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In this newsletter we talked to an expert on ayurveda from The Council of Maharishi Ayurveda Physicians about the ayurvedic approach to balancing cholesterol.
Q: Can you begin by telling us about cholesterol from the perspective of Maharishi Ayurveda?
Meda dhatu, fat tissue, is one of the seven dhatus, or body tissues. According to Maharishi Ayurveda, the body is a combination of the following:
To understand how to maintain healthy meda dhatu, you first need to understand that balance is the main principle of Maharishi Ayurveda. A moderate lifestyle, diet and daily routine upholds balanced functioning of every aspect of life: body, mind and senses. One also has to maintain peacefulness in mind, a blissful consciousness, and balanced control over the senses.
The principle factor behind balance in the body is balanced agni (digestive fire). Digestion is quite literally the basis for good health in every part of the body.
For instance, the creation of healthy body tissue (dhatu) requires a brightly burning digestive fire, or metabolic process. A strong agni is equally important in maintaining balance in the doshas and malas.
Therefore, when digestion, assimilation and elimination are balanced, fat tissue and cholesterol will also be balanced.
It’s important to understand that fat tissue (cholesterol) in itself is not bad, and is actually essential for the body to function properly. So in the ayurvedic perspective, the production of cholesterol does not necessarily need to be lessened, but it needs to be balanced. When the digestion is balanced and healthy, then the body produces the right amount of cholesterol, in the right proportion to nourish the body.
Q: What causes cholesterol function to become imbalanced?
There are 13 agnis that work together in the digestive process. First the food is metabolized by the main digestive fire (jathar-agni), located in the stomach and duodenum. Next it is metabolized by the five elemental fires located in liver (bhut-agnis), and finally by seven dhatu-agnis, located in the seven tissues. These 13 types of agnis form the metabolism and digestive system in the body.
When we eat fatty or oily food, it is metabolized by these 13 agnis in a sequential process. Jhataragni helps to break down the food. The bhut-agnis help to screen toxins and ensure that the food is transformed into healthy, good-quality body tissue. The dhatu-agnis help transform the food into their respective tissues.
So the strength of the various digestive fires is needed for the tissues to be formed possibly, including the fat tissue. When the production of meda dhatu is disturbed, the quantity (amount and proportion) and quality (contents) of meda dhatu are also disturbed. In other words, because cholesterol is one of the contents of lipid tissue, the production of cholesterol becomes imbalanced when meda dhatu is imbalanced.
Q: What is the role of the liver in producing healthy fat tissue and balanced cholesterol?
This results in three types of imbalances: 1) an increase in meda dhatu, 2) a decrease of meda dhatu, or 3) meda dhatu mixed with ama.
When meda dhatu mixes with ama, it changes the quality of fat tissue and the quality of cholesterol, making it unhealthy rather than healthy. This mixing of ama with fat tissue is the main cause of imbalanced cholesterol. And it is the liver (yakrit) that is responsible for qualitative digestion, i.e., the quality, or purity, of the fat tissue and hence the quality of the cholesterol that is being produced.
Q: What are the main causes of imbalanced digestion?
Physical causes include eating too much (above digestive capacity), eating too little (below the digestive capacity), and eating faulty food (against the digestive capacity). Other physical causes include eating before the previous meal is digested, eating irregular amounts at irregular times of day, eating while suffering from indigestion, suppressing natural urges, constipation, and emaciation.
Environmental causes include eating the wrong foods for the climate or season as well as eating foods polluted with toxins.
Q: Can you tell us more about these toxins and how they affect us?
The second type of toxin is called amavisha, and it is a more reactive, dangerous type of ama. Amavisha is created when ama is present for a very long time and is not flushed from the system. When amavisha starts to spread throughout the body, it can mix with the dhatus (body tissues) and the malas (waste products).
If amavisha mixes with the fat tissue, and at the same time one continues to engage in an unhealthy lifestyle or diet, it can cause imbalance and disease in the lipid tissues. These lifestyle errors include: 1) lack of exercise, 2) sleeping during the day, 3) eating excessive amounts of fatty foods, and 4) indulging in alcoholic drinks.
For instance, imbalanced meda dhatu can distort the cardiovascular veins, called the raktavahi srotas in ayurveda. When they become stiff and clogged, this causes high blood pressure. If amavisha has mixed with the blood and fat tissue, it can distort and damage the srotas (channels that carry fluids of various sorts throughout the body), narrowing the veins as in atherosclerosis.
So ama can cause all of the problems that are associated with impure lipid tissue which are associated with high cholesterol, even though it’s not the cholesterol itself that causes these problems.
