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Boosting Immunity with Ayurveda – Overview

Summary: Ayurveda provides a range of simple, low cost strategies to help improve our immune system. Links to detailed resources on building better immunity through the Ayurvedic use of herbs and spices, lifestyle and diet choices, strengthening Ojas, detoxification programmes and the practice of meditation, yoga and pranayama.

Key strategies used by Ayurveda to help us build a strong immune system

Boosting Immunity with Ayurveda – Overview

In the West we have become used to ‘quick-fixes’ to solve our health problems. If we have a headache we take a pill to quickly get rid of it. If we have an infection we take antibiotics. Modern Western medical science offers quick-fix and convenient solutions to many common health problems. However, when a new viral or multiple-antibiotic resistant bacterial disease surfaces, Western medicine is left searching for a solution. Finding new antibiotics, or developing a vaccine, can take many years to test and effectively deploy. The good news is that the ancient science of Ayurveda offers simple, unique advice on how we can boost our immune system and therefore prevent many diseases – without any intervention from modern medicine.

Ayurveda is empowering too. Instead of waiting for ‘them’ to develop a new generation of antibiotics or vaccines, we can take steps today to start improving the strength of our immune system.

In the West we use many ‘battle’ analogies when it comes to tackling disease. For example, we often talk about ‘fighting off’ a disease, ‘doing battle’ with cancer, etc. Ayurveda does not see these descriptions as being helpful. Rather, it views health promoting strategies in terms of purification, and rebalancing of our natural systems. It uses the analogy of a field – if the field is well tended the seeds of disease cannot even germinate!

In order to understand the principles and origins of Ayurveda it is going to require a paradigm shift for those of us familiar with the Western allopathic medical system. Fortunately however, there is absolutely no need to understand any of it in order to experience the numerous extraordinary benefits!

Many people view Ayurveda simply as a form of traditional herbal medicine. Ayurveda does indeed offer a range of herbal supplements – many of which can greatly improve our immune system. So, taking an Ayurvedic product rather than a pharmacological product has a certain appeal. In the correct dosage, Ayurvedic products have minimum side effects, maximum ‘side benefits’ and provide a quick, convenient and low cost way of boosting our immunity. Ayurvedic herbs can also help with simple detoxification strategies, further improving our resistance to disease.

However, Ayurveda offers a far greater range of techniques and advice for boosting our immunity than just using herbal products. If we can combine some of these strategies we can develop a ‘super effective’ immune system. Furthermore, Ayurveda does not see ‘health’ as just an absence of disease; it views it as a positive state of wellbeing resulting in feelings of joy and enthusiasm for life!

Ayurveda offers an integrated solution to building an exceptionally powerful immune system through a number of different approaches. It recognises the combined value of meditation, use of herbs, improving digestion, strengthening Ojas, diet and lifestyle choices, detoxification regimes, together with yoga and pranayama to build a better immune system. Any one of these different facets can be followed with positive results. Taken together they work synergistically to provide almost invincible immunity! However, in order to achieve this ‘super state of wellbeing’, we are going to have to follow some elements of an Ayurvedic lifestyle.

What exactly does an ‘Ayurvedic Lifestyle’ involve? Well, it certainly incorporates being aware of certain daily and seasonal routines. We don’t need to follow these obsessively, just go in their general direction. Ayurveda offers really practical advice such as tips for meal times, improving digestion, getting better sleep, etc. We will also need to follow (again not obsessively) a diet tailored to our particular mind-body type (categorised in the Vata-Pitta-Kapha system).  Incorporating some elements of meditation, yoga and pranayama on a regular basis into our daily routines will also help us remove the ongoing stresses we accumulate from our modern world. This will further boost our immunity.

So, using a range of Ayurvedic principles to boost our immune system is going to involve some effort and a willingness to make a few changes. However, if we use this ancient wisdom to improve our immune system there are many positive ‘spin offs’ in addition to a achieving a strong immune system! People who follow Ayurveda report experiencing a much greater ‘feel good factor’, more enthusiasm for life and a deep, unshakeable sense of well-being. The experience of pure joy also grows in our awareness – wow!

Even adopting a few Ayurvedic principles can help us begin our journey towards a strong immune system. We don’t have to follow everything all at once, but we do need to make a start somewhere! Try any one of them for a couple of months and see how you feel.

 

Increasing Ojas to Improve Immunity

Summary: Examining the role of the subtle substance ‘Ojas’ in our immune system. In Ayurveda increased levels of Ojas correspond with higher levels of immunity. Practical advice on increasing Ojas.

