Ayurveda teaches a system
of three "derangements" or doshas.
The Sanskrit term actually means faults so you could say, as
a general rule, people have three different ways of going amuck.
The doshas are derivative of the
effect of the elements on what is called prakriti, what
we might call constitutional type.
In our Western culture in which nearly
everyone has had some surgery, such as tonsillectomies and appendectomies,
the vata dosha is deranged. Vata is composed of air and
ether and is what is called "wind" in Tibetan medicine. In moderation,
wind stimulates fire, but in excess it puts it out.
Exposure to radiation; certain types
of electrical equipment, including most computers, air conditioning
and fans; shock; wind; and seasonal changes can cause the air element
to become more excited and volatile. When this happens, it blows
out fire. One of the symptoms of this is an appetite which seems
to be insatiable but when food is put on the plate, the "patient" tends
to eat a few bites and then move the food around without really
making a very big dent in the serving.
Constitutional fire is responsible
for digestion. It is availability of fire that determines the production
of gastric juices: hydrochloric acid, bile, enzymes, in short the
caustic chemicals that are required for the breakdown of food and
its conversion into micronutrients that can be assimilated by the
body and bulk matter that needs to be eliminated. Whenever this
fire, called agni in Sanskrit, is weak, there is not enough
digestive power to metabolize food.
What this means is that an individual
could be on what might be touted as the world's most perfect diet
and still not be able to digest the food. Dr. Vasant Lad taught, "Sooner
or later, all food is cooked." He then drew exquisitely on
the blackboard and showed a cauldron in the abdomen.
Traditionally, Indian food has always
been prepared with a lot of heat. By Chinese standards, not to
mention the advocates of raw foods diets, Indian food is overcooked,
but it is very easy to digest because the food is predigested by
heat and spices. In my former days when I had a clinic, I often
met patients who had had chemotherapy and could hardly hold down
food much less eat without severe gastric distress. One particularly
memorable evening, I videotaped Dr. Smita Naram cooking dinner
for her husband and me. I asked her if she would prepare something
that was easy for patients on chemotherapy to digest because I
wanted to show them the video. She made a lovely meal in less than
twenty minutes and gave me the leftovers to take back to the clinic.
I want to interject that Ayurveda
frowns on reheating food, not because proper means of storage were
lacking in ancient India but because the vitality of food is lessened.
People with mucus congestion, the kapha type, are particularly
admonished not to reheat food. Nevertheless, the lucky patients
who had a chance to taste Smita's cuisine were astonished to find
that they were able to eat as much as they wanted without gastric
distress, belching, bloating, and pain.
The theory here is that when one's
digestive power is limited, one must get the needed nutrition from
foods that are easy to digest. The easiest foods to eat are fruits
because the acids that make fruit sour demand less hydrochloric
acid availability. The more tart the fruits, the easier they are
to digest. Over the years that I have been teaching this theory,
people grimace and make faces and protest that they do not understand.
I have asked, "What don't you understand?" Questions
are immediately asked about peaches and pears and bananas. While
fresh peaches and pears are usually digestible, they are not nearly
as sour as most berries, again not strawberries so much as raspberries,
blueberries, and gooseberries. I vividly recall one patient looking
at me with misty eyes saying, "I know I'm dying, but what
can I eat when it gets really bad?" I told her that grapes
and berries would remain easy to digest and the relief on her face
was something I will remember the rest of my life.
Besides fresh fruit, spices make
food more digestible. First, when food is cooked in spices, as
with a curry, the spices are absorbed by the food in such a way
as to almost predigest the food. Second, spices stimulate the secretion
of saliva and digestive juices. If people really do not have the
capacity to produce these conversion chemicals, the spices will
not excite what cannot respond to the stimulus, but the food itself
is nevertheless easier to digest. It is important to use spices
that have not been irradiated and important to cook the food in
the spices without burning the spices!
From this you can see that Ayurveda
is a world apart from the raw foods advocates as well as those
who think that a good meal is a low calorie bowl of lettuce with
some irradiated black pepper sprinkled on top.
More importantly, when food is not
digested, it is broken down by fermentation rather than digestion.
This produces gases which are both noisy and uncomfortable. Worse,
the gases are absorbed by other tissues of the body which become
both toxic and spastic. So, excess vata is muscularly and neurologically
In the days ahead, I will bring back
some of my own spice mixtures. One woman wrote me that her husband
would divorce her if she stopped using the Sky Mountain spices.
I have a seed blend and a curry powder that are specially formulated
to make meals more savory and digestible. This said, nothing can
help anyone who eats food that is indigestible. Top on my list
of such foods is everything that is prepared in a microwave. Such
food is responsible for a great deal of gastric distress.
For those who do have discomfort
after eating, try chewing on some fennel seeds and then spitting
out the pulpy part after swallowing the juice. Anything aromatic
like this will relieve gas. My carminative teas are also helpful
and I'll post some of them as soon as I get a chance.
Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2002