Toxins also enter the body from the environment, with exposure to lead, heavy metals, or water or air pollution. These environmental toxins are called garvisha in ayurveda, and they are the third type of toxin. Eating food that is grown using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and food that is prepared with chemicals, additives, and preservatives—can also add to the toxic overload of the liver and result in disturbance of lipid metabolism.
Q: What causes these three types of ama to accumulate in the liver and in the fat tissue?
If ama has accumulated in the nutritive fluid, blood plasma or the muscle tissue, which are all raw material for forming fat tissue, then that ama will also be present in the fat tissue. So that is one reason for ama in the fat tissue: ama accumulating in the rasa, rakta or mamsa tissues.
A second reason is eating unhealthy types of fat, which do not nourish the body but rather create ama. By unhealthy fat, we mean fat that is difficult to digest. This includes saturated fats found in meat, butter and vegetable oils. A worse type of fat that is virtually indigestible are the trans fats, or hydrogenated vegetable oils, that are found in almost all packaged, processed and fast foods. Another type of unhealthy fat is rancid or overheated fats.
I think it’s obvious why you shouldn’t eat fats that are spoiled. But overheating fats is just as bad. Most polyunsaturated vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, sesame) are processed with chemicals or heat, and their nutritional value is destroyed. They end up creating free radicals, contributing to oxidized fats, or cholesterol, in the body. This can happen even if you use cold-pressed oils for frying or cooking foods.
A third reason is just eating too much fat overall, even if it’s the good kind of fat. While all of these factors can cause high cholesterol, the most dangerous combination is eating large quantities of unhealthy fat, which can happen easily if you eat fast foods or processed, packaged foods on a daily basis.
Q: Can you explain how the liver reacts when it is confronted with unhealthy fat or too much fat?
There are many ayurvedic herbs that help increase bile production so healthy fat tissue (i.e., healthy cholesterol) can be processed properly by the liver and not cause harm to the body. Ranjaka Pitta supports the five bhut-agnis that reside in the liver to effectively process fat and prevent imbalanced qualities in the body’s lipids (meda dhatu).
These five bhut-agnis are called the elemental agnis, because each one corresponds to one the five elements: earth (prithvi), water (apa), fire (tejas), air (vayu) and space (akasha).
For example, the food that you eat contains all five elements, and each element in the food is processed by the corresponding agni in your body. So the tejas agni would process the fire element in food, and the apu agni would process the water element.
Q: And what happens if the liver has to process unhealthy fat or if the fat contains ama, amavisha or garvisha?
If it is simple ama, the bhut-agnis burn it, because heat purifies ama. If it is amavisha, the bhut-agni first must neutralize it, and then eliminate it from the rasa (nutritive fluid) so it doesn't get passed on to the body tissues. For the third type of toxin, garvisha, which includes toxins from chemicals, pesticides, or some other environmental causes, the bhut-agnis scan and identify garvisha, and if they find it they store it elsewhere in the liver.
If the liver is functioning in a healthy way, the bhut-agnis do not let these toxins pass into the body. If the liver is overloaded with too many toxins over a period of time, then it loses its ability to screen and eliminate toxins. If the garvisha (environmental toxins such as pesticides) cross the scanning barrier, they often collect in the fat tissue, leading to diseases such as breast cancer.
You can see that the liver acts in a very intelligent way. So that’s why just increasing the bile (or fuel for the agni) is not enough to lower the cholesterol, as is often thought in western medicine. Yes, it is important to increase bile production, but it’s also important to enhance the intelligence of the liver so it can scan the foods better and eliminate the toxins. Maharishi Ayurveda, in balancing cholesterol, not only enhances bile production but also increases the ability of the liver to intelligently scan and eliminate toxins.
Let’s suppose that everything has gone fine, and ama, amavisha and garvisha are scanned and eliminated by the five bhut-agnis. Then the next step is the domain of the dhatu agnis, which, as I explained before, convert the food into body tissue in a sequence.
It's possible that the rasa, rakta, and mamsa dhatu agnis will do their job, and then the meda dhatu agni, which converts muscle tissue into fat tissue, must perform its function next. If the meda dhatu agni is low or out of balance, or is overloaded, then too much fat or too little fat can be created.
This is why it is so important to eat only the good kind of fat, and to eat only the proper quantity, so the five bhut-agnis and the meda agni are not overloaded.
It's also why we have created ayurvedic food supplements to strengthen the five bhut-agnis and the meda agni so the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol remains balanced.
Q: What foods contain saturated fats and why are they bad for us?
Most saturated fats come from animal products. They include lard, butter, hard cheeses, cream, ice cream, beef, pork, poultry with skin, palm oil, and coconut oil. Saturated fats are often used in fried foods and desserts such as cakes and cookies.
Q: What foods contain trans fats and why are they bad for us?
