What food (quality) [one] eats daily, so will [one] produce.
One of the key pieces of information that I look for when I receive hair and skin complaints is to understand the quality of the diet being eaten. Ahara or food is so important to health and well being that every good Ayurvedic text contains several detailed chapters on the nature of food, how food should be prepared, what kinds of food are compatible and incompatible, and what are the right timings to eat food.
The easiest and most long lasting path to good health, great skin and great hair is learning to eat high quality food that is suitable to your prakriti, in the right atmosphere and at the right time. This is enough in itself to give you good quality digestion, nutrient assimilation, proper excretion, proper tissue and organ repair, restful sleep and high energy.
The 7 Dhatus in Ayurveda:
The Dhatus or the tissues in the body perform the following functions: they satisfy and nourish the whole body (Prinana), they support life (Jivana), and they act as a lepa (cover or external layer). They provide Sneha for the body (produce natural oils and lubricate the body), and are supportive (Dharana) and filling in nature (purana) as they fill the cavities in the body. Lastly, the dhatus produce and sustain new life (garbhotpada).
Rasa is the first Dhatu in Ayurveda. In Modern Science, Rasa can be roughly translated into the lymphatic system. Ayurveda opines that Rasa is the first Dhatu created from Ahara (food) and Rasa in turn feeds and nourishes all other Dhatus.
Therefore rakta (blood) , Mamsa (Muscle), Meda (lubricant), Asthi (bones), Majja (marrow), and Sukra (semen and ova) are all nourished and fed from Rasa which in turn is nourished and fed by Ahara (food).
Therefore: If your Ahara (food) is of high quality, is the right kind for your prakriti, and is eaten at the right time, it can create high quality Dhatus which are able to support and nourish your entire body.
Transporting nutrients through the body: the System of Srotas in the body
The Srota system is a large, intricate well-designed pathway of channels, ducts and tubes through the body that help transport nutrients and other substances to all the parts of the body, especially where it is needed at a particular time.
We spoke about how Ahara (food) forms every single Dhatu in the body. After Ahara has been properly digested, the essence of Ahara forms Ahara Rasa dhatu. This is transported to the heart and then is transported through the circulatory system throughout the body.
Every dhatu carries Dhatvagni or “Fire” inside itself. This Agni helps each Dhatu selectively absorb the nutrients required from the Ahara Rasa Dhatu as it reaches each tissue. This nutrition is carried continuously by the Srotas to help nourish and form every single tissue and organ system in the body. The Srotas also transport Prana (oxygen), Anna (food), Vaari (water), and other dhatus like Mamsa (muscle) and Meda (fat).
The srotas are different from the arteries and veins which exist as part of the circulatory system. Charaka and Sushruta described the Srotas as having different shapes and as being interconnected to form ducts or tubes to transport nutrition through the body. Some srotas have external openings and open out into the skin and scalp. Others open out internally into the body. The big Srotas in the body open out into the eyes, ears, nostril, penis, vagina, mouth, and anus and into the scalp. In addition for women, there are 2 large srotas that open out through the breasts.
Besides these large srotas, there are also “Sookshma” or minute srotas. These Srotas open out into the Navel and through millions of minute pores on the skin.
The Rasa vahana Srota branch
According to Charaka, the Hridaya (heart) is the root of origin of the Rasavahana Srotas. The Rasa which is formed directly from digestion, absorption and assimilation of Ahara (food) is transported to the heart and from there divides into multiple branches and is transported through the body.
When we get oily, heavy, or cold food, or eat in excess or at the wrong time, there is a tendency to vitiate and block the Rasa vahana srotas. When the rasa vahana srotas are vitiated, we develop symptoms like aches in body parts (Angamarda), Vali (premature wrinkling of skin), Palitya (premature greying), etc.
In case of severe Rasa vahana Srota vitiation, Ayurveda lists many treatments Panchakarma therapy, Nasya (nasal medication), and other Ama removal mechanisms.
But the simplest way to ensure that your body is in good health and that it is getting nourished extremely well is by eating properly and well.
Pre-cooked, commercially processed food is not good food
We often see diets which are high in pre-cooked processed foods like breakfast cereal, instant oats, and frozen chapattis. These foods by their nature are cold, dry and hard and are extremely vata aggravating.
Because they have been half cooked or pre-cooked to shorten their final cooking time, these foods can be described as stale. In order to preserve them for a long period, these foods are also high in commercial preservatives and sodium.
If Ahara is the basis of good Rasa and dhatus, the Rasa and Dhatus derived by constantly eating cold dry, hard, stale ad salty Ahara can be well imagined. Eating this food frequently is guaranteed to cause internal dryness, a feeling of heaviness in the body, aches and pains in the limbs, dull aging skin and grey hair.
