the height of August there is no doubting that they will be inherently healthier than the same fruit imported from Africa in the middle of winter.

#3 - Gut health is king

In Ayurveda, our digestive system is considered the key component that influences our entire state of health and wellbeing.

As modern day science advances, the more we are seeing just how true this is. In recent years our gut health has been shown to be responsible for everything from our brain to our immune system to our skin, hair and nails. Poor gut health has been linked with physical conditions including inflammatory and auto-immune diseases; skin complaints such as acne and psoriasis; and even mental conditions including depression, autism, and Alzheimer’s. 

In Ayurveda, our digestive system is referred to as ‘agni’, translating literally to ‘fire’. Our agni is considered to be our source of life, the vehicle by which food becomes consciousness, and impaired agni is considered the root of every imbalance or disease. In ancient Ayurvedic text, it is said that ‘A man is only as old as his agni’, considering it the secret to long life and vitality.

 

Every morsel of food that we eat is considered as an offering to agni. These offerings can be made with compassion and intention, or they can be made mindlessly. In other words, we can eat foods that support and enhance the qualities of agni, or we can ingest substances that dilute and smother this sacred fire.

Here are some practical tips from Ayurveda that can be used to protect and preserve our agni:

  • Drink warm lemon water first thing in the morning. This helps to alkalise the body and awaken the digestive fire.
  • Avoid too many cold drinks, instead opting for room temperature water or warming teas.
  • Do not drink water at meal times, as this dampens the digestive fire. If you have to drink, lightly sip a herbal tea such as ginger or turmeric.
  • Eat your largest meal at lunch, when your digestive fire is at its strongest. Eat lighter meals in the evening and allow enough time for them to digest before sleeping.
  • Stimulate agni before meals. A small piece of ginger taken in tea or chewed before eating will help to stimulate the digestive process.
  • Eat mindfully and with positive intention. Take time to enjoy your meal, chewing your food thoroughly. Stop when you are full and avoid overeating.
  • Avoid foods that pacify agni; such as meat, cheese, and processed foods.
  • When you have finished eating take a full, deep breath before getting up and returning to your daily activity. Sip a peppermint tea if there is any digestive discomfort after you have finished your meal.
  • Eat only when hungry and avoid snacking between meals.
 

The role of our digestive system is undoubtedly one of the biggest factors that supports our overall health, so follow the advice above to ensure yours is in the best possible condition!

In my next article I will be back with three more lessons we can learn from the ancient art of Ayurveda. Stay tuned!

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