Margarine and vegetable shortening are trans fats, so you’ll want to stop using them. Because most packaged foods and restaurant fried foods contain trans fats, the easiest way to avoid these harmful fats is to stop buying packaged foods such as doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies, pastries, pizza dough, crackers, biscuits, and fried foods. Look for labels such as hydrogenated vegetable oil, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrolyzed vegetable oil and partially-hydrolyzed vegetable oil—as these are all names for trans fats. And avoid eating fried food at restaurants, especially fast food restaurants, as trans fats are commonly used for frying French fries and other foods.
Q: What are the recommended guidelines for fats in our diets?
Monounsaturated fats are recommended, as they reduce total cholesterol levels and have the added advantage of raising HDL cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends that you include 10 to 15 percent of your total daily calories in monounsaturated fats such as canola oil and olive oil.
Polyunsaturated fats, found in nuts and in corn, safflower, sesame, and sunflower oils, also help to reduce total cholesterol levels, but because they also lower HDL cholesterol, they are not considered as healthy as monounsaturated oils. The American Heart Association recommends that we get no more than 10 percent of our total daily calories from polyunsaturated fats. And they shouldn’t be heated. Buy cold-pressed polyunsaturated oils and use them raw in salad dressings instead.
Q: What fats are recommended by Maharishi Ayurveda?
Ghee provides essential fatty acids (fats that cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained from food). Ghee is the most easily digestible fat, and it contains Vitamin A and E and acts as an antioxidant. It is also highly intelligent type of fat, because it is a food that converts quickly into ojas, the master coordinator that integrates consciousness, mind and body. Ojas is another word for nature's intelligence in the body.
The other oil that is recommended is olive oil. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, which means that it actually lowers cholesterol and triglycerides. But it is important to choose first cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil, which means that the oil is pressed from the olives without heat or unnatural processing. This method of processing has been followed for thousands of years, and it doesn't destroy the nutritional quality of the oil, unlike modern processing methods, which involve high heat and chemical additives.
It’s also important not to heat olive oil at high temperatures for cooking. Use it for baking, for salad dressings, and for low-heat sautéing of spices and vegetables. If you need to heat the oil at higher temperatures, it's better to use ghee.
Both ghee and olive oil are recommended, because nature’s intelligence has not been destroyed in their processing. Ghee contains smaller, highly intelligent fat molecules that pass through the lipid barrier and nourish the brain, which needs a higher proportion of intelligent fats than the rest of the body to function properly. That is why ghee is known as medhya, a substance that nourishes mental functioning and improves learning, retention and recall, in the same way that certain herbs and rasayanas nourish the mind.
The srotas, too, are a highly intelligent part of the body, and thus need a highly intelligent or healthy fat to nourish them. Lack of nourishment from intelligent fats can cause many problems in the coordination of heart and mind.
Q: What about canola oil? It’s a monounsaturated fat, so isn’t it a good fat?
Q: Even though ghee and olive oil are nutritious and intelligent, you said it's possible to cause high cholesterol levels by eating too much of them. How much is too much?
But to digest fat, even good fats like ghee and olive oil, a person needs to have a strong agni, or digestive fire. Remember that there are actually 13 agnis, or metabolic processes, that participate in digestion. If fat metabolism or any of the first nine agnis that support meda dhatu agni in the sequence of digestion (i.e. jathar-agni, the five bhut-agnis, rasa dhatu agni, rakta dhatu agni, mamsa dhatu agni) is weak, then that person is not going to be able to digest as much fat as someone who has strong fat metabolism.
Weak fat metabolism is one problem, but another problem is caused when the digestion is too high, or sharp. Called tikshnagni (literally, sharp agni), this is actually one cause of amavisha, the reactive type of ama.
Q: So is a low-fat diet to lower cholesterol a good idea, from the ayurvedic perspective?
Because both Vayu and akasha are dry by nature, the srotas can become dry and brittle over time. This is especially true in the Vata time of life, from age 60 and older, when the dry, quick-moving Vata dosha predominates. To keep the srotas flexible, elastic and functional, they must be constantly lubricated with fat tissue. Of special importance are the delicate pranavahi srotas (channels carrying prana vata, or oxygen) that lead to the brain. If they dry out, the brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen, creating symptoms such as fatigue, lack of focus, high blood pressure, dementia and Alzheimer’s. The srotas that carry hot fluids such as blood also are prone to drying out, which can cause narrowing and even obstruction of the arteries (atherosclerosis). So this is another reason why your body needs a certain amount of fat tissue: to keep the body and its srotas unctous, healthy and vital. And it depends on the person’s body type and health needs, how much fat is healthy for them. It is different for different people.
Q: Can you tell us about Maharishi Ayurveda Cholesterol Protection, the Maharishi Ayurveda supplement designed to help balance cholesterol levels in the body?
