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.