“What is her name?” you think frantically to yourself as you see an acquaintance walking towards you at a social gathering. She waves and you put a big smile on your face, hoping that by the time she arrives you’ll remember her name saving you from yet another embarrassing social encounter.
You blame your heavy schedule, the overwhelm from having so much responsibility, your lack of sleep. It’s all taking a toll, contributing to growing anxiety and even a little depression as you wonder when you can take a break from it all.
Then there are your digestive concerns, the gas and bloating after what seems like every meal, and your growing list of food sensitivities. Maybe I’m just getting old, you tell yourself, figuring you’ll just have to put up with these and more as you continue to age.
All of these symptoms may seem unconnected to each other. More likely though, they are all signals alerting you that your body is in a state of chronic inflammation, a condition that impacts your health every single day.
And while you can take medications and supplements to help manage the symptoms, chances are good they do not treat the underlying cause.
Fortunately, there is a holistic approach to wellness that can help. Called Ayurveda, it is a 5,000-year-old approach that treats all of you—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—so you can understand and take action on the root causes of your chronic inflammation.
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
Inflammation is critical to your body’s reaction to injuries and to foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. When your immune system works like it is supposed to, it steps in and handles these threats. In an acute situation, inflammation is a sign your immune system is doing its job properly.
Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work this way. Maybe you have a toothache that comes and goes due to an underlying low level infection your immune system can’t quite control. When conditions like this become chronic, they can pose an even greater threat to your body. Other times it is a buildup of toxins that promotes chronic inflammation. The toxins from the food you eat, the water you drink, and the air you breathe get buried deep in your tissues where they are hard to dislodge.
Toxins can also be due to a buildup of undigested food thanks to weak digestion or eating what doesn’t agree with you. Ayurveda calls this buildup ama—considered to be a root cause of disease.
Sometimes your overwhelmed immune system gets activated by what appears to be an outside invader, but is in fact your own tissue. The result is an attack on your body causing auto-immune conditions. The fairly common Hashimotos thyroiditis, in which your immune system attacks and eats away at your thyroid, is a good example.
Stress is another cause of chronic inflammation. We’ve all experienced that sinking feeling in our bellies when something unexpected and/or what we view as negative happens. Your boss calls you in and tells you to clear out your desk, one of your kids is in an accident at school, you stay up late night after night in order to finish a job due a week ago. Psychological stress is an assault on your system just like chemicals in your food and water, and the result can be chronic inflammation.
Whatever the cause, chronic inflammation is a serious condition related to a host of health challenges from heart conditions and arthritis to diabetes and cancer.
What are Symptoms of Inflammation in the Body?
Symptoms of chronic inflammation are many, and chances are good that at one time or another you have experienced them all.
Pain. This is a big category that takes in everything from sore joints to abdominal pain to headaches. While these symptoms are often associated with aging, the real cause may be that at age 60 you’ve had many years of toxin buildup. Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle changes often bring about dramatic improvements.
Skin conditions. The skin is our biggest organ and heavily involved with detox. If it’s red, itchy, and/or oozing chances are you’re experiencing a form of inflammation. Examples include everything from eczema, acne, dry skin, and itchiness to persistent rashes.
Digestive issues. How often do you experience symptoms such as heartburn, bloating, or gas? Every time you eat? Just after a heavy meal? What about other digestive upsets like constipation, diarrhea, or food sensitivities? All of these can be inflammation-related and subject to reversal when you take a more holistic view of your health.
Fatigue. Sleep issues are associated with inflammation and becoming increasingly common. The CDC reports that over 35 percent of adults suffer from short sleep duration (less than seven hours per night). Studies show loss of sleep, even a few hours a night, is associated with higher levels of C-reactive Protein, a marker of inflammation. At the same time, the energy your body spends on dealing with inflammation contributes to your persistent fatigue.
Mood disorders. Anxiety and depression may be due to inflammation in the brain. Your brain fog is likely also inflammation related. A direct gut-brain connection is well established. For example, 90 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin is made in the digestive tract. This means healing the gut can help reduce inflammation in the brain.