Finally, it flushes cholesterol from the elimination tract. This is also a very important factor, because when the liver purifies toxins and bad cholesterol, it dumps them in the colon to be eliminated by the body. So it’s very important that the elimination system be strengthened to cleanse the bad cholesterol from the body.
Q: What herbs are contained in the formula?
In addition, Guduchi strengthens all of the dhatu agnis, including meda dhatu agni, which is responsible for fat metabolism. Guduchi supports intellectual stamina to enhance the quality of fat for the entire body. Another way to say this is that it supports the production of ojas, which is the master coordinator between consciousness, the doshas, tissues and metabolism for the whole body—including fat tissue and fat metabolism. It does this by enhancing the intelligence of the liver and the intelligence of the other ingredients in Cholesterol Protection.
Guggul increases fat metabolism. Shilajit enhances metabolism and prevents nutrients from being lost in the metabolic process. Manjistha and Indian Sarsaparilla help bring balance to the interaction between the liver (governed by Ranjaka Pitta) and blood plasma, thus creating purer blood by screening out toxins. Parijat helps cool the body and eliminate excess heat, thus preventing the formation of amavisha. It is also good for the joints and nerves, especially the sciatica nerve.
Other ingredients also have a profound effect in supporting healthy cholesterol levels. Turmeric supports the liver, purifies the blood, increases bile and enhances the interaction of plasma and blood. Trikatu, which is a combination of powdered Ginger, Long Pepper and Black Pepper, enhances absorption and thus makes the other herbs in the formula easier to assimilate. Licorice balances all three doshas and especially helps cool Pitta dosha, decreasing the reactivity of amavisha. It also increases bioavailability of the other ingredients in the formula. Triphala, which includes Haritaki, Amalaki, and Bibhitaki, helps scrub the colon and remove cholesterol from the body through the bowel. Finally, zinc (Yasad Bhasma) increases fat metabolism.
Many of these traditionally known herbs have been examined in modern research studies. In a double-blind study published in Science, Guggul was shown to reduce cholesterol as much as cholesterol-lowering drugs, but without the harmful side effects. Turmeric was found to lower triglycerides and serum cholesterol. Phyllanthus niruri significantly lowered serum lipid levels and protected the liver from toxins. Zinc was found to reduce atherosclerosis.
Q: Are there any dietary and lifestyle tips you can give us for lowering cholesterol?
The ideal breakfast is a cooked apple with cooked prunes and figs. This will help cleanse the bowel and lower cholesterol levels. Bitter foods include greens such as spinach, chard, kale and mustard greens. These greens, when cooked and seasoned with spices, help cleanse the bowel and thus prevent the bad type of cholesterol from accumulating.
Avoid sweet, sour and salty foods. Sweet foods include not only sugar but also rice, wheat, pasta, breads, and sweet milk products. Sour foods include not only lemons and other sour fruits, but yogurt, cheese, tomatoes and vinegar, which is found in salad dressings, ketchup, mustard and pickles.
Always cook your food and eat it warm, because this helps counteract the cool, earthy Kapha dosha. Avoid bad fats, and cook with small amounts of ghee or olive oil.
Cholesterol-Lowering Spice Mixture
Salty Digestive Lassi
¼ cup freshly made organic yogurt
Blend in blender until a foam forms on top.
1/4 c. fresh cold organic yogurt
Milk is not only a good source of protein for vegetarians, but it also converts quickly into ojas, making it a healthy ayurvedic food. In recent months, research has been published indicating that milk actually decreases obesity, due to the holistic effect created by calcium and other nutrients.
Q: What are the best grains for providing fiber in the diet?
The Kapha pacifying diet also includes many healthy grains. Whole oats provide needed fiber as does barley, quinoa and amaranth. Quinoa also contains zinc, which enhances fat metabolism.
Of the whole grains, the most highly recommended fiber is barley. Barley is karshana, which means that it enhances fat metabolism. Barley contains fbier throughout its entire grain kernel. Even if the outer bran layer is removed, as in pearled barley, there is still enough fiber in the kernel. Even though the grain is processed to remove the hull, bran, and some of the inner layer, it still provides three grams of dietary fiber in a half cup serving. You can also eat barley flakes, quick-cooking barley, and hulled or hull-less barley.
Q: Many people snack on junk foods and raise their cholesterol that way. Can you suggest some healthy snacks?
But sometimes if you are hungry between meals you can try the following:
Q: And what about lifestyle tips?
A Sample of Research Studies on Ayurvedic Herbs that Lower Cholesterol
These articles provide a great resource from The Council of Maharishi Ayurveda Physicians on the knowledge, practices, products, and applications of Maharishi Ayurveda.