‘Tis the season! No, not that season. Cold and flu season. How are you supporting your immune system? Most people know to load up on Vitamin C, and maybe you also take an immune-boosting elderberry syrup or other remedy? Whatever your approach is this season (and year round!), consider developing an understanding of the immune system according to Ayurveda, the science of self-healing.
“Yatha pinde, tatha bramhande”
This Sanskrit mantra, used often in Ayurveda, translates roughly to “the human is a reflection of the brahman (the universe).” In other words, the body is a reflection of the universe, or the internal environment of the body is always reacting to the external environment.
In order to identify the difference between a healthy and unhealthy immune system, one must first understand how to define the main goal of a “healthy” immune system.
Ayurvedic practitioner Dr. Vasant Lad asserts that a state of health exists when:
- Agni, the digestive fire, is in a balanced condition
- The tridoshas—vata, pitta, kapha—are in equilibrium
- The malas—urine, feces, and sweat—are produced at normal levels and in balance
- The senses are functioning reliably
- The body, mind, and conscious are in harmony and working as one
When one of these factors is out of balance, one’s state of health is compromised, immune system weakened, and body more prone to illness. Most notably, imbalances of the body and mind often manifest as psychological and physical pains. The Ayurvedic approach to immunity and overall health, therefore, encourages practices that support the integration of body, mind, and, conscious.
One’s constitution, or doshic balance, dictates how susceptible one is to illness. An imbalance in the doshas affects natural body resistance, or the immune system as it is governed by the internal biological fire, agni.
Immunity for Vata Types
Those of the vata humor are prone to “diseases” (literally meaning lack of comfort or ease) originating from the development and buildup of toxins primarily in the large intestine. They are prone to experience gas, arthritis, lower back pain, sciatica, paralysis, and neuralgia. Vata types tend to suppress fearful emotions, which aggravates the immune system (agni).
To best maintain a healthy immune system, avoid foods, living habits, and environments that incite fear, nervousness, and depression. Engaging with factors indicative of one’s prominent dosha will cause further disturbance to the balance required of a healthy immune system.
Immunity for Pitta Types
Those of the pitta humor are prone to diseases originating from the development and buildup of toxins, ama, primarily in the small intestine. They are prone to experience gall bladder, bile, and liver disorders, hyperacidity, peptic ulcer, gastritis, and inflammatory diseases such as skin rashes. Pitta types tend to express angered emotions to aggravate the immune system.
To best maintain a healthy immune system, avoid foods, living habits, and environments that incite feelings of anger, hate, and jealousy. Seek the contrary to support reestablishment of balance in the doshas.
Immunity for Kapha Types
Those of the kapha humor are prone to diseases originating from the development of ama primarily in the stomach. They are prone to experience tonsillitis, bronchitis, sinusitis, and congestion in the lungs. Kapha types tend to express feelings of envy, greed, and attachment, aggravating agni.
To best maintain a healthy immune system, avoid foods, living habits, and environments that incite possessiveness, greed, and attachment. Imbalances in the tridoshas spark the creation of toxins, ama, that are circulated throughout the body and settle in weak areas. These weak areas harboring ama affect the proper function of agni, the digestive fire responsible for the diffusion and assimilation of nutrients throughout the body. When agni is not functioning appropriately, metabolism and digestion are affected; agni is present in every cell of the body and maintains the body’s auto-immune response.
The Immune System in Ayurveda
According to Ayurveda, the whole of the immune system (agni) is composed of three main components: prana, tejas, and soma/ojas. These three subtle energies of the immune system function in balance. Prana is the life force, the energy present throughout the universe, enkindling agni as it most closely embodies the vata humor. Tejas is the subtle energy derived from agni, also understood as inner radiance and associated with the luminous character of the pitta humor. Soma or ojas is the vital energy that integrates mind, body, and spirit, and it is the essence of the kapha humor.
To maintain the balance of these three subtle energies that reflect balance in the tridosha, it is crucial to protect the immune system during especially vulnerable times. Some of the most notable times at which it is important to tune in with the immune system include:
- During seasonal (exterior environmental) change
- Times of recovery
- Before/during stressful or anxiety-inducing experiences
- Shifts in routine (beginning of school year, during holidays)
- Cold and flu season
- Times of rejuvenation or bodily cleansing
- During significant life transitions: marriage, divorce, pregnancy, death, birth, new job/house/pet, etc.
Ayurvedic approaches to protecting one’s immune system are pervasive in all aspects of daily life and best integrate mind, body, and conscious. Considering your dosha (take the quiz here!), you may want to shift some patterns in the following aspects of your life:
- Diet: Are you eating foods that are easy to digest but not overcooked/leached of nutrients? Are you eating at a regular and appropriate time? Follow Michael Pollan’s advice: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Choose seasonal foods, don’t eat too much, and incorporate immune-boosting spices (see below!) and foods like leafy greens, juicy fruits and whole grains. A healthy immune system can start with a balance of essential vitamins and minerals. Try out this Ayurvedic immune-boosting recipe for “Ojas Balls”!
- Ayurvedic, immune-boosting spices: Turmeric, neem, holy basil (tulsi), guduchi, ashwaganda, amla, ginger, garlic, cumin, and black pepper. Cumin burns ama. Black pepper clears channels for ojas to flow properly. Turmeric, ginger, and neem are anti-inflammatory. Garlic and amla aid in digestion. Guduchi, holy basil, and ashwaganda are used to boost the immune system, alleviate stress, and treat other ailments and diseases of the body.
- Stress: Are you exposing yourself to unnecessary stresses in your day-to-day activities? In this fast-paced world, it is easy to overcommit and leave little time for self-care. Let something go if you must, or dedicate time to de-stress with mindfulness, exercise or creative activities.
- Sleep: How do you prioritize your sleep? Are you getting enough, and consistently? Sleep is when the body assimilates nutrients and when most cell growth occurs. Aim to get 7-8 hours each night to support optimal immune health.
- Daily routine: Do you have one? What’s getting in the way of developing one? Prioritize sleep, de-stressing activities like exercise and mindfulness, and then build your daily routine accordingly.
- Exercise: How much are you regularly exercising? Take a walk; vigorous activity is not required. Just get the blood flowing to encourage the body to push toxins out of the body.
- Mindfulness: What is your mindfulness practice? Are you regularly practicing yoga, meditating, doing martial arts, journaling, going for a walk? Find a way to integrate the conscious with the mind and body, and cultivate presence, awareness, non-judgment...and overall immunity.
Source: Lad, Dr. Vasant. Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing. Lotus Press, 1984.