By Lois A. Leonhardi, author of The Essential Ayurvedic Cookbook
Autoimmune disorders occur when your body’s cells fail to recognize each other and mistakenly start attacking friendly cells. If left untreated, this eventually creates inflammation and can cascade into a variety of diseases such as: Rheumatoid arthritis (most prevalent), Lupus, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Guillaine-Barre Syndrome, Psoriasis, Rosacea, Multiple Sclerosis, Myasthenia Gravis, Vasculitis, Hashimotos Thyroiditis, Type 1 Diabetes-mellitus or Polymylesitis.
The disease and progression varies per individual. Non-specific symptoms at the onset of the disease process make diagnosis a challenge from a western/allopathic medical perspective (since allopathic medicine relies on symptomatic treatment). When the inflammation is wide-spread and the disease is well-established, allopathic medicine starts treating the symptoms (inflammation). But providing symptomatic relief is merely suppressing the cause and complicating the underlying condition.
Ayurveda (pronounced: eye-ur-vay-duh) is a holistic system of medicine from ancient India that is still used today. It treats the root cause of disease rather than the symptoms, and has a long history of success. To discover the root cause of auto-immune disorders, Ayurveda looks at what caused the inflammation and works backward: inflammation is caused by lack of celluar recognition/communication; the breakdown in communication is due to cells being covered with “ama” (a Sanskrit word meaning toxic waste product); the ama is caused by low “agni” (a Sanskrit word meaning digestive strength or fire) and low “ojas” (a Sanskrit word that can be translated as immunity). So the root causes of auto-immune disorders are low agni and weak ojas. Therefore, the Ayurveda treatment focuses on restoring agni and ojas.
Treating the root causes: low agni and low ojas
Treating the root cause involves kindling agni and supporting ojas. Ama is the result of internal and external factors such as: undigested food, unprocessed emotions, stress, environmental factors and external factors (i.e., trauma, drugs, chemo exposure, radiation and smoking). Ama can show up very early in an Ayurvedic examination and is easily treated with diet and lifestyle modifications. Even if the ama has advanced to the point of symptomatic expression (i.e., inflammation and disease), the Ayurvedic approach of targeting the removal of the root cause – the ama – can bring success.
Similarly, ojas can also be strengthened with diet and lifestyle modifications. By strengthening agni and ojas, you can naturally reverse the disease process and restore balance to the system.
The Ayurvedic Perspective on Predisposition to Autoimmune Disorders
Ayurveda is premised on the belief that each individual has a unique constitution. In order to maintain optimal health, each individual should adhere to food and lifestyles that are specifically balancing to them. The approach is preventative, but if a person becomes sick then holistic remedies are employed (i.e., natural herbs, yoga, meditation and breathing exercises).
Ayurveda classifies individuals into three main constitutions or “doshas” – vata, pitta and kapha. Everyone is a combination of all the doshas, but typically one or two will dominate. When “vata” is dominant, the individual is like the wind and may possess the following qualities: light, cold, mobile, irregular, dry, rough, creative and prone to anxiety. When “pitta” is dominant the individual is like fire and may possess the following qualities: hot, sharp, intense, quick to anger and prone to inflammation. When “kapha” is dominant the individual is like a combination of earth and water. They may possess the following qualities: stable, dependable, cool, calm, heavy, slow, compassionate and prone to diabetes and high cholesterol.
Autoimmune (AI) disorders manifest in different parts of the body and at first glance, appear to be unrelated. But the common factor underlying all AI disorders is inflammation. With our basic understanding of the doshas, we can see how individuals with a pitta-predominant (fire) constitution would be prone to AI disorders.
But pitta doesn’t act alone. Vata dosha is also involved. When vata dosha increases in the presence of high pitta, it’s like wind blowing on a fire. The inflammation spreads throughout the body. Eventually, the fire deposits in a weak spot and the disease progresses at that site.
Signs of Inflammation
Heat, redness, swelling, loss of use, feeling anxious or frightened, improper sensory coordination (craving sugar even when we know it is bad), severe fatigue, abnormal stress, depression of thoughts, emaciation of tissues, dull complexion, joint connective tissue disorders, diminished motor functions are all signs of inflammation in the body.
Natural Treatments for Autoimmune Disorders
Lifestyle medicine prevents 80% of all chronic disease. Early detection and prevention is the best solution for AI disorders. Consult with an Ayurvedic practitioner annually to make sure everything is in balance, or sooner if you are experiencing any signs of inflammation. If you have been diagnosed with an AI disorder, an Ayurvedic practitioner can customize a treatment plan based on your unique situation and time schedule. You can find “pitta pacifying recipes” in “The Essential Ayurvedic Cookbook”. In the meantime, here are some simple remedies you can try on your own that are both preventative and restorative.
