Keys to Respiratory Immunity from Maharishi Ayurveda
Q: During the winter and the damp, cool days of spring, it appears almost impossible to not get one of the numerous "bugs" floating around at school or at work. I would therefore like to talk to you this time about the ayurvedic approach to a strong immune system. For starters, what is the ayurvedic concept of immunity?
A: Bala, which literally means "strength," is the ayurvedic word for immunity. There are two major elements that impact bala, and these are ama and ojas. Ama, the sticky product of undigested food, lowers immunity in the body when it spreads and clogs the channels that carry food to the cells and the channels that remove wastes. It also blocks the micro-channels that are part of the immune system. Finally, it provides a breeding ground for infection and free radicals. Ojas is the opposite of ama. It is the product of perfect digestion, and enhances immunity in the body, mind and consciousness. It is the basis of good health, and it is the goal of all treatments and therapies of Maharishi Ayurveda to enhance ojas. Ojas is characterized by health, happiness, bliss, lightness, immunity and overall strength in the body. There is a theory of immunity in ayurveda called the beej-bhumi theory, which means "seed and land." In this case, the body is analogous to the land, and infections or "bugs" are like seeds. If the body is filled with ama and lacking in ojas, the infection will find it to be fertile ground for spreading, just as land that is fertile will sprout many seeds. If digestion is strong, and ojas rather than ama predominates in the body, then the seeds of infection will not be able to take hold, just as seeds will not take root in land that is infertile.
Q: That is interesting. How would you say this corresponds to the Western approach to immunity?
A: Basically, there is no difference between the Western concept of immunity and the ayurvedic one. The only difference is in the language. In Maharishi Ayurveda we talk about immune-lowering substances such as ama and amavisha (an even more toxic, sticky form of ama that interacts with one of the sub-doshas to disrupt normal functioning) and about ojas, which is the body's main immune-enhancing substance. In Maharishi Ayurveda, it is known that there are different functions of ojas — ojas governs the mind, body and senses as well as the coordination among them. It resides in the gaps between the neurons and cells. According to my understanding, neuro-hormones correspond to ojas, and the chemicals and hormones which enhance the immune system are all part of the ojas system. In modern research, the neuro-hormones have been found to be well-connected with the immune system. There is a whole theory called psycho-neurological immunology (PNI) which explains the profound relationship between thoughts and neuro-hormones and their impact on immunity. In a similar theory, Maharishi Ayurveda describes an entire field of behavior and thought and its effect on health and ojas, called Achara Rasayana. Achara Rasayana literally means "behavioral elixirs," or the behaviors that support the immune system and promote longevity in the same way that a rasayana, or herbal elixir, would. These positive behaviors include honesty, happiness, charity, freedom from anger and violence, cleanliness, self-control, the practice of meditation, devotion to love and compassion, a calm demeanor, sweet speech, lack of conceit, maintaining a balanced routine of rest and activity, keeping the company of the wise, being respectful towards teachers and elders, having a naturally positive outlook, and engaging in right conduct. These psychological and behavioral factors were recognized as factors that impact immunity and health in the ayurvedic texts thousands of years ago. Today scientists call these psycho-emotional factors PNI.
Q: What role do the doshas play in respiratory immunity?
A: Several sub-doshas of Vata and Kapha come into play when you investigate the area of respiratory immunity. The function of the lungs is governed by Udana Vata, the sub-dosha of Vata that governs the throat, lungs and speech. The structure, on the other hand, is governed by Shleshaka Kapha, the sub-dosha of Kapha concerned with lubrication. Finally, in general, the whole chest is the seat of Avalambaka Kapha, which governs the functions of the chest, heart, lungs, and lower back. Therefore, the lungs are supported by Avalambaka Kapha. In particular, Avalambaka Kapha is responsible for supporting the structure and function of the lungs, and it also stabilizes and supports the connection between Udana Vata and Prana Vata, which governs the chest and respiration (as well as the brain, head, and mind). So you see that the immune system of the lungs is also directly connected with Prana Vata, because Prana Vata is the governing force for Udana Vata. This connection comes directly into play when, due to digestive imbalances, ama starts circulating through the lungs, and in a later stage mixes with Shleshaka Kapha to form a sticky substance called shleshma. When Udana Vata is out of balance, it has a drying effect on shleshma, causing it to dry up and clog the lungs. When the crusty layer of molecules of shleshma plug up the tiny, micro-sized channels of the lungs, then elasticity is impaired and circulation is diminished. With Udana Vata out of balance, the connection between Udana Vata and Prana Vata also gets disturbed. As a final stroke, the whole immune system goes out of balance — including the cellular immunity and neuro-hormonal immunity (which refer to both the physical and psychological components of the immune system).
