Support Your Immunity with Ayurveda
Whether it’s cold and flu season or the middle of a coronavirus pandemic, your body’s immune system is a significant line of defense against pathogens, second only to preventative hygiene (and in the case of a pandemic, social distancing). The beauty of the human body is that it’s naturally designed to be well.
Our bodies not only have physical barriers such as skin, tiny hairs, mucous and tears to keep germs out, but we also have a highly intelligent system of chemical and other physiological immune responses. These responses work to expel or destroy pathogens that try to make our bodies their new home.
What is Strong Immunity?
Strong immunity, or more specifically, having a strong immune system that protects you even if you get exposed to harmful bacteria and viruses is innately yours. Still, your immunity can become weak due to disease, poor nutrition or an unhealthy lifestyle.
According to Ayurveda strong immunity is a result of balanced doshas, healthy tissue formation, and adequate ojas.(1) Ojas is your overall immunity, vitality and ability to withstand stress.(2) The good news is that there is much you can do to strengthen and maintain a healthy immune system.
Good health, and thereby healthy immunity, starts with proper digestion. Ayurveda places a huge emphasis on eating well and digesting well because doshas first get out of balance in the gut, and the formation of healthy bodily tissues and ojas are the result of optimal digestion.
Signs that your agni (digestive fire) could use some support and attention include frequent belching, excessive gas, bloating, burning indigestion, reflux, loose stools, constipation or feeling heavy or sleepy after meals. Optimize your digestion by following all of the lifestyle recommendations below because they each impact your gut health.
Stay hydrated by drinking half of your body weight in water daily. Adequate water is necessary for nourishing all of your tissues and ensuring good elimination. In addition, eat a variety of vegetables (5-6 servings) and fresh fruit (2-3 servings) daily.
Ensuring that you eat a mostly plant-based diet with fresh (not frozen) produce, focusing on those that are in season, will give you the vitamins and minerals, prana (life-force energy), and fiber you need for optimal health. Minimize sugar and commercially processed foods, and eat according to your Ayurvedic constitution and current state of doshas.
How you eat is just as important as what you eat. When you take the time to eat calmly and with reverence — making mealtime a sacred act, you digest better. This is known as mindful eating.
Saying grace, eating at the table, and avoiding distractions such as the TV and intense conversation helps your nervous system to remain in a state of “rest and digest” rather than being stressed and in a state of “fight or flight”.(3) When you eat with mindful awareness, you are also more likely to chew your food thoroughly and not overeat, which further supports optimal digestion.
I was recently talking to a friend experiencing health changes, and I mentioned how stress could be a factor. She immediately replied, “but I haven’t really been stressed.” Now, being her long-time friend and knowing that she’s a go-getter, rise-to-the-challenge type, it didn’t surprise me that she didn’t view her life as stressful; however, given her ambition and busy lifestyle, I know that practically her entire life is full of stressors.
The thing to remember about stress is that it’s not only traumatic or drama-filled life events that put wear and tear on your body. Everyday rushing, eating on the go, intense workouts, sitting in traffic, multi-tasking and pushing through fatigue all produce stress because this type of lifestyle requires you to be “on” with senses heightened and stress hormones flowing, which all taxes your nervous, endocrine and immune systems. (4) What to do about it? Keep reading.
Sleep is a restorative process and allows your body to recover and repair itself from the wear and tear of living. Go to bed and wake up at the same times daily to pacify vata dosha, which is the dosha most responsible for the deterioration of the body. In addition, make a ritual of bedtime (think dim lights, a relaxing bath and a small cup of calming herbal tea) to set yourself up for restful sleep and sound immunity.
Not too little, not too much, but just right is the Ayurvedic approach to exercise. While Ayurveda advises against overly intense workouts, exercise is still an important part of a healthy, immunity-supporting lifestyle. Exercise helps to relieve stress, improve elimination, promote sound sleep, and support mental health. (5) Do exercise for 30 minutes five days a week that’s ideal for your mind-body type (e.g. Vata: walking, slow flow yoga asana; Pitta: swimming, short-distance jogging; Kapha: jogging, HITT aerobics). (6)
Pranayama, the practice of controlling the breath in order to affect prana (vital, life-force energy), has a powerful impact on the mind and body. This yoga practice can calm the nervous system and bring a sense of balance to the practitioner. Work with an experienced teacher if you’re new to pranayama, and start slowly with a few rounds of nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing).
Ayurveda and yoga have proclaimed the benefits of meditation for over 5,000 years. While modern scientific studies show signs of “proving” these benefits, all you have to do is try the practice yourself to experience the sense of calm and peace meditation can give you. Meditation’s calming effects on the nervous system eases feelings of stress and builds ojas (again, your overall immunity, vitality and ability to withstand stress).
Mind Your Mind
As co-creators of own reality, our thoughts have power. So use that to your advantage by believing in the strength and ability of your immune system. Using affirmations and actually believing in them, such as “I am healthy and strong” and “my immune system is highly intelligent and keeps out what doesn’t belong,” can help you to manifest that truth in your body.
Practice Daily Self Massage
Giving yourself a warm oil massage (abhyanga) is one of Ayurveda’s most nourishing self care practices. Daily, self-abhyanga does many things, including supporting a healthy immune system. Applying warm oil to the body pacifies vata dosha, calms the nervous system, invokes a sense of relaxation and builds ojas.
Try Herbal Support
Herbs can be helpful allies to your immune system. Rasayana and adaptogen herbs are known to be helpful, including: ashwagandha, tulsi, astragalus, and licorice. Chavyanprash, sitopaladi and talisadi are classical Ayurvedic formulas also useful for supporting healthy immunity.
Common culinary herbs including garlic, ginger and turmeric can be used in your cooking regularly for immune support. Echinacea and elderberry are also common immuno-supportive herbs. Remember, there’s a science and an art to using herbs. Not every herb is for everyone at any given time, so do additional research and get support. Look for more herbal education resources from me soon.
- Gearson, Scott (2016). The Ayurvedic Approach to Strong Immunity. https://www.gersonayurveda.com/giam-blog/2018/9/28/the-ayurvedic-approach-to-strong-immunity-by-scott-gerson-md-phd
- Lad, Vasant (2002). Textbook of Ayurveda: Fundamental Principles, Vol. 1, pp 208-209. The Ayurvedic Press.
- Crash Course. Parasympathetic Nervous System Crash Course A&P #15. YouTube, 20 Apr. 2013, https://youtu.be/qqU-VjqjczE
- Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130(4), 601–630.
- Mayo Clinic. Exercise: 7 Benefits of Regular Physical Activity https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise/art-20048389
- Mayo Clinic. How Much Should the Average Adult Exercise Everyday? https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/expert-answers/exercise/faq-20057916
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