Ojas plays a key role in maintaining a high level of immunity in the science of Ayurveda.

Ojas is described as a ‘subtle substance’. So subtle in fact that there is no direct equivalent of Ojas (pronounced ‘oh-jus’) in the Western medical model of human physiology [1]. We can however, think of Ojas as being like the sap in a tree. Although invisible, it pervades and nourishes all parts of the tree – the branches, the leaves, the flowers and the fruit. In Ayurveda Ojas is said to be the ‘concentrated essence’ of all the bodily tissues (the Ayurvedic ‘dhatus’). Some describe Ojas as the ‘essence of vitality’ – if our levels are low our health, energy and enthusiasm all suffer.

Ojas is actually created in our bodies through the proper digestion of food. Perfect digestion gives rise to lots of Ojas and a very strong immune system.  So, foods that are easy to digest tend to enable more Ojas to be produced – foods that are difficult to digest produce less.

A low level of Ojas leads to a weak immune system. A high level corresponds with a strong immune system. If the immune system is sufficiently strong, then Ayurveda suggests no bacterial or viral infection will ever be able to settle in our system. If we can raise our immune system to this higher level Ayurveda suggests that vaccination for protection against disease is then simply unnecessary!

How to Increase Ojas in Our System

Fresh, home cooked foods generally strengthen Ojas.

Pre-prepared, tinned, frozen foods, and leftovers, etc., all deplete Ojas. Foods such as red meat, poultry, fish, eggs and fried food are difficult to digest and also lower Ojas. Smoking cigarettes (worse still, non-prescribed drugs) and alcohol all lower the body’s ability to produce Ojas.

In general, Sattvic foods increase Ojas and both Rajasic and Tamasic foods deplete it. Sattvic foods are generally light, freshly prepared, pure, easily digestible and eaten in moderately sized portions. Tamasic foods such as red meat and oily fried foods are heavy and dull and difficult to digest. Rajasic foods such as onion and garlic can bring drive and energy, but also stimulate strong desires and emotions.

Examples of Sattvic, Ojas enhancing foods are: locally grown in-season sweet fruits and vegetables, dairy produce (except hard cheeses), grains such as rice,  nuts (not peanuts), sweet tastes in general (not from refined sugars but natural sweetness from milk [2], unsalted butter and bread). A Sattvic diet is sometimes referred to as a ‘Yogic’ diet.

Certain specific foods such as sesame seeds (e.g. in Tahini), almonds, dates, raisins, ghee (clarified butter), raw (unheated) honey, boiled organic milk and organic plain yoghurt also increase Ojas.

We don’t have to be obsessive about diet, but generally favour the more Ojas producing and Sattvic foodstuffs. It’s perfectly ok to occasionally eat meat if that’s what you really want – as long as you are aware of the consequences (both health-wise and karma-wise)!

Ojas also gets depleted by negative emotions, such as excess anger, worry and fear. Meditation can help rectify this.

Over work and lots of travel also lower our levels of Ojas and consequently weaken our immune system. Travel also disturbs the Vata element in our bodies.

Ojas is said to be present in semen – so excessive sex can result in lowering of Ojas for a man. What is classified as ‘excessive’ depends on an individual’s VPK mind-body type – Kapha types can have more frequent sex than Vata types without any problems. This is not a moral judgement, but based on the principles of Ayurveda. If we have high levels of Ojas we may not be too concerned about this – but if we are showing symptoms of low Ojas then we should consider it carefully. Of course, in the yogic traditions there is the practice of tantric sex – where couples have sex but there is no ejaculation, thus maintaining a high level of Ojas.

Spiritual practices (such as yoga, meditation, bhajans (devotional singing), company of evolved souls, singing in church, etc.), being in nature, looking after animals, loving relationships and an Ayurvedic lifestyle all increase Ojas and boost our immunity.

Additional information on Ojas and how to boost it can be found on the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health website and the Svastha Ayurveda Blog – both contain informative articles and practical advice.

Footnotes

[1] There is also no equivalent of the Ayurvedic concept of Nadis (subtle energy channels) either – although Chinese medicine identifies something similar as ‘meridians’.

 [2] Milk is currently unfashionable among the health conscious, but Ayurveda loves it – provided it is first boiled (can try adding a couple of pinches of dry ginger powder to lighten it). Never take it direct from the fridge. Don’t drink it with meals either.