Old food is not good food
We hear many times from working women who plan ahead and cook meals in advance. Meals are often cooked 4 – 5 days ahead, frozen and then thawed and reheated just before eating. Nutritionally or calorifically we cannot distinguish between freshly cooked food and food cooked in advance, frozen and then re-heated.
However, Ayurveda says that the Prana Shakti or life giving ability of food reduces dramatically the longer it is stored. This means that a cookie with a shelf life of 6 months has dramatically less prana in the last month of its life compared to just as soon as it is manufactured.
Similarly, food cooked and eaten fresh has much higher prana shakti compared to frozen food, even if it has been cooked by you.
Ayurveda also considered old food as “guru” (heavy to digest), sita (cold) and believes that much higher Agni is required to digest this food. If your food needs digestion of a very high order to digest, it means that all your body’s resources are going towards digestion alone. Constantly misusing digestive Agni this way will weaken it over time.
Do remember that many restaurants serve re-heated stale food where a part of the cooking has been done in advance. This explains why many of us feel sluggish and tired after eating out, as this food is taking all the reserves in our body to get digested.
Stale food, even if cooked well and using good quality ingredients can create ama in the body and deplete the body’s strength. A simple fresh meal is preferable to an elaborately cooked meal eaten stale.
Food must be timed according to the sun to ensure it is digested and assimilated properly
Ayurveda lists certain timings in the day for getting up, doing exercise and eating. Agni is what helps us digest food in the body. The source of Agni for the entire world is the Sun which is pure, manifested Agni itself. Therefore, Ayurveda says that our digestive power increases with the intensity of the sun and decreases as the sun sets.
When the sun is at its peak, during noon, Ayurveda says our digestive ability is the strongest. So lunch is best eaten at noon, and this is the meal which can be the heaviest meal of the day. Breakfast is recommended to be had during the gentle sun time, between 7:30 – 9:00 am. This should be a reasonable meal – not too difficult to digest and not too light either.
The timing of Dinner and the foods eaten at Dinner is crucial
The most sparse meal of the day should be Dinner as this is usually had after sun set. Ayurveda tells us that the later our Dinner is, the more and more difficult it becomes for the body to digest food. So an early dinner which is as close to sunset as possible and which has a gap of atleast 2.5 hours before sleeping is considered ideal.
As our digestive ability is the poorest at Dinner, Ayurveda recommends we eat light, easy to digest foods that we have been eating for a long time and are accustomed to. Hard and difficult to digest foods like non veg foods, breads, curd, etc are best avoided at Dinner. Dinner is also the time when the body cannot tolerate stale food – so eating out is not advisable at this time.
If your digestion is sluggish and your nutrient assimilation is weak, you can help by eating Dinner as close to sunset as possible. Easy to digest foods like rice, mung dal and seasonal vegetables are good at this time. The use of warming spices like jeera, dhania and black pepper can support digestion at this time.
Giving a gap of atleast 2 hours between dinner and bedtime not only ensures your food is well assimilated, it also renews the body’s natural repair and maintenance process, ensures high quality sleep and proper waste elimination as well. If your digestion is sluggish, a small glass of warm water just before sleeping can further support toxin elimination as well.
Dinner is a crucial way to control your health and support your body. Make sensible choices about your dinner timings and what is eaten. This can greatly help your skin and hair goals as well.
The best Ahara is food that is suitable for your Prakriti
Depending upon your prakriti, it is important to choose Ahara that suits you. Ayurveda believes that opposites bring balance and eating food similar to your prakriti can aggravate your doshas.
So if you have a pitta based prakriti, it is important to avoid pitta increasing foods like chillies, tamarind, jaggery, sesame, curd, and other heat increasing foods. Sour, fermented foods like idli and dosa also aggravate pitta. Pitta based prakritis usually have oily skin, thinning hair and can also experience premature greying.
If you have a vata based prakriti, it is important to add ghee, and easy to digest food like rice and mung dal into your diet. Wind increasing foods like maida, fried food and vegetables like potatoes, cauliflower, should be reduced. Cold, hard and dry foods like instant cereal, instant oats, instant noodles, baked goods are also best avoided or severely reduced. Vata based prakritis tend to have dry hair, hair that breaks easily, dry and rough skin that is dull, difficulty sleeping and shutting down the brain and sometimes joint aches as well.
If you have a kapha based prakriti, then it is important to reduce sweet and sticky foods like cakes sweets, pastries, curd, sweet fruits, and food that spikes your blood sugar like cookies, instant and ready to eat foods, fried foods, oily foods, etc. Sweet and cold foods are a no, like iced coffee, fruit juices, ice creams and milkshakes. Eat strictly with the sun to support your digestion, and eat light, easy to digest, freshly cooked, warm food.