Lifestyle stressors such as your job, family, partner or money should be managed. The immune system is always eavesdropping on your thoughts. Thoughts spread to every cell in your body where they lay dormant and can erupt later. Negative thoughts have the potential to create disease. Here are some ways to clear negativity from your cells and your life:
Meditation or Prayer
Pray or meditate before eating to reset agni and clear negative emotions. This helps to balance our emotions and balanced emotions keep agni strong.
Practice cooling pranayama such as shiitali breathing during times of anger to cool your body and clear your mind (consult with a certified yoga or ayurveda practitioner).
Practice yoga or other gentle stretching to restore movement, open energetic channels and offset the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
Food should be seasonal and anti-inflammatory with an emphasis on pitta pacifying foods.
Choose Foods Wisely
That means, avoid triggers and heating foods such as: chilies, garlic, wheat, tomatoes, corn, beets, cheese, milk, mushrooms. Emphasize and add cooling foods such as: cilantro, coriander, coconut, fennel, watermelon and leafy greens.
Prepare Foods Properly
Practice Ayurvedic food combining rules to ensure optimal digestion. The general guidelines are:
i. Eat fruit alone
ii. Don’t heat honey
iii. Don’t eat cheese with meat, fish, tomatoes or wheat.
Eat At Appropriate Times
Eat your largest meal at midday when the digestive fire is strongest. Eating between 10 am – 2pm is optimal for digestion. Eating your evening meal at least 3 hours prior to retiring for the evening helps prevent acid reflux and promotes complete digestion. Ideally, the evening meal is eaten at sunset (or soon thereafter).
Support Digestion Naturally
Walking after meals and sipping cardamom tea supports the digestive process.
Sleep is the most powerful anti-inflammatory. The body resets with sound sleep. Our bodies work on circadian cycles that are predominantly influenced by the light of the sun and moon. Getting to bed early (by 10pm) and rising early helps to restore our factory settings.
Addictions to alcohol, nicotine, drugs, etc. make the body dependent on unhealthy chemicals which are toxic to our system and damage vital organs and our immune system. Seek out a professional counsellor to make lasting lifestyle changes that will eliminate addictions.
Consider food as medicine. The following household spices have been used successfully in ayurveda for thousands of years in prevention and treatment of disease. There are no side effects, but you should always consult with your doctor or Ayurvedic physician before making any changes to your diet.
Fresh ginger root cleanses the digestive system of ama by restoring agni. Add to soups, stews or make ginger tea.
Turmeric powder is anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It is best to use in its natural form (powdered or root) rather than taking capsules. When cooking with turmeric, heat it in fat (ghee or oil) to release fat soluble properties; combining it with black pepper will boost the effectiveness by over 1,000%.
Pippali is anti-inflammatory and an immunomodulator. It improves bioavailability of other herbs by enhancing agni and thus clearing ama. It tastes similar to crushed black pepper and you can sprinkle on your food in the same manner as you would season a dish with black pepper.
Panchakarma is a Sanskrit word meaning five actions. It is a holistic cleansing and rejuvenating program for the body, mind and consciousness. Consult with an expert Ayurvedic practitioner to determine if panchakarma is right for you.
Ayurveda is based on a holistic view of treating an individual. By understanding the interplay between the body, mind and consciousness, an Ayurvedic practitioner can help the patient restore balance with diet and lifestyle changes. The speed at which the body returns to balance is entirely dependent on the commitment of the patient to make change. But by targeting the root cause of the disease, Ayurveda can eradicate most illnesses completely.
About Lois A. Leonhardi
Lois A. Leonhardi is a Certified Ayurveda Practitioner, educator and author of “The Essential Ayurvedic Cookbook”. She trained under Dr. Lad at The Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico and in Pune, India. She has over 20 years of experience in holistic studies including Ayurveda, yoga and Buddhism. By following the ancient practice of integrating yoga with Ayurveda, she will help you achieve balance in your modern life. Located in LA, she sees clients in person or via Skype.
This article is intended to be educational and not a substitute for the skill, knowledge and experience of a qualified medical professional dealing with the facts, circumstances and symptoms of a particular case. Because each person and situation is unique, the author urges the reader to check with a qualified health-care professional before following any advice in this article. It is the responsibility of the reader to consult a physician or other qualified health-care professional regarding his or her personal care.