Build Immunity Year-Round: An Ayurvedic Approach To Gut Health
Jun 29, 2020 04:57PM
By Neeru N. Kaushik
The Ayurvedic approach to health and wellness, in any season, is based on maintaining a balance of body, mind and spirit according to one’s own body constitution (dosha). Ayurveda believes that we are all composed of the five universal elements—fire, water, earth, air, space—grouped together to form our doshas: pitta (fire/water), kapha (earth/water), vata (air/space). Keeping these natural elements in balance is key. When in balance, our immune system is strong and can combat pathogens; when out of balance, our immune system is weakened and illness can result.
One of the most important keys to maintaining balance, and keeping the immune system strong, is making sure our digestion is working efficiently so that the nutrients from the food we eat are properly absorbed. This is especially true during the change of seasons when the weather patterns are shifting and our bodies need to adjust to that shift. Ayurveda identifies the shift from winter to spring as kapha, from summer to fall as pitta, and from fall to winter as vata. The characteristics of vata (cold/dry) and kapha (cold/wet) are especially ripe for the transmission of viruses that cause colds and flu. But summer conditions, or pitta (heat/dry), could lead to weak digestion, and so vigilance is warranted. We can help our bodies adapt to these shifts by choosing foods appropriate to the season. Remember the rule of thumb: “Like attracts like,” so choose opposite foods to balance the seasonal doshas (e.g. for summer, choose cooling foods; for winter, warming foods).
For a pitta-pacifying spring/summer diet, choose foods that reduce heat and are water-rich. Include fruits such as apples, pears, plums, berries, pomegranates, papayas, pineapples, peaches, mangoes and melons—especially watermelon. Vegetables might include artichokes, asparagus, zucchini, tomatoes, celery, cucumbers, baby bok choy, baby beets and green leafy vegetables, along with bitter greens like escarole, dandelion leaves or broccoli rabe. Staying well-hydrated with water or herbal teas will combat dryness. Adding a half spoon of ghee to food will ensure internal moisture as well. Coconut water with essential minerals like zinc, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and sodium is an essential electrolyte that will keep your system balanced. Adding coconut to vegetables or curries will also rejuvenate. Ginger, with its anti-inflammatory properties, will help ease overheating and ginger tea will soothe stomach discomfort. Avoid hot and spicy or deep-fried foods and raw cold foods or drinks as they impair digestion.
Raw cold foods are difficult to digest and will interfere with the digestive fire causing the undigested food to become toxic. Stored toxins (ama) prevent nutrients from reaching the cells and weaken the body’s immune function. Avoid frozen, processed, canned or packaged foods as they also are harder to digest and contain preservatives and other ingredients that create toxins.
To adopt a vata- and kapha-balancing diet, choose foods that are warming, cooked and easy to digest so that the digestive fire (agni) will not be dampened. Warming foods to include are root vegetables, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, beets, carrots, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts. Hearty soups and stews made with these foods, as well as steamed or stewed green leafy vegetables, will help to build the immune response. Adding warming spices – such as garlic, ginger, turmeric, black pepper, cumin and cayenne—will stimulate the immune system further and help to burn off toxins as well. Baked or stewed fruits—such as apples, pears, plums—with some cinnamon will add a boost of antioxidants. Whole cooked grains (quinoa, amaranth, millet, barley), legumes (beans, peas, lentils) and ghee (easy-to-digest fat) will boost immunity.
It is also advisable to eat your main meal during the middle of the day, when digestion is strongest, and finish eating at least two hours before bedtime to allow your evening meal to be completely digested. Eat slowly and chew thoroughly to aid digestion and increase absorption. Throughout the day, sip warm water and warming teas, such as ginger and turmeric, to keep the digestive fire strong.
Immunity is also affected by lifestyle. Reducing stress goes a long way to enhancing immune function. Some stress-reducing guidelines are adopting a regular routine for meals and other activities, making sure you get enough sleep (retiring before 10pm is best before the pitta time of day gives you a second wind), exercising to increase circulation and incorporating a regular meditation practice.
If you do feel a cold coming on, or succumb to the flu, try these 10 tips to ease the symptoms and re-build your immunity:
- Gargle with salt water, try oil pulling, use a neti pot or nasya oil for your nostrils to reduce bacteria and clear passage
- Sip hot water, tea with warming spices, and clear broths to hydrate, decongest and cleanse
- Boil water with a ginger-eucalyptus mix and steam nostrils to clear passages and congestion
- Steam clear vegetables: bok choy, celery, kale, asparagus, leeks to hydrate and add nutrients
- Avoid sugar and mucous-producing dairy, which interfere with the immune response
- Sit in the sun, even if you are indoors, to increase vitamin D3
- Take a warm bath with baking soda and warming essential oils (ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, pine, cedar, clove, juniper) to stimulate circulation
- Meditate, as silence calms the nervous system and increases immunity
- Get plenty of bed rest as sleep is restorative
- Cultivate a practice of gratitude, as negative emotions reduce immunity
The Ayurvedic therapy of panchakarma is especially beneficial as a seasonal detox to help the body adjust to these seasonal shifts. A qualified Ayurvedic practitioner can suggest an individual plan for each dosha profile so that the immune system can be kept at an optimal level.
Dr. Neeru N. Kaushik, ND, MS Acup, MS, MA, is a naturopathic physician at the Institute for Ayurvedic and Naturopathic Therapies, 805 Kings Highway East, Fairfield. For more information, call 203-331-9111, email [email protected] or visit AyurvdicInstituteCT.com.