In both Ayurvedic philosophy and the broader field of holistic nutrition, food is considered the most effective method of medical treatment. Switching to whole foods and deliberately incorporating key foods and nutrients into your Hawaiian meals can go a long way in treating and even curing a host of medical problems, from physical pain and chronic disease to mental and emotional ailments. The key is to understand exactly what foods will help or harm you based on your unique doshic, metabolic, and genetic makeup.
I have a lot of clients that come to me seeking treatment for poor mood and concentration. Maybe they are experiencing anxiety and depression, or maybe they have difficulty becoming motivated enough to get through their daily lives. Whatever the case, most individuals believe that these ailments can only be relieved through psychiatric medications. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, most psychiatric medications are only as effective as placebos, with a success rate of less than 50%. Changing your diet, however, can be a healthy, permanent solution to emotional and cognitive distress that will have positive implications for every aspect of your life—without the troubling side effects. Below we take a look at several foods you can add to your Hawaiian meals to elevate your moods and promote concentration.
Food For Your Brain
There are multiple ways in which food impacts our intellectual capacity and emotional stability. Some foods promote the production of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine or strengthen neuronal connections. Others contain powerful anti-inflammatory compounds that promote blood flow to the brain and reduce levels of bodily toxicity, which is a common cause of fatigue and brain fog. Still others contain high levels of micronutrients that lower stress levels and promote relaxation. A diet rich in foods that function in all of these varying capacities is the key to a happy and sharp mind.
Health professionals tout blueberries as one of the healthiest foods on the planet. High in a broad array of beneficial antioxidants and nutrients, blueberries are nutritious, anti-inflammatory, and delicious.
Blueberries are particularly renowned for their cognitive benefits. These small, sweet berries are high in antioxidants called flavonoids that increase blood flow to the brain, boosting memory and cognitive capacity for five hours post-consumption. These antioxidants also protect against cancer and other diseases that result from oxidative stress. Finally, these antioxidants facilitate the production of a hormone called brain derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. BDNF promotes the formation of brain cells, and low levels contribute to mood disorders and neurological malfunction.
Grean tea is an excellent source of clean, even energy. Unlike coffee, which stimulates the production of stress hormones like cortisol, green tea tames markers of inflammation and stress. It contains much lower levels of caffeine than coffee, and boasts an incredible antioxidant profile.
Perhaps the most critical component of green tea in relation to mood and cognition is L-theanine. L-theanine is an amino acid known to increase alpha-wave activity in the brain. In so doing, this amino acid provides tranquil energy while taming anxiety. It even helps to even out the effects of caffeine, preventing overstimulation and caffeine crashes.
Despite avocados’ size and high fat content, they are actually classified as a berry. Like the other berries we are more familiar with, avocadoes contain beneficial antioxidants and nutrients and increase blood flow to the brain. However, they also contain high levels of monounsaturated fat. These fats are powerfully anti-inflammatory and can thus reduce symptoms like brain fog. Monounsaturated fats also encourage the production of acetylcholine, which is critical for memory and learning. It’s high levels of tyrosine, a precursor to dopamine, promote happiness, alertness, and energy. A popular Hawaiian crop, avocados are accessible and easy to add to Hawaiian meals.
Oily fish are perhaps some of the most powerfully anti-inflammatory and pro-cognitive foods on the planet. Fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines contain high levels of omega 3 fatty acids, which are best known for their ability to tame depression and inflammation. In taming inflammation, they combat inflammation-induced cognitive impairments such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and brain fog. Their high levels of DHA prevent depression, brain shrinkage, and age-related cognitive decline. They also support brain cell production, and strengthen synaptic connections to sharpen cognition, boost mood, and enhance memory. Thankfully for those of us consuming Hawaiian meals, fish is a staple in the Hawaiian diet.
There’s a reason that we crave chocolate: it’s scientifically proven to contain mood boosting and energy enhancing effects. Dark chocolate encourages the release of endorphins, the body’s endogenous morphine. It also contains tryptophan and, thus, facilitates the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation. Though it does contain caffeine, dark chocolate also contains magnesium, a calming micronutrient that balances the energizing effects of caffeine.
Like berries, dark chocolate has an incredible antioxidant profile and thus aids in combatting side effects of inflammation, such as fatigue. The unique antioxidants in dark chocolate also help to decrease cortisol levels, protect the brain, and foster brain plasticity. One antioxidant in particular, phenylethylamine, is commonly known as the “love drug” because of the fluttering happiness it induces.
Nuts and Seeds
Like oily fish, nuts and seeds contain high levels of naturally anti-depressant and anti-inflammatory omega 3’s. Walnuts contain the most concentrated levels of alpha-linoleic acid, the plant-based form of omega 3 fatty acid. Flax seeds, too, are a notable source of omega 3’s. Most nuts are also high in fiber, which helps to stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent energy crashes; healthy fats, which feed fatty tissues in the brain; B-vitamins, which are critical to energy metabolism; and protein, which is necessary for building neurotransmitters.