Weight gain. Inflammation impairs the working of key hormones causing them to signal your body to store more fat, especially around the abdomen. At the same time, excess weight promotes inflammation setting up a vicious cycle.
How to Reduce Inflammation in the Body
Advice on reducing inflammation usually focuses on diet as a way to manage the symptoms. The Mediterranean Diet featuring fish, fresh vegetables, and olive oil is frequently suggested as a good option. In some cases the importance of sleep and getting enough exercise are also mentioned.
Ayurveda takes a different approach. Instead of focusing on symptoms of inflammation, it stresses bringing balance to your whole system: body, mind, emotions and spirit. If the body is in balance, it can heal itself, regardless of the cause.
When you work with an Ayurvedic practitioner, their first step is to identify the elements (air, ether, fire, water and earth) that make up your constitution or dosha (vata, pitta or kapha). Everyone has all of the five elements but the proportions vary making each of us unique.
The doshas guide us to the food and lifestyle choices that keep us healthy. And while some recommendations may overlap with a particular type of cuisine, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet in Ayurveda.
For example, while you and your best friend may both suffer from forms of depression and digestive upsets, your Ayurvedic treatment recommendations may be very different.
If your dominant dosha is vata, characterized by air and ether, your diet may include apples, so long as they are cooked.
Raw foods are cold. When they are cooked they become warming and can offset the coldness of someone with a vata imbalance. On the other hand, the cooling quality of raw fruits can be balancing for a pitta characterized by water and fire.
A kapha, on the other hand, is uplifted by raw apples but the heaviness of their earth and water constitution is not enhanced by avocados, which are recommended for vata and pitta.
The state of your digestive tract is another important variable. It is weak digestion that leads to the build up of the toxin ama and prevents nutrients from reaching their destination in your cells.
Certain foods are by nature inflammatory and difficult to digest. These include red meat, refined sugar and flour, and processed foods (including highly processed vegetable and seed oils).
In contrast, the best choices are always fresh, seasonal, and local foods when they are available.
The right dietary choices will help heal your digestive tract and free you from the burden of toxins that have been accumulating for years, contributing to chronic inflammation.
Finally, Ayurveda looks very broadly at digestion. When it comes to understanding inflammation, the way you “digest” experiences, especially if they trigger emotional responses, is just as important as how you digest food. And these can vary widely from individual to individual. One person may read a scary news story and have an anxiety attack triggering an inflammatory response. For someone else, the same story could energize them to leap into action to make the changes that help pull them out of a depression.
Lifestyle and Stress Management
Ayurveda’s holistic approach also means looking beyond the physical body for additional clues about how to restore balance. While physical symptoms are critical, what’s going on in the mind is just as important.
Viewing the relationship between stress and inflammation is one way to measure the impact of the mind on health—good or bad. And managing stress is essential for restoring the balance that is a hallmark of good health. Some powerful ways to do this are
- Breath work. Research at Yale and Harvard demonstrates the effectiveness of the SKY Breathing practice (formerly the Happiness Retreat) for eliminating stress and improving well-being. This simple process is easy to incorporate into a daily schedule and is used successfully worldwide by hundreds of thousands of people.
- Meditation. The value of daily meditation for stress reduction has been well established by many studies.
- Exercise. Studies show there are few stress related conditions that don’t benefit from regular exercise.
Feel the Ease
Imagine a life free from anxiety about forgetting names or important appointments. Or, a life where you don’t need to worry about every little thing you eat, fearful it will cause unpleasant gas, acid reflux, constipation, or bleeding hemorrhoids. Imagine the joy of getting up in the morning without joint pain, or being able to revel in the pleasure of a yoga class or a hike in the woods; a life where your blood sugar and cholesterol are coming down instead of going up, and your doctor decides you can ease off some of your medications.
When you experience the restorative power of Ayurveda, you’re benefitting from a holistic system that understands there is a right diet for your unique constitution, and which gives you tools to help you live a less stressful life, free of the chronic inflammation that may have been plaguing you for years.