Q: Would stress also play a part here?
A: Definitely. Stress clearly affects our thoughts and emotions, and can depress the neuro-hormonal immune system and result in an imbalance in the lungs. Have you ever noticed in the past that when you were experiencing a major stress in your life and felt unable to cope with it, at the same time you felt a constriction or heaviness in your lungs? In times of stress, people often develop a cough or infection in the lungs. The influence can go in the other direction, too. If your lungs are filled with ama and shleshma and have started to dry out from Udana Vata being out of balance, then your mind will feel a corresponding heaviness and irritation due to being unable to respond to the demands of everyday life. So the physical can affect the mental and the mental affects the physical. This is what we mean by the mind-body connection. This connection is clearly at play in the immunity of the lungs, because the lungs are the vital source of prana, or life breath, in the body. We inhale oxygen through the lungs, which mixes with blood to nourish the body — and circulates directly to the brain to nourish the mind and senses. If the channels of the lungs are clogged with ama and ojas is not flowing regularly there, then immunity is diminished and an infection or allergy can take hold. The lungs become a fertile ground for infection. The imbalance in the lungs then causes less oxygen to be circulated to the brain, creating stress to the mind and emotions.
Q: Fascinating. Modern medicine is also now paying attention to the intimate connection between mind and body, and the fact that stress is at the root of so many disorders, some quite serious. What would you say are the major causes of respiratory problems from the ayurvedic perspective?
A: The lungs are a vital organ, and consequently Maharishi Ayurveda describes the causal factors of the lowered immunity of the lungs in sophisticated and elaborate detail. There are three major factors for common imbalance or infection in the lungs as related to flu, colds, allergies and coughs:
- The first factor is holding natural urges. Ignoring the urge to urinate, the urge to move the bowels, or even the urge to sneeze or yawn, can create an imbalance in Udana Vata and start the chain of reactions that lead to lowered immunity in the lungs. Ayurvedic texts advise that you don't resist any natural urges, including the urge to sleep, to eat, to breathe normally while exercising, to cry, and to drink water — and the urges created by intestinal gas, vomiting, and ejaculation.
- The second factor is dietary. Eating nourishing food is important. By nourishing food is meant warm, freshly-cooked meals that include all six tastes; are suitable for the person's constitution and imbalances; and are light, wholesome, and easy to digest. Eating too much dry food or eating a steady diet of leftovers, fast foods, processed foods, or heavy foods that produce ama instead of ojas can lower immunity. Eating ama-producing foods disturbs the immune system in two ways: it creates weak digestion and improper elimination, thus leading to production of more ama than ojas. Other dietary factors that cause ama to accumulate are not eating the nourishing food at a regular time every day; not eating the main meal at around noon, when the digestive fire is at its peak; or overeating or fasting too much.
- Additional factors that can lower immunity in the lungs are hemorrhage, excessive jealousy, excessive mental and emotional stress, too much exercise, and weight lifting beyond your capacity. For example, carrying a load that is much too heavy for your ability, especially next to the chest; jumping from a high place; or trying to throw your weight into a moving vehicle to stop it all would be instances that could strain your chest and lungs. These, I would say, are the main causal factors.
Q: Why do respiratory problems tend to crop up during the fall and late winter?
