How to adopt an Ayurvedic lifestyle: immunity-boosting foods, health benefits and the first steps to take

Ayurvedic massages aside, the traditional medical system is a proponent of healing herbs and healthy eating patterns

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Immunity-boosting wellness practices and traditional cures passed down over generations have been in the spotlight in the wake of the battle against Covid-19. One such ancient form of medicine is Ayurveda, from the Indian subcontinent. It is thought to be potent enough to prevent, manage and even reverse certain diseases.

"Ayur" is the Sanskrit work for life and "veda" for knowledge. Followers and those in the know swear by Ayurvedic practices and insights, and say that the rituals, when followed diligently, can work wonders.

What is Ayurveda?

"Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old science, yet its principles have survived many pandemics and are still relevant today. With just a little effort, anyone can incorporate Ayurveda into their regimen for lifelong health and longevity," says Rekha Radhamony. The fourth-generation Ayurvedic doctor has a degree in Ayurvedic medicine and surgery, consults with clients around the world and practises at the Acharya Ayurveda & Panchakarma Hospital, which was established by her family in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

For newbies, the system can be daunting, given its multitude of herbs. Should it be approached when looking for a medicine to cure a particular ailment, or when adopting a healthier lifestyle in general? The answer, in a word, is both. Ancient texts mention relying on Ayurveda to maintain the health of the healthy (prevention) and treat the diseases of the patient (medication).

Never heat honey, not even to add in tea, nor substitute sugar with jaggery in milky drinks

"The rituals and routines are much like an a la carte menu, in that you choose what works for you and start with one routine at a time," says Radhamony. "Ayurveda treats the individual rather than the symptoms, and addresses the root cause of a disease to reduce recurrence or even cure it permanently."

Herb immunity

While many will be familiar with "abhyanga" or the Ayurvedic herb-infused oil massage, consuming the right food in the right way is the other cornerstone of this practice. According to Sonam Singh, an Ayurvedic wellness healer and yoga teacher, the most effective ritual people can adopt is to maintain a minimum interval of five hours between meals, and consume home-made, fresh food, free of refined grains and processed ingredients.

An advocate for healthy living and natural healing, Singh offers insights via Instagram on common ailments, with diet plans that follow the Ayurvedic way.

“Digestive issues such as indigestion, bloating, constipation, a sluggish metabolism and obesity, come up most frequently during my consultations, in addition to skin and autoimmune diseases,” she says. “If observed closely, these are all down to processed foods and a sedentary lifestyle; most problems arise from excessive consumption, frequent eating, refined food and late-night snacking.”

For weight loss, soak methi or fenugreek seeds in water overnight and drink the next morning

The Ayurvedic diet is instead known for its immunity-boosting recipes. Holistic health counsellor Suchita Kothari says: “All through the pandemic, my family and I have consumed a tea that can be made by combining fresh ginger, dry or fresh holy basil, cumin or coriander seeds, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, fenugreek and mint, which are all put into a pot with three cups of water and boiled for 10 minutes.”

Kothari, who co-founded Something Holistic workshops with Hansa Melvani, is certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners (AADP) in Ayurvedic nutrition. The AADP is the a first-of-its-kind concept in the US that integrates western concepts with Ayurvedic knowledge to study the effects of food and nutrition on the body, mind and consciousness. "For weight loss, methi or fenugreek seeds soaked in water overnight are great for disintegrating fatty lipids and for balancing hormones," Kothari adds. She and Melvani provide such tips as well as workshops via Instagram.

Busting food myths 

Delving deeper into the subject, what we now know as intermittent fasting is mentioned in age-old Ayurvedic texts, where it is known as lankhana (fasting), a treatment for healing gut issues, hormonal imbalances, and alleviating and preventing chronic diseases, says Radhamony.

On the other hand, she says, some traditions are occasionally misinterpreted or wrongly followed. "One common malpractice I have seen is having warm tea with honey. According to Ayurveda, honey changes its chemical composition when warmed and converts to 'gara visha', or slow poison, the continued use of which causes gut and digestive issues. Hence honey should never be heated.

Food is the real medicine and herbs are just for support. Ayurveda also recommends teas, fruit juices, fermented drinks, infused water, resins and salts

“Another common wrongdoing is using jaggery as a sugar replacement for milk tea. Milk and jaggery are considered ‘viruddha’’, or incompatible, foods, which lead to undigested toxic waste accumulation, or ama.”

Radhamony also debunks two common food myths surrounding Ayurveda. For one, it is not all about vegetarian food. "Ayurveda is a pure science, not a spiritual or religious system," she says. "Acharya Charaka, known as the father of Ayurveda, says that meat, if done right, works as food and as medicine. Chicken is considered unwholesome; the best meat, which can be had occasionally, is mutton, as it is cooling, builds tissues and muscles, and is excellent for improving strength and immunity."

Another misconception is that Ayurveda is all about herbs. "It is about our daily routine, so, yes, the food we eat, but also the place we reside, the air we breathe, the activities we perform – it is a whole lifestyle," says Radhamony. "According to Ayurveda, food is the real medicine and herbs are just for support. For instance, various conditions are treated using not just herbs, but also teas, fruit juices, fermented drinks, infused water, resins, salts and even alcoholic concoctions."

Start young to stay young 

So when and how should you embark on the Ayurvedic path? "If the goal is to age gracefully and live a long, healthy life one must start adopting these principles from a young age. Live according to the circadian rhythm, abide by Ayurvedic food combinations and practise pranayama [breath control], and you will see a huge benefit in your energy and immunity very quickly," say Kothari and Melvani.

Every step, no matter what it is and in what order you begin, will naturally take you to the next level of well-being

Singh, too, concurs that there are many benefits of adopting an Ayurvedic approach from a young age. She says it can help in developing and preserving vigour, that it can delay the ageing process and help you to maintain a disease-free body.

"If you want to start following an Ayurvedic lifestyle, begin with gradual changes. Listen to your body, let it guide you. Start with things that seem easiest and are most natural to you, and then observe the subtle effects they bring. Every single step, no matter what it is and in what order you begin, will naturally take you to the next level of well-being as your body adjusts," says Singh.

If you want to adopt an overarching Ayurvedic lifestyle, Radhamony says consider consulting an expert. Every person, she says, has a unique body type, or "prakruthi". Treatments and rituals are based on the prakruthi of a person, and a consultation can reveal what is best suited to them and their concerns.