Oatmeal contains B-vitamins that help your body metabolize energy more effectively. It also contains a lot of fiber, which digests slowly. The slow release of complex carbohydrates from oatmeal provides a steady source of energy for hours after consumption, promoting concentration and preventing the classic afternoon crash. Oatmeal is also a prebiotic food, meaning that it helps to feed the good bacteria in your gut that can affect mood regulation.
Oatmeal is also a great source of healthy carbohydrates. While the brain absolutely needs fat to thrive and requires protein for the synthesis of neurotransmitters, it also requires carbohydrates for energy. In fact, glucose is the brain’s primary source of energy. Diets that are low in carbs generate higher levels of anxiety, sadness, and anger.
The health benefits of eggs are good news for Big Islanders, as many Hawaiian meals contain egg. Eggs are high in omega 3 acids, and are particularly high in DHA. They are also high in tryptophan, a building block of serotonin, and are a great source of the healthy cholesterol that is necessary for healthy brain function.
Eggs are the world’s greatest source of choline. Choline is one of the building blocks of acetylcholine, which is critical to memory and learning. Choline also enables the production of citicoline, which increases blood flow to the brain and enables the brain to metabolize glucose for fuel.
The final item on our list, sea vegetables like nori and kelp are an often-overlooked source of nutrients that are critical to brain health. Sea vegetables are a critical source of taurine, a pre-cursor to the soothing neurotransmitter GABA. It is also a great source of the B-vitamin inositol, which strengthens the communication network between brain cells to support healthy cognition. It’s easy to add sea vegetables to your diet by consuming Hawaiian meals like sushi.
Inflammation has become quite the buzzword today, especially in the world of Ayurvedic nutrition. However, not everyone understands exactly what it means. Generally speaking, inflammation is a physiological response to a perceived internal threat, like a virus, or an injury. We all suffer from periodic bouts of acute inflammation throughout our lives. If you have ever had a fever, a swollen bruise, a red rash, or a cut, you have most definitely experienced an inflammatory response.
These inflammatory responses indicate that your body is responding appropriately to threats. So what’s all this talk about the dangers of inflammation? And what does it have to do with Ayurvedic nutrition?
The types of inflammation we have referred to above are considered acute forms inflammation. In other words, they are temporary reactions that the body discontinues once the threat has been eliminated. The dangerous form of inflammation is called chronic inflammation. Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation continues indefinitely. Sometimes chronic inflammation will present physically, like dermatitis. However, many of the effects of chronic inflammation are actually invisible to the naked eye. Chronic inflammation is responsible for a whole host of diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, asthma, and depression.
Ayurveda and Inflammation
In Ayurvedic nutrition, inflammation is actually the result of aggravated pitta. Of course, pitta is not inherently bad, and nor are any of the other doshas. Without our pitta energy, we would feel constant fatigue and suffer from sluggish digestion. However, too much pitta can lead to chronic inflammation, wherein white blood cells begin to attack healthy cells and tissues. The specific manifestation of chronic inflammation depends upon the systems that these white blood cells choose to attack.
Western medicine largely attributes chronic inflammation to poor lifestyle choices, like unhealthy diet, incessant stress, sleep deprivation, excessive exercise, and emotional trauma. In Ayurvedic philosophy, all of these are classified as either pitta aggravating or generally conducive to doshic imbalance. Stress and excessive exercise are particularly pitta aggravating, as are spicy or acidic foods and even hot weather. Thus, both Western medicine and Ayurvedic nutrition accept that chronic inflammation is the result of imbalance and overstimulation.
In order to control chronic inflammation, one must take steps to balance the pitta dosha by consuming cooling, anti-inflammatory herbs and foods. Below we discuss four Ayurvedic nutrition tools that will help you balance your pitta, reduce inflammation, and find relief from chronic illness.
Integral to Ayurvedic nutrition, ghee is one of the most healing and nourishing fats out there. Ghee is similar to clarified butter, but it is actually heated even longer to completely remove all of the milk solids. It is therefore safe for most individuals who are lactose or casein intolerant. Smooth, buttery, and just a little bit nutty, ghee lends personality to a whole host of delicious Ayurvedic recipes.
According to Ayurvedic nutrition, almost all oils and fats increase pitta, creating inflammation. Western medicine concedes, demonstrating that saturated fat—though not as harmful as we once thought—still contributes to inflammation. Oils that are high in omega 6’s, too, are considered pro-inflammatory. Things that may sound healthy like safflower oil or sunflower oil that are high in omega 6’s can actually be very harmful. Worse still, you can find omega 6 containing plant oils in almost every food product—even the “healthy” ones.
