Based on a talk given for the California Association of Ayurvedic Medicine (CAAM) on May 2, 2016.
Spring is called Vasant in Sanskrit. This is a time when a lot of people suffer from allergies. If you think about allergy theory, the conventional wisdom about allergies is that it is something that happens to us. The narrative is that the pollen or fresh-cut grass or the blooming flowers that are causing irritation to our nasal passage and we can’t do anything about it. The consequence of buying into this narrative is that we feel victims of nature, largely helpless about our condition. Ayurveda takes a very different perspective and suggests that we are a part of nature. In fact any kind of "dis-ease" is the result of an imbalance when we are not in harmony with nature. In this worldview, we have control over our actions that can have some influence the health outcomes we get. In this post, we will examine how Ayurveda looks at allergies and what we can do about it.
Ayurvedic Theory of Allergies
At the outset, a foundational Ayurvedic maxim is that the same natural principles that apply in the macrocosm (or the external world that surrounds us) are also at play in the microcosm (the world inside our bodies). In this maxim, we can see that Ayurveda takes more of a physics-based approach to medicine (as opposed to a purely biochemical approach). This allows ordinary people to build intuition around their health.
Let's dive in to allergies now. Ayurveda has a fascinating approach to allergies that is rooted in evolutionary biology. Our metabolic rates differ depending on the season we are in. In summer, when there is much heat outside, the inner digestive fire (Agni) is lower, in order to keep the body in balance. In winter, by the same logic, when our external environment is cold, our Agni is much higher. This would lead us to conclude that our digestion is much stronger in the winter than in the summer, and this is what the Ayurvedic sages observed. They noted (Ashtang Hridyam, Sutrasthana, 3.7,8):
बलिन: शीतसंरोधाद्धेमन्ते प्रबलोनल:||७||
भवत्यल्पेन्धनो धातून् स पचेद्वाुयुनेरित:|
In winter, people are stronger, the alimentary tract vis-a-vis digestive activity becomes powerful because it gets obstructed (from spreading out) by the cold. It begins to digest the tissue (of the body) supported by vayu (vata in the body).
This notion connects well with evolutionary biology and implies that our bodies seem to support digestion of heavy foods in winter much better than they do in other months. However, if we are not aware of this, we might continue to eat in the same way in spring as we do in winter. When this happens, our body is not able to handle it. This is a primary cause for the symptoms that we call "allergy."
How does this explain runny nose or phlegm? The word cough arises from kapha dosha, which literally breaks down to earth and water, and in Ayurveda, runny nose or phlegm is associated with excess kapha. If we remind ourselves again of the physics-based approach of Ayurveda, we will find a logical explanation for this by remembering that nothing comes from nothing. The cough that seems to be coming out of our bodies out of nowhere must in-fact have formed at some earlier point in our body, especially in winter, when we were eating things without seeing an immediate reaction due to a strong digestion. The cough formed in those months did not flow out because, due to lower temperatures, their flow was constricted. In the spring months, as the temperature around us increases, the flow of the accumulated cough also increases, and we end up with a runny nose or phlegm.
Now, let's look at prevention and alleviation of allergies. Ayurvedic recommendations are usually individually-optimized, which factors in your constitution, medical history and current imbalances. Only after analyzing all of this can recommendations be given. The suggestions below are generally helpful but are not a substitute for a local Ayurvedic practitioner who will be able to customize the right kind of recommendations for you.
Based on an Ayurvedic understanding of allergies, it follows that our prevention activity must start in the early winter months (around October).
Nasal rinse or Neti with lukewarm water and Himalayan rock salt- the taste is like a tear drop. This should be done daily on empty stomach and in the mornings. After completion of Neti through both nostrils, it is important to do deep exhalations so no water particles remain the nasal passage. Neti is an Ayurvedic treatment that is now part of conventional medicine.
The Ayurvedic explanation for this treatment is that salt has a property called bhedan, or breakdown. It increases the digestive ability in your nose to breakdown the mucus. The Ayurvedic conception of digestion is not limited to your alimentary canal - the entire body is a living organism which is continuously interacting with its environment.
Nasya- Doing a warm sesame oil drop in each nostril on empty stomach. This can be done in the early evening if you are doing the Nasal rinse in the morning. Indirectly heat sesame oil (eg. oil in a steel bowl can be placed in hot water).
The oil should be warm to touch and not hot. Now sit in an inclined position and put a drop of oil in each nostril. Contraindication- should not be done during active cold or congestion.
Bitter greens- Introduce bitter greens (fenugreek greens/radish greens/kale) in the late winter.You could cook this in your soup. Once you approach March, then do cooked bitter greens for at least a week as a dish every day.
The bitter taste comprises of air and space elements, and these will help dry up the excess water which is accumulating in the body. The excess water rises also because of the rising temperature outside, in order to keep the body cool.
Nasal rinse or Neti
Steam – will help unclog your nasal passage
Decoction of ginger, holy basil and rock candy- Take a cup of water and add 2 leaves of holy basil/tulsi, 1/4th tsp. of freshly grated ginger and a few rock candies. Boil this to 1/4th cup and drink. If you don’t suffer from heart burn, you can also add 1-2 pounded black pepper balls to this.
Applying dry ginger powder paste (mix dry ginger powder with just enough water so it isn’t watery but more like a paste)- apply this paste to the nose and forehead until it dries and then wash it off. This particular remedy can cause burning on the skin, so apply with caution.
Drink warm to hot water whenever thirsty
Cut down on ghee and any fried foods during these 3 months (Mar to May)
Include spices like back pepper, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric in your diet
Include aged honey (raw, uncooked, local honey which is at least 6 months old) in this season
Exercise is a must in this season. At a minimum, a walk for 30 minutes on empty stomach is mandatory
Contraindications in Spring- avoid day time naps and eating Yogurt
Disclaimer: This is not a substitute for medical advice © 2016 All rights reserved