Other Key Ayurvedic  Strategies to Build a Strong Immune System

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Better Immunity through Meditation

Summary: Meditation lowers stress in our body and mind, which in turn improves our immunity and our health in general. It also leads to more positive lifestyle choices. Scientific research confirms this.

Although the ‘creative stress’ present in finishing a special job or project can be exhilarating, the long-term chronic stress we often encounter in the West can be a killer! There is no doubt about this. Stress lowers the body’s self defence mechanisms and weakens our immune system.

When we are stressed our blood pressure and heart rate can increase, our digestive system may become disturbed, and stress hormones adversely impact our immune system. All this can lead to disease! Then there are the ‘coping mechanisms’ we may adopt to cope with the stress – such as smoking and drinking alcohol which further lower immunity. The more we can minimise stress the better for our health.

Major stresses in life are due to disappointments, rejections and doubts. Ask anyone who has got divorced, faced financial insecurity because of losing their job, or who have suffered the death of a close family member.

How to get rid of stress? Simple: just learn to meditate. Fifty years ago this advice would have seemed odd, but now it is main-stream. A lot of research was performed in the 70’s and 80’s which indicated beyond doubt that meditation lowered the physiological indicators of stress in the human body. Researchers measured stress indicators such as galvanic skin response, blood pressure, levels of adrenaline, etc. all of which showed improvement with continued practice of meditation. So the effect was real and not just psychological. In meditation we clearly get the ‘rest and fulfillment response’ rather than the ‘fight and flight response’ we get when we are stressed. As the stress indicators go down, our natural immunity goes up.

Much of this research was published in prestigious, peer reviewed journals. An enlightened Indian teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was mainly responsible for getting meditation widely accepted in the West.

Meditation lowers stress in our body and mind, which in turn improves our immunity and our health in general. It also leads to more positive lifestyle choices.

Mantra Meditation

Which type of meditation to do? Most Westerners find the effortless techniques of Vedic mantra based meditation (e.g. Transcendental Meditation [Description on Wikipedia], Sahaj Samadhi meditation [YouTube Introduction], Shakti meditation [taught by the yogini Ananda Vdovic] – all easy to learn and easy to do. As a great enlightened yogi once said: if we can think, we can meditate!’

A mantra is a meaningless sound or Sanskrit word that we think effortlessly – just like we think any other thought. In this Vedic system personal mantras are given to individual students by fully trained teachers. In India the restless mind is often described as the ‘monkey mind’ – always running here and there. How to make a monkey stay still? Just give it a banana. Think of the mantra as a ‘banana for the mind’ – something sweet, nourishing and appealing! In fact, the more you think it on a quiet level the more appealing it becomes. Mantra based meditation techniques take us directly to a settled state of ‘restful alertness’ where we experience a deep and profound peace.

These techniques take just 20 minutes twice a day and the ‘return on investment’, in terms of increased health and overall ‘feel good factor’, can be enormous. The only downside to these techniques is that they are quite subtle and require a trained meditation teacher, plus one-to-one personal tuition. But they are extremely effective! Once learned they can be practiced anywhere at any time. Vedic meditation clearly leads to more positive lifestyle choices in the direction of personal evolution – further enhancing our health.

For more information on these techniques see Vedic Meditation FAQs

Guided Meditation

What about guided meditations? If we can’t learn Vedic mantra based meditation, then guided meditations are worth exploring. They will not be as effective, but they will bring benefits.

This may come as a surprise, but the best guided meditations definitely do not involve any form of ‘creative visualisations’ (e.g. the ‘imagine you are on a beautiful beach’ type of thing). Neither do they involve listening to the sound of ‘forest streams’, or ‘new age’ music!

Many people enjoy the guided meditations produced by enlightened Masters such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (not the sitar player). These are available on YouTube. There are dozens of different ones to choose from and they take around twenty minutes each. Simply try some and see which you prefer. The trick seems to be to sit comfortably and easily and just listen to the instructions, but not to concentrate on them. Take it all easily and lightly and don’t try to meditate! The process involves no effort. Many people have reported they particularly enjoy the ‘Sound to Silence’ meditation by Sri Sri and feel very settled and relaxed towards the end.


Other Key Ayurvedic  Strategies to Build a Strong Immune System

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Strengthening Our Digestive Fire to Prevent Disease

Summary: Examining the link between good digestion and a strong immune system in Ayurveda, with practical advice on improving digestion.

