How Diet Affects our Immunity? An Ayurvedic Perspective

Diet effects on immunity

How Diet Affects our Immunity? An Ayurvedic Perspective

Ayurveda is an ancient health science that talked about importance of health preservation way before modern health care discovered immunity. Ayurveda text state “Swasthasya Swasthya rakshanam aturasya vicar prashmanam cha” meaning “it is not only important to treat an imbalance but it is important to preserve the health of a healthy individual”.  Health preservation can be done when a person has high disease resistance and excellent immunity.

Ayurveda talks about immunity in terms of increasing Bala i.e. disease resistance, strength, immunity and Ojas.  Three types of Bala are described in Ayurvedic texts. These being Sahaja Bala, Kalaj Bala and Yuktikrut Bala. Sahaja Bala pertains to innate immunity or acquired at birth. Kalaj Bala pertains to immunity acquired over time. Yuktikrut Bala is acquired with proper diet and lifestyle. One of the best ways to increase Bala and Ojas is through consuming proper diet.  Ahara or diet, its taste, smell, color should be such that it has a pleasurable effect on the mind and senses.  Foods consumed should be pustivardhak (nourishing), medhya (increasing intellect) and balya (increasing strength and immunity). Ahara should contain foods belonging to all the six tastes which are sweet sour salty pungent bitter and astringent to ensure a balanced diet. A lot of importance is given to freshly cooked meals. The fresher the food the better it is for digestion also it reduces the Ama (undigested metabolites or toxin) formation.

Milk and ghee are considered as balya, medhya and ojo vardhak (increasing Ojas). Ghee has been researched in modern science for its health benefits. Studies done on ghee show that Ghee has high content of butyric acid which has anti-inflammatory properties and thus immune-boosting in nature.  Spices and herbs such as Turmeric, Ginger, Cloves and cinnamon have anti-inflammatory properties and thus are considered immunomodulating. Research study by VS Yadav et al which looked at the Immunomodulatory effects of curcumin found that curcumin (phytochemical in Turmeric) inhibited cytokine production, which is considered one of the markers of immune response. Another research article by MT Sultan Et al talks about ginger and garlic and their function in immunoboosting activity. This also confirms the importance of using these herbs as part of the diet for providing support to our immune system.

An important aspect in Ayurveda about increasing Bala and boosting immunity is the concept of ‘Rasayana’. In Ayurveda Rasayana is defined as “Yat Jara Vyadhi Nashanam Tat Rasayanam” meaning that “which fights aging and disease”. Amlaki (Indian gooseberry), Guduchi (Tinospora Cordifolia), Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) and Licorice (Glyrhiza Glabra) are considered as ‘Rasayana’. Research done on these plants have also shown to have immunomodulatory effects. Chyawanprash an herbal jam primarily made of Amlaki and mixture of different Ayurvedic Herbs is recommended for daily consumption in Ayurveda. A research study by A Madaan et al talks about immunoprotective property of Chyawanprash.

Ayurveda also emphasizes that diet should be consumed in proper quantity. Ahara that is deficient might cause Vata imbalance and consumption in excess quantity of Kapha increasing foods could cause Agni (digestive fire) to slow down or Agni mandhya. If Agni or person’s digestion is not proper it can lead to Ama formation. Accumulation of this Ama overtime could result in decreased immunity overtime and hence predisposition to certain disease states. Another important aspect of Ayurvedic diet is the concept of virudhha ahara or incompatible foods. Virudhha ahara rules have been explained further with examples. Desha (place) virudhha i.e. consuming oily heavy food in humid marshy areas. Kala (Time) virudhha i.e. consuming dry cold foods in winter. Dosha Virudhha i.e. consuming food not compatible with a person’s dosha or prakriti.  A person with predominantly Kapha prakriti consuming sweet, oily heavy foods that could lead to Kapha imbalance. Sanskar (preparation method) virudhha: Deep frying foods in used or reheated oil. Veerya (potency) virudhha i.e. consuming food that are hot in nature with foods that are cold in nature. Samyoga (combination) virudhha i.e. consuming milk and fruits or sour foods together. In fact Ayurveda states that certain food combinations may lead to more Ama formation and may affect the formation of tissues. One should avoid eating cooked and uncooked foods, heating honey, cooking milk and meats, sweet and sour foods, milk and bananas and cold water and beverages before during and after meals.  As stated earlier consumption of these incompatible foods over time may lead to allergies and thus affect overall immunity of the body.

If we think about these Virudhha ahara rules and our modern day foods, most fast foods, smoothies made with yogurt and fruits and salads made with raw greens and cooked meats may fall under this category. In fact the research article by IA Myles which reviewed impacts of the Western diet on immunity talks about impact of diet high in omega 6 fatty acids, salts and simple sugars on being pro inflammatory thus affecting immune response. Diet that is high in complex carbohydrates fiber found in fruits and vegetables has shown to lower inflammatory response.

Ayurveda has not only provided us with ways to boost our immunity but also provides proper instruction on diet as well  . Along with food including herbs and spices in our daily diet also provides with the necessary boost to the immune system. Lastly using ‘Rasayana’ as part of self-care may also have beneficial health effects.  Thus Ayurveda teaches us not only how to eat, when to eat, what to eat, but what more we can include in our daily diet to boost our immunity.

References:

  1. Agnivesha. In: Charaka, Dridhabala, Charaka Samhita, Sutra Sthana, 26/81-103. Reprint. Vaidya Jadavaji Trikamaji Acharya., editor. Varanasi: Krishnadas Academy; 2000. p. 149.
  2. Mukund Sabnis. Viruddha Ahara: A critical view.Ayu. 2012 Jul-Sep; 33(3): 332–336. 10.4103/0974-8520.108817
  3. Myles IA. Fast food fever: reviewing the impacts of the Western diet on immunity.Nutrition Journal. 2014;13:61. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-61.
  4. Yadav VS, Mishra KP, Singh DP, Mehrotra S, Singh VK. Immunomodulatory effects of curcumin.Immunopharmacol Immunotoxicol. 2005;27(3):485-97.

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