Diet and Lifestyle in Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine

One of my favorite sayings in Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda is, 

"You cannot cure with a pill, what you have created with a diet and lifestyle."

Let's be clear, the word pill here includes both drugs and herbal medicines. Herbal medicines are drugs. They are not diet or lifestyle. 
Yes,  Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal medicines have far fewer and milder side affects that Biomed drugs, and, as in the case of the Chinese tonic herbs like Reishi or Cordyceps, and the Ayurvedic Rasayanas, like Triphala, are promotive of health and longevity. Plant, mineral, and animal based medicinea are our natural allies. Its normal to use them to treat disease and promote health. Even dogs and cats eat grass to promote good digestion or to provoke vomiting of fur balls and other undesired matter. 

On the other hand there is no such thing as a Biomedicine drug that promotes health, because  Western medicine's specialty and blind spot both is that it treats disease, but does not prevent it. And second, because all Western drugs, without exception, have pernicious side affects, something M.D.s tend to be in denial about, from the Liver toxicity of statins for high cholesterol to the erectile dysfunction of  drugs that lower blood pressure.

So while it is true that using Chinese and Ayurvedic Herbal Medicines to treat disease and promote health and wellness are part of a healthy lifestyle, they are not themselves the healthy lifestyle. A health promoting lifestyle begins with what and also how you eat and what and how you think and feel and act. It includes your daily and seasonal routines...

...everything from whether you let your long black hair dry after a shower before going out into the cold (I had a patient whose asthma got much better when she began listening to her grandmother on that one) to do you rush everywhere as if there were an emergency, needlessly raising your heart rate and blood pressure. 

There are things you cannot always control, like having to commute two hours each day to work, but what you can control is,  if you do have that unpleasant task, do you stress out while commuting or use the time fruitfully by doing "driving mindfulness meditation." (See this book on How to do Mindfulness Meditation. So, what is now called stress management, what Asians call Mental Culture, is a big, maybe the single biggest, aspect of a healthy lifestyle in Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.

Healthy Digestion: Mental Attitude. Joe: A Case Study 

While a healthy diet is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, a healthy diet is more than just the food you eat, but how you eat it. I know someone, let's call him Joe,  whose wife is a wonderful cook, who makes very healthy food, yet he has constant digestive issues. Honestly, I don't enjoy meals at their table. Because Joe is is so stressed out about what food is good for you and what is bad, he is such a control freak about watching what other folk are eating, (to make sure they don't eat too much of something that is bad for you, like a sweet food, for example,  and on top of it all, he gobbles down his food in a rather unpleasant, hurried fashion. 

So in his case, the digestive issue is a lifestyle problem, not a diet problem. Nothing about his diet itself could be corrected to solve his problems of heartburn and gas. A person of that type has a lot of fear based emotional stuff that gets projected onto food and that is dealt with, a bit pathologically, by trying to exert control where control is neither useful, nor necessary. This is so very common. Food is some deep stuff. A lot of us also grew up with family meal times that were stressful because of the dynamics between Mom and Dad. There are million variations on that theme. Overcontrolling military type Dad who made dinner very regimented. Smothering Mom who over fed. There are a million stories.

What would Joe want to do to correct his digestive issue by lifestyle medicine? First and foremost, in his case, Joe has to tackle the emotional, psychological component. Joe  would want to learn how to relax when he is not at meal time, so that he could bring that lesson to the table. He would really benefit from mindfulness meditation so that he could develop the skill of being comfortable with what he is uncomfortable with, so that he could begin observing how fearful he is around food and how tense he feels at the dinner table. 

Then Joe would be able to respond to that fear and intensity with courage and softness, or should I say courageous strong softness, and sit with the fear and anger with soft, gentle, non-judging awareness, grounding in mindfulness of breath. When you do that things start to shift and change. Fear, anxiety, anger, intensity soften and become less overwhelming, they have less influence and less power.

Basics of Healthy Digestive Lifestyle in Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine 

Organize You Meals So You Are:
  • Relaxed when eating. 
  • Give enough time for your meal
  • Stop eating when 3/4 full
  • Eat at the right times of day for your bodymind type (dosha)
  • Eat in accordance with the Seasons

Here are some simple guidelines for Health Digestive Lifestyle

  • Eat Silently, or While Listening to Enjoyable Music
  • Don't eat at your computer or desk or watching the news
  • Place less food on your plate so you don't overeat
  • Set aside enough time for a meal
  • Chew Your Food
  • Don't eat late at night.
  • Match your diet to your Ayurvedic dosha--Vatta needs snacking and small meals. Pitta may need larger meals. Kapha needs light food.
  • Match your diet to the season: Warming Foods in Winter, Grounding Foods in Autumn, Cooling in Summer, Cleansing in Spring
Healthy Lifestyle in Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine also includes matching exercise to your body mind type and to the season. And it includes how you deal with your emotions and stress as well, as in the case of Joe, above.

