Science is confirming many of the beliefs about digestion that ayurveda has made for centuries
This winter’s round of colds and flus was a brutal one, characterized by illnesses that dragged on well past the average seven-to-10-day cold duration. I watched my coworkers drop like flies around me, and before I knew it, I, too, was spending January in bed. Between delirious cat naps, episodes of Louie, and futile doses of vitamin C, I spent a lot of time contemplating my immune system (or apparent lack thereof). When my energy finally returned, I rejoiced. Then I went to see Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner Manish Chandra of Santa Cruz Ayurveda for advice on how to better fortify our immune systems against viruses.
Ayurveda is an ancient modality; a holistic approach to healing and prolonging life that has 5,000-year-old roots planted firmly in India and Nepal, where Chandra grew up. From an Ayurvedic perspective, our bodies react to the winter cold by creating excess mucus, Chandra says, which serves as a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. At the same time, our “digestive fire” declines in response to the cold.
“Our main digestive fire is in our gut,” says a relaxed but impassioned Chandra, in his office on Cedar Street. “So that’s why in Ayurveda we focus squarely on food as medicine. If your gut is clean, you will not get sick.”
While western science has only recently caught on that around 80 percent of the body’s immune cells are actually located in the gut, the Ayurvedic assumption is that if we can keep our digestive fire at full blast in the winter months, we are, among other things, assimilating all of our nutrients well, and thus enabling our cells to operate at an optimal performance.
So how do we keep the uh, gut fire stoked? There are numerous Ayurvedic methods of increasing immunity, from daily hot-oil massages (sounds terrible, really) to herbal supplements and hot drinks. The most important approach is refreshingly simple: “By eating warming foods,” says Chandra. This means eating seasonally; grounding root vegetables, stews and soups in the winter, for instance, and also incorporating warming spices into your diet. It also means avoiding cold foods that will “put out the fire” in the gut, allowing sickness in.
In the weeks following our talk, I replace my normal breakfast (a piece of fruit on the way out the door, a smoothie made with frozen berries), with Chandra’s recipe for a “medicinal” power breakfast.
“Oatmeal has, from the Western standpoint, solid fiber,” says Chandra, adding that fiber helps absorb the body’s excess sugar—a known food source for bacteria—and it also directly feeds the intricate microbiology in the gut. “From the Ayurvedic standpoint, it is one of the most important vata-reducing foods.” (Vata is one of the three biological bodily humors in Ayurveda, the others being kapha and pitta.)
But, not just any oats will do: you need the classic or steel cut kind, not the instant, says Chandra. And turmeric—a warming, digestive herb, and possibly the best natural anti-inflammatory in the world. Purchased from the bulk bins at New Leaf, the turmeric turns my oatmeal a vibrant yellow, but its subtle nutty flavor camouflages into the dish, which feels like eating a warm hug, and keeps me full until the afternoon. Chandra’s oatmeal also includes ginger—an anti-inflammatory with antibacterial and antiviral properties—flax seeds, for optimal fiber, and a spoonful of ghee, or clarified butter.
“Ghee has this property called butyric acid, which actually the intestinal lining also produces. It’s very digestive and detoxifying in nature,” says Chandra.
“Studies have shown that the adequate production of butyric acid supports the production of killer T cells in the gut, and thus supports gut-related immunity,” writes Dr. John Douillard, a teacher at the Mount Madonna Institute’s College of Ayurveda, where Chandra received his MA in Ayurvedic Medicine.
Since the digestive fire mimics the sun, and is strongest in the middle of the day, Chandra recommends eating the largest meal at lunch. Lunch can include a protein, greens, and the healthiest grains: quinoa or brown rice. Dinner should be soup or stew, or something light.
Herbs and teas for boosting the immune system include Sitopaladi tea—which is actually like a powder containing pippalpi fruit, banslochan stem, cardamom seed and cinnamon bark—as well as Chyawanprash, which is made from 20-30 different herbs and spices and is available at local health food stores. “This is highly antioxidant and contains solid vitamin c,” says Chandra.
Adequate sleep—ideally a full eight hours—is also needed for optimal immune function, for which Chandra prescribes a nervine tonic before bed; and I soon find myself drinking a warm glass of milk with turmeric, cardamom, and nutmeg before bed every night, which is like the liquid version of a warm hug.
“Our bodies are nothing more than a reflection of nature, of what is going on outside,” says Chandra, who will soon begin a regular talk series on ayurveda with guest speakers, free and open to the community. “Someday ayurveda will be like yoga in the West, once people know about it, but right now, people have a hard time just saying the name.”
That’s ah-yer-veh-duh to you.
For more information, visit santacruzayurveda.com. PHOTO: Manish Chandra at his Santa Cruz Ayurveda office downtown. A certified ayurvedic practitioner, he gives monthly workshops at New Leaf on the Westside. CHIP SCHEUER