August 13, 2021 — 11:06 AM
What’s the secret to health? As a physician, I get this question, and other variations of it, every single day. As convenient as it would be to have the answer, there isn’t just one. This is because every person is unique, and therefore, the picture of “perfect” health for one person likely won’t be the same for the next. It’s also why aiming for balance is so much more valuable than aiming for perfection.
Ayurveda, to me, is a daily practice of “course-correction” to move toward balance. According to Ayurvedic principle, any symptom that shows up, however subtle or obvious, is a sign you’re moving away from balance. In other words, anytime you feel something emotionally, mentally, or physically, your system is asking you to pause and take notice.
While I can’t give anyone a quick fix for perfect health, I can offer these three questions to help assess your health from an Ayurvedic perspective, as well as some tips on how to “course correct” and move toward balance:
Routines are the foundation of Ayurveda and the foundation of health because they can allow the nervous system to relax. Routines tell the body and the mind what to expect next, and this shifts the nervous system from the stress response (sympathetic nervous system) to the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system). As a result, the cascade of hormones that trigger inflammation and inflammation-related diseases are also down-regulated.
Whenever possible, go to sleep, wake up, and eat meals at the same time most days. If you’re not doing this already, pick one to start with—ideally the one you’ll have the highest likelihood of success with because that will create positive momentum for more health-supporting habits.
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Food is medicine, and it should provide nourishment that supports health and vitality. According to Ayurveda, the digestive fire, agni, is a key to achieving optimal health. A strong digestion will take anything that comes into the system, keeping the nourishing parts it needs and eliminating the rest. A weak digestive fire will not be able to keep up with this process, and ama or toxins, will build up and overwhelm the system. The imbalance it creates can then lead to symptoms, illness, and even chronic disease.
Modern science refers to this as the enteric nervous system (ENS), aka the gut-brain axis, which are two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining the entire digestive tract. Although this second brain can’t “think,” it does communicate directly with your real brain, reinforcing what has been a part of Ayurveda teachings for 5,000 years: that overall health is directly linked to the health of the digestive system.
In fact, studies show that digestion maintains physical health and supports mental health. It also enhances immunity since the gut contains 70 to 80% of the body’s immune cells. In addition, the digestive system is home to the microbiome, which secretes serotonin and dopamine, which both influence mood.
Assess your energy level and how your body feels physically after eating a meal. When we don’t feel energized after eating or have GI symptoms such as constipation, bloating/gas, pain, acid reflux, “heaviness,” or loose stool, this is a sign that our digestive fire is weak and that our gut microbiome is out of balance. Consider giving your digestion a break with an intermittent fast for 12 hours. If your digestive system is constantly processing what’s coming in, it never has enough time to properly eliminate. By allowing your digestion to rest for 12 hours overnight, it has time to clean up what it doesn’t need. Ideally, have an early and light and easy-to-digest dinner by 7 p.m. and then don’t “break your fast” until 7 a.m. the next morning. (Always consult your doctor before fasting.)
Sunlight resets our circadian rhythms daily, and our circadian rhythm has a direct effect on the release of hormones within our bodies. The pineal gland, which senses light, causes a cascade of hormones that control everything from metabolism to growth to inflammation and mood.
In addition, the evidence that nature is healing has been shown throughout cultures and time. In Ayurveda, the flow of the vital life force energy, or prana, is essential for health. When we’re out in nature, we have direct access to the three main sources of this vital life force energy: the air, the sun, and the earth.
Spending time in nature is healing: It provides us with fresh prana that flows through our systems with every breath we take. So, take a walk in nature every day, try to spend at least 10 to 15 minutes outside. You’ll be in natural sunlight, which will reset your circadian rhythm, giving you access to fresh life-force energy.
There isn’t one secret to health…there are many. By asking yourself these three questions regularly, you can assess the symptoms that are showing up and then make a plan to move toward balance and find the secret to your health.