Ayurveda places great emphasis on having a strong digestion. A strong digestive ‘fire’ or Agni can ‘burn off’ infections. A strong digestion also means food is properly digested and assimilated without the toxic by-products (called ‘Ama’ in Ayurveda) of a weakened digestive system. If digestion is weak it can lead to imbalances in the body and ultimately disease. Surprisingly Ayurveda attributes around 80% of all health problems to the by-products of a weakened digestive system. Wow!

Digestion can easily be weakened by the stresses of modern life, over-work, emotional upsets, eating while walking about or working, a diet low in life-force, difficult to digest foods (such as red meat and fried foods), lack of suitable exercise, drinking cold drinks with a meal, etc.

Ayurveda recommends some very simple and practical tips to help build a strong digestive fire and reduce the possibility of disease.

Key Advice for Better Digestion at Mealtimes

    • Avoid drinking for 30 minutes before, during, and 30 minutes after a meal. But if we have to drink, then sips of warm water are acceptable.
    • Eating at regular times of the day in a settled atmosphere (not watching TV or arguing with family members)
    • Eating only when hungry and definitely not grazing throughout the day
    • Following an Ayurvedic diet that is specifically tailored to our individual mind-body constitution (e.g. Vata – Pitta – Kapha and their combinations)
    • Avoiding ice cold and carbonated drinks at any time! These ‘extinguish’ the internal digestive fire – carbonated drinks also derange Vata
    • Having a short walk a few minutes after a meal helps digestion. Even a walk around the office or climbing stairs helps, rather than just sitting still

General Advice for Improving Digestion

Follow the general advice for increasing our levels of Ojas to improve immunity

Eating a small slice of fresh ginger (Zingiber officinale) with a sprinkling of salt 10 to 15 minutes before a main meal to awaken the digestive fire (not advised for pure Pitta constitutions – they already have a strong digestive fire or Agni)

Sipping warm water throughout the day helps boost the internal ‘fire’. Again – maybe not suitable for pure Pitta constitutions, or during hot weather as this could possibly lead to an imbalance of Pitta dosha

Taking the Ayurvedic supplement ‘Trikatu’ strengthens our digestive powers. Trikatu has a heating and stimulating effect. It helps us burn up already accumulated toxins – Ama. Trikatu powder is a mixture of dry ginger, black pepper (Piper nigrum) and Indian long pepper (Piper longum – not to be confused with the cheaper Indonesian Long Pepper Piper retrofactu). It is usually taken about 15 minutes before a meal and really stimulates the digestive system. However, Trikatu, because of its heating qualities, is not recommended for pure Pitta constitutions (or for pregnant women).

There are a couple of well-informed articles about Trikatu on the LifeSpa website: Background on Trikatu, and its role in reducing Ama

Certain Yoga postures can also help improve digestion. Usually these poses involve stretches that stimulate the internal organs. Most are very easy to practice – such as simple spinal twists, knee  to chest, etc. and are the sort of exercises found in a basic yoga class. While it is always better to get personal instuction from a qualified yoga teacher, the seqence of eight poses to improve digestion given on the Yogajournal website is a good starting point. A slightly more advanced set of asanas to help digestion was published on the Huffpost website.

Pranayama, or yogic breathing techniques, can also help improve digestion. They distribute prana or life-force to different parts of our body, improving our nervous system  and general-well being. There exists many different techniques, with a bewildering array of advice on how to perform each one! When learning them it is probably best to try and get the information from an enlightened Master (or his or her accredited teachers). Sometimes YouTube carries reasonable videos e.g. Bhastrika Pranayama, Kapalabhati  Pranyama, Bhramari Pranayama etc. However, Pranayama practices are not for everyone – if we have any underlying health conditions (e.g. heart conditions, respiratory problems,  suffer from diabetes, high or low blood pressure, epilepsy or vertigo, have hernia or stomach surgeries, or are pregnant, etc.)  it is worth checking carefully for any contraindications for the specific type of pranayama before we start. A good, basic introduction to pranayama is available on the ‘Joyful Belly’ Ayurvedic website.


Other Key Ayurvedic  Strategies to Build a Strong Immune System

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Detoxification to Strengthen our Immune System

Summary: Practical Ayurvedic tips for detoxification and the role it plays in supporting a strong immune system

Ayurveda suggests that toxins in our system prevent it from working at optimum efficiency and ultimately this gives rise to disease.

Get rid of toxins and our immunity improves.