A: Everyone is more susceptible to respiratory problems when the seasons are changing, such as in the fall and early spring. This is because the body functions differently in each season, and in the transition between the hot and cold seasons the agni, or digestive fire, can start to fluctuate dramatically. If you do not adjust your diet and routine and follow the ayurvedic guidelines for the seasonal transitions, you can build up ama. Once the body is fertile for disease, it is easy for a cold or flu to sprout, as in the seed and land theory mentioned earlier. That is why these kinds of respiratory illnesses and allergies abound in the fall and early spring. In the early spring, there is an added factor, because ama accumulated during the winter starts to melt, flooding the micro-channels and overloading the immune system. The body's immune system is weakened, and becomes a fertile ground for bacteria and allergens. For this reason, Maharishi Ayurveda recommends that you do the gentle purification treatments called panchakarma during these transitions between the seasons, in the fall and the early spring. Maharishi Panchakarma includes a full program of ayurvedic massage, steam baths and intestinal cleansing treatments, to rid your body of ama accumulated during the previous season. Panchakarma also strengthens your agni, or digestive fire, so more ama won't be accumulated.
Q: Can these treatments be done at home?
A: Panchakarma treatments should be performed under the supervision of an ayurvedic physician. But if you can't go to a Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center for internal cleansing, you can still follow an ayurvedic regimen at home to cleanse the body of ama during the transition between the seasons. For instance, you can eat warm, light, nourishing foods such as soups, or light meals of mildly-spiced vegetables with grains such as quinoa, couscous and millet. Eating a lighter diet for a few weeks while the weather is changing will help burn away ama rather than accumulate it. Also, be careful to get proper rest, drink plenty of warm fluids, and take daily walks or do other exercise that is suitable for your body type. If you feel less hungry at mealtimes than usual, or if you feel heavy and dull in the two hours immediately after a meal, these are indications that your digestive fire is burning low. To help enhance your agni, drink the herbalized water detailed in this interview, and add pomegranate chutney as a condiment for your meal. Visit the recipes section for my pomegranate chutney. Cooking your food with immune-enhancing spices such as cumin, fennel, coriander, turmeric, ginger and black pepper is also an important way to enhance agni and reduce ama. You can also take one tablet of the Maharishi Ayurveda herbal supplement Herbal Di-Gest with each meal to enhance digestion, or take two to three capsules of Herbal Cleanse at night if you are feeling constipated. Another very effective way to purify the body of ama at the change of seasons is to take Elim-Tox-O, one tablet morning and evening, for 45 days in the spring and the fall. Finally, it's important to always avoid the factors that cause ama to accumulate, in any season. Stay away from leftovers, processed foods, ice-cold foods and drinks, and heavy foods such as fried foods. Vegetables from the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and sweet peppers) should also be avoided, as these create ama.
Q: What are some dietary tips for enhancing respiratory immunity this winter?
A: Winter is actually the season to enhance the immune system, and support and nurture your body. Eat nourishing, warm food, and avoid any fasting in winter. This is the most effective time to take Amrit to nourish and rejuvenate your mind and body. The important thing is to eat light, warm foods, cooked with the immune-enhancing spices already mentioned. Avoid eating or drinking anything cold, because cold foods and drinks will enhance the impact of cold weather and reduce the digestive fire, leading to more ama. You'll also want to avoid heavy sweets, as these are difficult to digest. Start your day with a stewed apple for breakfast, cooked with spices such as cardamom. For specific food recommendations, follow a Vata-pacifying diet in fall and early winter (from October 15 to February 15). Eat all six tastes, but eat more of the sweet, sour, and salty tastes, as these enhance Vata. Vata-pacifying foods include nourishing grains such as rice and couscous; sweet, juicy fruits such as cooked apples or pears; squashes, zucchini, and asparagus; and light, easily-digestible proteins such as panir (a freshly-made cheese), lassi (a yogurt drink that aids digestion) and vegetable proteins such as mung dhal. Asparagus is especially good for enhancing the immune system.
Q: When winter gives way to spring, I assume the diet will change?