Ghee is low in omega 6’s and boasts far more benefits than these “natural” plant based oils. Firstly, ghee is considered one of the few cooling oils alongside coconut oil. Ghee is highly soothing to the digestive tract and can aid in the assimilation of fat-soluble vitamins. If you have leaky gut or other digestive problems, consuming ghee might help you address your nutritional deficiencies by facilitating nutrient absorption.
Ghee also contains several anti-inflammatory compounds. It’s high concentrations of conjugated linoleic acid and butyric acid, a short-chain fatty acid, support immunity and reduce inflammation. It also contains medium chain fatty acids that actually help burn belly fat. Because belly fat can generate toxic byproducts, working to combat it by consuming ghee is a great way to protect against inflammation.
Turmeric is incorporated into several Ayurvedic dishes, and for good reasons. Long before western medicine awakened to its unbelievably beneficial properties, Ayurvedic practitioners were using turmeric to treat all sorts of conditions.
Turmeric contains curcumin, an antioxidant that has virtually unmatchable anti-inflammatory powers. Curcumin even outperforms Aspirin and Ibuprofen in reducing pain! Used both topically and internally, turmeric works by inhibiting the action of inflammatory agents in the body. Unlike the many drugs used to treat pain in the west, turmeric has zero side effects. Plus, it tastes great!
Turmeric also works to tame inflammation by fighting inflammation-generating compounds and organisms. Turmeric is both antimicrobial and anti-carcinogenic. Bad microbes and toxic carcinogenic materials are both huge contributors to inflammatory conditions. Thus, consuming turmeric works to prevent inflammation by inhibiting the proliferation of microbes and carcinogens.
Ashwaganda is an herbal supplement that Ayurvedic practitioners have prescribed for centuries to treat countless illnesses. As an adaptogenic herb, ashwaganda works to prevent inflammation by aiding the body in managing stress. In controlling levels of the stress hormone cortisol, ashwaganda improves insulin sensitivity, regulates blood sugar, reduces abdominal fat, and tames chronic stress. It also simultaneously increases the activity of healthy immune cells while lowering levels of c-reactive proteins, a marker of inflammation.
Calming without sedating, ashwaganda can be used to treat conditions both mental and physical, from anxiety to nerve pain, depression to infertility. Ashwaganda is considered a tonic, and it contains natural steroidal compounds that reduce inflammation to control pain. It also contains withanolides to help fight and prevent tumor growth.
Almost all produce contains some form of antioxidants, compounds that reduce oxidative stress and, in turn, prevent inflammation. A diet dense in fruits and vegetables is absolutely critical in restoring doshic balance, cooling the body, and reversing chronic disease.
One tenet unique to Ayurvedic nutrition is that we should eat in-season produce. When our local climate changes, so too do the types of fruits and vegetables that grow. The idea behind eating in season is that these changes in plant production actually accommodate the bodily changes we experience as the seasons change. For example: warming types of vegetables like potatoes grow in colder climates whereas cooler foods like watermelon grow in the summer.
Plant foods contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that work together to promote health and decrease inflammation. Berries in particular contain phytonutrients with powerful antioxidant properties. Leafy greens contain detoxifying chlorophyll and help to clear the digestive tract of harmful substances and waste. Cruciferous vegetables are also particularly anti-inflammatory.
It is important to select your in-season produce in accordance with the needs of your dosha. If you are vata, you want to avoid fruits and vegetables that are too cooling or difficult to digest. Calorie dense, highly digestible produce like potatoes will benefit vata types. Kaphas, on the other hand, can tolerate a lot of raw fruits and vegetables.
Ayurveda is the science not just of nutrition, but also of lifestyle. Working to combat inflammation through diet is great, but it won’t be effective if you fail to make the proper adjustments in your lifestyle. Remember, Ayurveda is about getting to the root causes of disease. Inflammation is not a condition itself, but a symptom of an unhealthy lifestyle.
How can you go beyond dietary alternations to reduce inflammation? Look at your lifestyle. What is your diet like? How is your sleep? What causes you stress? Inflammation is oftentimes the result of poor diet and sleep, mental stress and worry, over or under exercising, and emotional turbulence. Doing things like meditation, pranayama, and other enjoyable or relaxing activities can actually be just as beneficial as changing your diet. Detoxification through exercise, massage, or cleansing is another way to combat inflammation. Whatever the cause of your inflammatory condition, Ayurveda has an answer.
Ayurveda: some readers are intimately familiar with it, and others may have never even heard the word. For some it conjures thoughts of kitchari and meditation. For others it invokes images of certain types of yoga poses. In our introductory blog, we hope to teach you about the core principles of Ayurveda and, by extension, share the ideas that give life and purpose to Bodhidevi.