Ayurveda states that toxins arise due to ‘poor digestion’. The term ‘digestion’ does not only apply to food! According to Ayurveda, both food and all sensory inputs and experiences have to be ‘properly digested’. Otherwise they give rise to toxins. Emotional upsets, trauma, stressful experiences, watching violent scenes, frightening movies, even the news on TV, etc. all have to be ‘processed’ and ‘digested’ by the fire of Agni. Agni is the internal digestive fire (in some ways it is similar to pitta dosha).

As Ayurveda places great emphasis on prevention, it is far better to avoid the toxic by-products of a poor digestive system in the first place by following Ayurvedic guidance on mealtimes, diet, lifestyle and strengthening our digestive fire.

Ayurveda has a range of purification and detoxification strategies. Some of these are very simple and can be done at home. Other, more complicated procedures are often Ayurveda clinic based.

Home Based Detox Tips

A very simple step to help the digestive fire or ‘Agni’ burn off toxins is to sip warm water at regular intervals throughout the day. This is fine for most people, but would not be recommended in the height of summer or for individuals with a predominantly Pitta constitution. There is strong anecdotal evidence that this simple step can even remove the toxins associated with arthritis. From an Ayurvedic perspective, the hot water stimulates the digestive fire (Agni) which then ‘burns off’ the toxins (Ama).

Another very simple detox step is to ensure we have regular elimination and bowel movements. Ayurveda suggests many toxins are lodged in our colon as a result of poor digestion.

An Ayurvedic mixture of herbs (Rasayana) called ‘Triphala’ promotes great digestive health and is an excellent cleanser of toxins in the colon. Triphala is readily available from herbal suppliers on the internet. Triphala contains three powerful Ayurvedic herbs: Amalaki, Bibhitaki and Haritaki. Tablets are nicer to take than the powdered form. It can be taken for several months at a time (before having a short break of a few weeks, then continuing to take it for a couple of months, then repeating this cycle). Taking the recommended dose with a glass of warm water before bedtime really helps cleanse the colon of toxins and helps with elimination the following morning. Maharishi Ayurveda provide a useful leaflet on Triphala (download via link). I have heard an enlightened Vedic Master say: ‘If we are only going to take one Ayurvedic supplement, it should be Triphala – it gives so many benefits’

Drinking a full glass of warm water first thing upon rising in the morning also stimualtes elimination.

Fasting can help with the removal of toxins. During a period of fasting the internal fire or Agni gets kinlded and, as there is no food to digest starts to burn away toxins. The maximum length of fast is different for different mind-body types. Therefore a pure vata type should fast for no more than three days – longer than this and the vata element will go out of balance and create weakness, anxiety etc. For pitta types four days is the maximum (longer than this and the out of balance pitta element causes anger, excessive heat etc.) Kapha types can benefit from longer fasting periods without problems. A warm water fast one day a week is fine for everyone and gives our digestive system a rest.

Yogic breathing or pranayama exercises can help in increasing the digestive fire and also in removing toxins associated with negative or stressful experiences. Bhastrika Pranayama is particularly effective at increasing the strength of the digestive fire – which then burns off the toxins. So pranayama helps detox our system. There are some contraindications with certain pranayama exercises – see precautions in article on ‘Strengthening Our Digestive Fire to Prevent Disease’ before starting a particular pranayama exercise.

Clinic Based Detox

Ayurveda offers complete detoxification programmes called ‘Panchakarma’ (or the five cleansing actions). Although some of these procedures can be done at home, most are clinic based under the guidance of a trained Ayurvedic Physician (look for someone with a Batchelor of Ayurvedic Medicine degree and clinical experience.) The aim is to first detoxify the system and then rebalance the doshas (vata, pitta and kapha).

What exactly are the five cleansing actions? This really depends very much on the individual and an Ayurvedic professional will recommend appropriate actions. One detox  route might involve strategies to loosen the toxins from the underlying tissues (e.g. via ‘oil based’  therapies and warm oil massage), then to enable them  to move (e.g. via steam ‘baths’) to the colon, and then to finally eliminate them (e.g. by medicated enemas) from the system.

Panchakarma purification therapy offers many benefits as a result of getting rid of toxins. It slows down the ageing process, helps remove the long term effects of stress, brings more energy to the body and clarity to the mind, promotes a sense of well-being and, most importantly, strenthens our immune system.

These purification procedures can have dramatic results on health and can eliminate many long term diseases – often without the need for Western style surgery!


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