A: Later in the winter, around mid-February, the Kapha season starts and lasts until June. During this late part of winter and throughout the spring, it's best to follow a Kapha-pacifying diet. This is when the impurities accumulated earlier in the winter are melting, and the body needs a good cleansing diet to burn the ama away. Kapha-pacifying foods are pungent, dry and astringent, which is exactly the opposite of the Vata-pacifying diet just mentioned. One thing the two seasonal diets do have in common is warmth, so continue to avoid cold foods and drinks. Hot barley soups chock-full of astringent vegetables such as cauliflower or string beans would be a good Kapha-reducing food. Cooked vegetables seasoned with Organic Kapha Churna or the immune-enhancing spices mentioned earlier; light grains such as quinoa, millet and barley; and astringent dhals for protein are good Kapha-reducing fare. (For a lively and informative description of Vata and Kapha-balancing foods and helpful recipes, visit the foods section.)
Q: Ayurveda emphasizes proper lifestyle as well as diet. What are some lifestyle recommendations for enhancing immunity in winter?
A: A warm bath each day is very necessary to warm the body, open the pores, and regulate your body's internal thermostat. This is important in both Vata and Kapha season. Don't forget to do your daily ayurvedic massage before your bath. Daily massage is very important for opening the channels, stimulating the digestion, removing toxins from the body, and pacifying the doshas. It is especially soothing to Vata dosha, which is seated in the skin. All of these factors make massage a vital therapy in strengthening immunity and preventing respiratory problems. (It's important to note that massage is NOT recommended if you already have a cough or other respiratory imbalance, because it can push the ama deeper into the system. Also refrain from a full-body massage during menstrual flow.) The new Youthful Skin Massage Oils for Men and Women are ideal for any season, because they bring needed moisture to alleviate dryness of the skin. Designed to penetrate the deepest layers of the skin, the oil is absorbed by the skin much quicker than any other massage oils. These remarkable, newly-developed massage oils also have a trans-dermal effect on overall health, and thus help enhance immunity as well.
Q: Many people have a lowered immunity because of ongoing sleep deprivation. What are the ayurvedic recommendations in this regard?
A: I am glad you brought that up. Adequate sleep is especially important in Vata season, as it counteracts the lively, moving Vata. It is also essential for anyone in any season who wants to enhance immunity and resist disease. Take Blissful Sleep if you have trouble falling asleep (a Vata disorder), or Deep Rest if you wake frequently, especially between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. with energy (a Pitta disorder). Exercise is another important aspect of the ayurvedic routine, because it helps enhance agni and burns away toxins. It's important to choose the right exercise for your body type and for the season, though. Daily walks and yoga postures are good for balancing all the doshas and especially suit Vata types, while more vigorous daily exercise is required by Kapha types to stay healthy. Exercise is especially important during Kapha season, because it helps to boost agni and your immunity when toxins are flooding the body.
Q: Maharishi Ayurveda has a whole arsenal of herbal supplements especially geared towards immunity — and Amrit is the queen of them all. What other herbal supplements do you recommend for people who want to maintain respiratory health?
A: At Maharishi Ayurveda we have recently developed a new formula called Protection Plus Respiratory System, which contains 24 herbs that act synergistically to protect the lungs from respiratory problems. This is a holistic, powerful formula to separate the ama from the Shleshaka Kapha, thus making it easier to cleanse from the lung area. It also cleanses the channels of ama and nurtures, lubricates, and restores balance to the lungs as the impurities are dissolved, strengthening the area against further infection. You can take it as a preventive measure, to avoid getting respiratory "bugs" that may be going around. Protection Plus Respiratory System is meant to target the lungs' immunity, but of course it will also help the body's overall immune system. This particular formula is targeted to enhance the body's own ability to boost the immune system and fight the viruses and allergens that attack the lungs. It also balances all the doshas involved in respiratory immunity — Udana Vata, Prana Vata, Shleshaka Kapha and Avalambaka Kapha.
Q: What other herbal formulas do you recommend?