Healthy Lifestyle vs. Health from a Pill

Which leads to the following point. It is a bit duplicitous the way Health Food Stores and Vitamin Companies market health substances like Reservatol (the active ingredient in Red Wine)  based on incomplete, limited, science based research. For example,  a researcher describes that people who live in the Red Wine drinking Mediterranean basin, areas like Sicily and Sardinia have less heart disease.

They immediately want to isolate, which is what Western Science is good at, the "active" ingredient in something that should account for these positive findings. The problem is, that, for one thing, even if, which is a huge if, there was a benefit to drinking red wine that was a function of the "active" ingredient in red wine, there is zero research that shows a positive long term result for the consumption of red wine outside of the cultural and social context of Sicily and Sardinia, and there is even less research that demonstrates any benefit to taking Reservatol in pill form, unless you count the money the "nutritional" supplement company is raking in.

The sceintists that try to reduce an entire lifestyle to a single drug-like nutritional pill miss the forest for the trees, and along with the drug companies that finance their research, and the health food industry that exploits on it, reduce health to a commodity: as if health could come out of a bottle. Take this drug or take this health food store product like red wine capsule, to prevent heart disease, when in fact there is zero evidence that taking red wine extract reservatol does anything at all,because the studies of each and every case of unusual health and longevity in the rural Mediterrenean and probably anywhere else in the world world show that aside from the food eaten, there are key lifestyle characteristics in common.

Healthy Lifestyle: Are You a Human Being or a Human Doing

Studies of people living in Southern Europe in places like Sardinia, Sicily, and Greece, with low levels of heart disease show there is much more going on than the consumption of red wine.

1) lots of natural exercise in the fresh air like walking and gardening; not extremes like marathons or triathalons

2) fresh food with lots of variety including flesh foods, dairy products,  whole grains,  locally grown vegetables and fruit in season, and usually red wine or small amounts of hard alcohol like the cretan tsoukodia or italian grappa.

3) warm loving relationships with family values and extended friend groups that people sit on their butts with in cafes doing nothing with but talking, and drinking espresso. Another words, an unhurried sense of community.

4) living with animals and experiencing quiet and  darkness at night

Modern Diseases Are Diseases of Speed and Rushing

A very significant aspect of a Healthy Lifestyle common to all the societies in which people live long healthy lives is the fact that they don't rush. People take their time. They stroll. If you just leave the USA and come back you will immediatedly notice how funny we look rushing around like there is an emergency, when in fact we are just walking to the car to go to the store. And rushing puts your nervous system into the fight or flight response, which puts in motion, no pun intended, a whole cascade of negative physiological, biochemical, and hormonal events that lead to high blood sugar and high blood pressure. Remember, cancer is your cells gone crazy with chaotic over-replication. 

We Americans are, frankly, a bit crazy. We make everything, every small thing, into an emergency. We are impatient and easily frustrated. People rush from here to there, mostly there, and are so often not here. And it leads to a lot of unnecessary stress, irritability, anxiety, and, key point--high blood pressure. Very very bad for the heart.

You sit down to eat lunch and your thinking about  what you have to do later, rather than on how delicious the food is. The American business lunch meeting-- it is a horrible idea for digestion. High stakes important stressful negotiations while taking food?

The USA coined the phrase, "time is money," Only its not. Time is actually an imaginative construct. For Hindus and Latins time is a very different thing. You might say for Hindus it does not exist and for Latins its an elastic concept. 

Point being that in USA even time is commodified. And if you want a healthy lifestyle within the belly of a society whose structures specialize in creating illness, as opposed to those Mediterranean villages with low rates of heart disease and cancer, it takes some work. The diseases of modern living are disease of speed. The remedy is consciously slowing down, taking it easy, learning to relax, and having a regular meditation practice as part of your mental hygiene, as part of your healthy lifestyle

Healing is a process, and not a pill, is another favorite saying of mine. And there it is. 

Look at this article from today's Guardian about lifestyle. 

Alan Maisel, a researcher from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, said Acciaroli residents lived long lives despite some unhealthy habits and tendencies, including smoking and obesity. He said the elderly residents ate a lot of rosemary and oily fish, walked on hilly terrain and had active sex lives.
The thing is, no one can make any money selling the idea of walking on hilly terrain, or having an active sex life. Even the rosemary and oily fish, while great, (I certainly urge people to use lots of herbs which are full of digestive enzymes and anti-oxidants, and to eat plenty of oily fish, too) cannot be taken out of the context of the lifestyle people in this beautiful seacoast village in Sardinia have...

So is it the walking alone? Is it the rosemary and fish alone? Is it the sex life? Is it the sense of community and belonging? Is it the fresh vegetables and fruit?   Or is it the combination of all of the above.....

That is what Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda mean by Diet and Lifestyle, and its the totality that we need to cultivate, including and especially for us Americans, the management of how we respond to stressors....

Copyright Eyton J. Shalom, M.S., L.Ac. San Diego, CA July 2016 All Rights Reserved, Use With Permission Ayurveda, Acupuncture, and Chinese Medicine in San Diego