Some kinds of food are suitable to no one. They are best avoided
Ayurveda lists many foods that are considered Vriddha ahara (incompatible foods), that cause ama when consumed by anyone. The list of Vriddha ahara is growing with several of our modern day practices. I’ve listed a few of these foods below along with a few food related practices to avoid:
- Tea, coffee after meals – Both are very acidic on the body, are diuretic, aggravate vata and cause heartburn and improper assimilation when drunk after a meal
- Dessert after meals – dampens Agni, prolongs digestion, and causes ama. The best time to eat dessert is at the start of the meal when Agni is at its highest. A warm freshly cooked dessert is preferable to a stale, cold dessert.
- Fruits after meals – for similar reasons as point no.2. Certain fruits are very acidic, and many fruits increase bloating and vata especially when eaten after a heavy meal
- Milk just before sleeping at night – Milk is considered nourishing to all dhatus in Ayurveda. However, it is also considered heavy and difficult to digest. Milk should always be consumed on an empty stomach with enough space and time given for digestion. Milk just before sleeping is sure to cause ama and toxin build-up in the body
- Maida: Maida is guru (heavy to digest), and considered abhishyanadi (sticky) in Ayurveda. This means that frequent consumption blocks the minor srotas which carry nutrition to all the dhatus. Maida also spikes blood sugar very quickly and is usually loaded with preservatives and causes bloating after eating. This is best avoided.
- Curd: Curd is considered guru (heavy to digest) in Ayurveda and it aggravates both Pitta and Kapha. Curd is also considered abhishyanadi (sticky) and frequent consumption blocks the minor srotas which carry nutrition to all the dhatus. Only the physically strong and the young can digest curd properly. It is best avoided by most people or consumed very infrequently. Frequent curd consumption can cause adult acne, stubborn dandruff and premature greying.
- Source and Prepare milk properly before consuming: Ayurveda opines that Milk is nourishing and cooling to the dhatus when prepared properly and boiled so that it is light and sticky. We will elaborate in much more detail in a later post on this. Ensure you source native cow’s milk as much as possible and that it is hormone and antibiotic free.
Choose high quality food for good health
The best and wisest investment you can make towards your health is choosing extremely high quality food. As we have seen the food you eat directly is converted into the tissues of your body, so it makes sense to pick really good quality food. Here are some recommendations:
- Pick organic, unsprayed fruits, vegetables, lentils and grains – pesticide and spraying levels are extremely high in India. Organically grown produce is the safest and best for you
- Avoid commercially processed, packaged foods as much as possible: all these foods are loaded with sugar, salt and a high amount of preservatives and come with a very long shelf life (which means the food is stale and contains no prana).
- Avoid ready to eat food even if the label says organic. A can of “organic soup” we examined contained a high amount of salts and had a shelf life of 6 months. No homemade soup can last that long. This will simply hasten hair greying, so avoid at all costs.
- Eat vegetables and fruits that are in season only: Produce that is grown in season contains nutrients and qualities that are compatible with the qualities of that season. For example, certain nuts are available only in winter. Nuts are a storehouse of nutrients and are also high in Pitta – a food that is strong in Pitta is of great use in winter where the Sun’s power is weak and the cold pulls down the digestive fire. Eating a mango in winter makes no sense for example.
- Eat Local as far as possible: All the Ayurvedic texts opine that local herbs and medicines work bests for its natives. Therefore the local “thandu keerai” is far better for you nutritionally compared to the fancy bag of Quinoa on the supermarket shelf. When in doubt, choose local.
- Source dairy extremely carefully – preferably native and hormone free: Ayurveda advocates small amounts of carefully chosen and prepared dairy for nourishment of the body and good health. It is critical that this dairy is sourced from a cruelty free and hormone and antibiotic free operation. Dairy sourced from native cows is considered much more health giving in Ayurveda.
- Cook with Love and positivity – food absorbs emotions especially negative emotions
- Eat in peace, preferably with selected company. Pay attention to your food and put away the phone and the newspaper
- The Ayurvedic texts consider the sharing of food to be the highest form of spirituality. Consider making a meal for a friend who is ill, or donating a meal or volunteering to cook and serve food for someone else.
Eating: a sacred ritual
Ayurveda considers food as “Prasad” an offering given to you by God. Food has the capacity to build your health or break it down depending upon how you look at it. To build your body, give you better hair, and great skin, food is the fundamental basic. What you put into your body is what your body assimilates and uses to nourish itself and grow.
Apart from what we choose to eat, and when we choose to eat, how we choose to eat is also important. Ayurveda advocates eating privately and in atmosphere of peace and quiet. Eating is considered a private and meditative act and one that builds the body and its health. Eating in the right atmosphere where your body can enjoy its food and assimilate it is also critical.
Cook your food and serve it with love. Eat with joy, with innocence, with wonder and gratitude. Eat in meditative silence and visualise your food healing your body as you eat it.
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