A: You can also drink a warm, immune-enhancing tea such as Sniffle Free Tea, twice a day with your meal or after it. The herbs in this thermogenic tea will help balance Kapha immediately. If your head is feeling heavy or congested, you can also use Sniffle Free Aroma Oil to help create balance and clear the sinuses. Bio-Immune tablets, Sniffle Free tablets, and Cold Weather Defense tablets are all immune-enhancing herbal supplements that you can take during the winter season to prevent respiratory problems. Bio-Immune is a powerful supplement that strengthens neuro-immunal responses, purifies the liver and blood, and dissolves ama and amavisha. Take one tablet of Bio-Immune each morning and evening to enhance overall immunity. Cold Weather Defense offers nutritional support to strengthen the body's natural immunity. It regulates fluid balance and mucus in the lungs and sinuses; removes toxins and shleshma from the lungs; and cleanses the micro-circulatory channels that have been blocked by ama. It boosts immunity and removes toxins that weaken resistance. Sniffle Free is aimed more at the upper respiratory system, and bolsters the body's natural resistance to the cold. Sniffle Free helps clear the channels, and when that happens, shleshma can be drained from the body. It strengthens the digestive fire, balances the production of moisture and mucus, improves resistance to cold temperatures, and enhances the bioavailability and circulation of vital nutrients.
You can see that all of these formulas are aimed at restoring balance, and they help repair the underlying imbalance and strengthen the immune system, rather than treat the superficial level of the symptoms. The problem with the symptomatic approach is that it doesn't solve the problem, which will likely come back again and again. When you use these Maharishi Ayurveda herbal products, which are time-tested ayurvedic formulas, you not only address the symptoms, but you address the underlying cause of the problem as well, so the body is more resistant and stronger in the future.
Q: This sounds like a very thorough and effective program for prevention, but what do you recommend if someone already has a cough or cold?
A: I would recommend seeing an ayurvedic physician, who can suggest herbs tailored for you. As a means to strengthen your body's response, you can take Protection Plus Respiratory System, drink Sniffle Free Tea twice a day and take the Bio-Immune tablets. Use the Sniffle Free Aroma Oil if you feel congested and heavy. Make sure that your bowel movement is regular. If you are constipated, you can use Organic Digest Tone or Herbal Cleanse
Q: Why are children and the elderly more susceptible to respiratory problems?
A: To understand this point, you need to first understand that Maharishi Ayurveda outlines three stages of life, called kalas, each governed by one of the three doshas. Children are in Kapha age (which lasts from birth to age 30), so in general children's agni has a Kapha quality and is a little low. Because of their lower agni, children in general create ama more easily. That's why parents have to be careful to keep enhancing the agni of their children, and provide them with warm, light yet nourishing, freshly-cooked meals. Children should avoid ice-cold drinks such as soda pop, avoid ice cream, and avoid packaged and processed foods, especially if they contain excessive sugar, as all of these are very heavy and hard to digest, and can contribute to respiratory problems. Even if your child doesn't like spicy foods, you can include some turmeric and fennel in his or her food, as these are sweeter, milder spices. Always boil their milk first before serving and add some mild, aromatic spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and clove to make it more digestible and to prevent ama from accumulating. Older people are in the Vata stage of life (from 60 on), and one of the characteristics of Vata is imbalanced agni. Consequently, older people can also create ama more easily. They also are influenced by seasonal change quicker than young people. Finally, in the Vata time of life, people have less ability to handle stress. With an ayurvedic routine that balances Vata dosha through dietary and lifestyle choices, older people can strengthen their digestion and enhance their immunity to respiratory problems. Practicing the Transcendental Meditation® technique twice a day can help combat stress at any age.
Q: What about someone who is exposed to air pollution on a regular basis, or people who have respiratory problems due to allergies?
A: Protection Plus Respiratory System is very good for someone who is in the unfortunate situation of being exposed to air pollution, because holy basil, and basil of any kind, is very good to counter air pollution. For this situation, you can take Protection Plus Respiratory System up to three to six months during the transitions in seasons, but not more. People who are in need of a balanced response to allergens should take Aller-Defense along with Protection Plus Respiratory System. This combination will provide the ingredients they need to enhance the agni and boost respiratory immunity.
The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.