In simple terms, Ayurveda is a wellness philosophy that originated in early Indian civilization over 5,000 years ago. Perhaps one of the first forms of holistic medicine, Ayurveda prescribes dietary and lifestyle changes in accordance with each individual’s unique body to promote health and balance. The practicing different types of yoga is one of Ayurveda’s primary prescriptions, the philosophy advocates various wellness practices.
But Ayurveda isn’t simply a diet or exercise regimen. It’s a philosophy designed to optimize every facet of the individual, including mind, emotions, and spirit. It encourages spiritual practice and engagement with nature in the interest of restoring our innate intimacy with ourselves and with the planet. When we practice Ayurveda, we become attuned to our most raw, pure, and divine form. When we become acquainted with the beauty of our innate self, we awaken to the interconnectedness of the self with all beings and energetic forces.
Ayurveda honors the sacredness of individuality.
Different individuals possess different physical and mental attributes. As each of our bodies and minds differ, so too do our nutritional, physical, and emotional needs. Ayurveda recognizes and respects each person’s bio-individuality and seeks to cater to the unique needs of each individual. Acknowledging that different people are prone to different diseases, digestive problems, psychological ailments, mental capacities, and energy levels, Ayurveda stipulates that understanding an individual’s unique body and mind absolutely must precede medicinal treatment.
According to Ayurvedic philosophy, we are born with a unique prakriti, or constitution. One’s praktiri consists of one’s unique balance of the three doshas, or energetic life forces. The first dosha, vatta, governs the breath, heart, nerves, consciousness, and happiness. The second, pitta, regulates appetite, digestion, nutrient absorption, intelligence, bravery, and drive. Finally, Kapha manages stability, order, grounding, growth, strength, energy, memory, empathy, water, and fat regulation. Different individuals possess different ratios of the three doshas, and thus have different praktiri.
It is essential to ascertain the nature of one’s praktiri before suggesting treatments or lifestyle changes, such as dietary changes of practicing different types of yoga or meditation. The balance between our doshas at birth is our point of homeostasis, the place in which our body thrives. Each individual possesses different needs in accordance with his or her praktiri. Therefore, according to Ayurveda, understanding your own inherent, optimal balance is the key to determining your medicinal and lifestyle needs.
Ayurveda inspires us to seek balance.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of the doshas. However, years of unhealthy, stressful living can cause doshic excess, which, in turn, leads to distress and disease. Excessive vata is conducive to anxiety, emotional limitation, constipation, dry skin, poor circulation, insomnia, and malnourishment. Excessive pitta can cause rage, envy, reflux, overheating, diarrhea, headaches, skin conditions, inflammation, and insomnia. Attachment, stubbornness, lethargy, obesity, oversleeping, depression, edema, and sinus infections all indicate too much kapha. In general, if you stray too far from your praktiri, you will experience doshic imbalances that will damage your health.
The objective of Ayurveda is to treat disease and promote health by balancing the doshas and restoring your praktiri. In order to do so, you must balance the gunas—the basic qualities of objects and life forms. The gunas include hot vs. cold, dry vs. oily, dense vs. liquid, soft vs. hard, and heavy versus light. Certain gunas are associated with certain doshas. For example, dryness is associated with vatta. Thus, if you are experiencing excessive Vatta, you want to consume more oily foods to balance your dryness. This notion is based on the Ayurvedic principle that like increases like and opposites balance. Restoring the gunas opposite to those which characterize your excessive dosha therefore establishes doshic balance.
Achieving doshic balance also requires living in accordance with the season. Eating in season not only means eating locally grown, in-seasons foods; it also requires that we balance the gunas of that season. For example: winter is characterized by excessive cold, so we should eat hot foods in the winter to balance that guna.
Ayurveda is a medicinal way of living.
Ayurveda seeks to promote the health of the entire person. Achieving doshic balance is not just a means of healing the body. Rather, Ayurveda understands that doshic balance is linked to mental, spiritual, and emotional health as well. Thus, Ayurveda does not simply treat ailments with food or supplements. Rather, it encourages us to lead a balanced lifestyle in accordance with our doshic make up. For some, that may mean getting more cardiovascular exercise and practicing deep breathing. For others, it may mean getting more sleep or practicing certain types of yoga. The objective of Ayurveda is help the individual discover the lifestyle patterns most conducive to health and happiness.
Oftentimes it is lifestyle choices in the first place that cause doshic imbalance. Restoring doshic balance and achieving svasthya, or the state of equilibrium in which we are most healthy, thus requires lifestyle alterations.
Though some lifestyle changes are relative to the individual, there are a few practices that Ayurveda believes are universally beneficial. Ayurveda unconditionally encourages the consumption of whole, nutrient rich foods. It also recommends regularly practicing certain types of yoga, meditation, and detoxification. It even encourages frequent massage to stimulate the lymphatic system, cleanse, and relieve tension.