Bloated. Puffy. Stuffy. Stiff. Tired. Stressed. Sore.
Inflammation is generally perceived as a negative symptom or feeling, but not all inflammation is “bad.” Inflammation is the body’s way of responding to stimuli in the environment, which can be either physical—infections, toxins, or injury—or psychological—stress and trauma. “Good” inflammation is swelling or reactive pain that serves to protect the body from these types of stimuli in some manner. Inflammation becomes a problem when it is chronic—that is, when it has gone unmanaged and untreated for so long that it is difficult to alleviate. Ayurvedic principles for treating inflammation are gaining traction within the world of naturopathic health, and now’s the time to jump on board the anti-inflammation steam engine…especially during the indulgent holiday season.
Inflammation can be localized or pervasive, and generally coincides with swelling, redness, and hot and painful sensations as a physiological reaction to infection, injury, toxins, or trauma. According to Ayurvedic philosophy, inflammation is a manifestation of a particular set of pitta-type emotions we all feel: anger, aggression, judgment, frustration, disappointment, and ego, or competitiveness. The Pitta dosha—one of the three energies dictating the functioning of our body systems—is associated with the fire element and responsible for many functions that keep our body fire stoked to the right degree. When this fire element, the Pitta dosha, falls out of balance, it commonly manifests as inflammation in the body. Inflammation could occur in the muscles, joints, organs, or skin, and can be a result of any number of factors affecting one’s doshic balance.
To understand how to manage inflammation in Ayurvedic terms, it is most important to understand the role of the Pitta dosha, remembering that it is just one of the tri-doshic energies constantly in flux. Pitta responds to the Kapha and Vata doshas, which coincide more or less with the environmental conditions (seasons) as they are changing around us. (Read more about the doshas, and take a quiz to understand your personal doshic balance!)
The Pitta dosha serves a transformative role in the body within the small intestine, stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, blood, eyes, and sweat, and dictates:
- Digestion, absorption, and assimilation of nutrients
- Appetite and thirst (which is regulated by the release of hormones in the pituitary gland which also control sex drive and sleep patterns)
- Body temperature (by circulation of blood)
- Visual perception, cognition, reasoning, and understanding—intellect and concentration
The Ayurveda Experience provides a list of pitta-aggravating foods to avoid, noting that hot and spicy foods further aggravate the fire dosha. Step back and think of your body as a wood stove: put too little fuel into the stove, and you have no fire (too little of the Vata air element, or too much of the Kapha water element); put too much fuel into the stove, and you have an over-fire (too much of the Pitta fire element). Hot, spicy foods perpetuate the heat causing inflammation in the body, as do fatty, fried foods and salty, sour and pungent foods. When one consumes these types of foods, the body has to work harder than it already is to regulate temperature, to digest, and to damp down the fire that has been stoked too hot. To “damp down” the Pitta element, avoid the following foods:
- ALL coffee
- Oils: peanut, sesame, safflower, almond
- Sesame-based food items
- Fermented foods: vinegar-based items such as kombucha
- Nightshades: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, white potatoes
- Red meat
- Refined grains
- Citrus fruits (except lime)
- Allergenic foods such as gluten, soy, dairy, eggs, shellfish, nuts
To facilitate a more balanced Pitta, and enter that ideal “burn zone” where the Pitta fire element is burning smooth and easy, include the following foods in your diet:
- Coconut oil
- Ghee (clarified butter)
- Coconut water
- Aloe vera juice
- Pomegranate juice
- Bitter greens: kale, collards, dandelion root
- Sweet, juicy fruits: mango, apples, dates, avocado, red grapes, coconut
- Cooling spices: coriander, fennel, cardamom, fresh ginger, turmeric
Try out some of these Ayurvedic methods to support a more balanced Pitta:
- Explore herbal Ayurvedic treatments such as ginger, turmeric, boswellia, ashwaganda, bacopa, shatavari, or punarnava. Each of these herbs has direct effects to reduce inflammatory responses, and offers a variety of other nutrient and health benefits. Combine a couple of them and try out this Ayurvedic recipe for Golden Milk, and always remember that the best diet is everything in moderation.
- Practice self-care with a bath with essential oils or salts or with a massage using coconut or sunflower oil. Not only does taking a bath or getting a massage force one to slow down, but it also promotes blood flow, which can restore energy and flush out toxins, not to mention help with managing stress. (Note, though, that massage is not ideal in areas of acute inflammation. Do consult your health care professional if inflammation is severe.)
For a list of inflammation-reducing oils, see this article in Spirituality & Health.
- Get moving with restorative or yin yoga, a brisk walk outside, or some other mild from of exercise. Get blood flowing and breath moving to promote stress relief and positive endorphin release.
- Meditate and breathe. Taking the time—even if it’s five or ten minutes—to slow down and just be allows one to tune into body and mind. Practice the mantra, “So Ham,” which means in Sankskit, “I am that.” Inhale “So” and exhale “Ham” and focus on breathing in life, and exhaling negativity.
- Be selective and say “No” to what is not serving you. Maybe this means reducing or prioritizing your commitments to free your schedule for personal time and self care. Perhaps it means holding back from a second dessert and only eating food that is also medicine.
- Gather positivity. Spend time doing what feels good, with people and in places that make you feel good. Draw the positive and joyous near and distance the negative energy causing conflict, stress or pain.
- Spend time in nature soaking up fresh air and finding fresh inspiration for life. Studies show that experiencing nature, such as taking a walk in a forest, reduces the risk of inflammatory cytokines: proteins that are released in response to threat.