It might not feel that cold yet, but as the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, do you ever have days where you find yourself feeling more irritable, on-edge, or overwhelmed than usual? Perhaps your digestion is off, your breath is short, and you just can’t seem to hit your groove?
As much you may have rationalized it or brushed it off as being “just a weird day”, there’s actually some legit, centuries-old wisdom to back it up. It’s Ayurveda, and if you’ve already been sipping golden milk lattes or adding herbs like ashwaghanda to your recipes, you’re already embracing this ancient approach to healing.
I’ve mentioned Ayurvedic medicine in previous posts, but if it’s the first time you’re reading about it, here’s a little primer.
Ayurveda 101: The Basics
In a nutshell, what is it?
Ayurveda isn’t just about nutrition, doing yoga, or taking herbs to heal specific ailments. Just like holistic wellness, it’s a lifestyle and a practice that is intended to guide us towards a place where mind, body and senses are all in harmony. It originated in India over five thousand years ago and is still at the foundation of India’s healthcare system today.
How do the elements apply?
Nature plays a big role in Ayurveda, and throughout the traditions and practices, you’ll see the elements (earth, fire, water, wind, air and ether) referenced. Ayurveda teaches that all of them are present in everything that exists, but usually one or two of the elements are dominant. That’s true of the seasons, as well as in humans. That’s right, YOU are most likely more dominant in a couple of those elements, which means different things for the practices Ayurvedic medicine would suggest help you live at your best.
What are doshas?
Back to those elements, you may have heard people say that they’re more kapha, pitta or vata. They’re talking about their dosha, Ayurvedic body type, or constitution. In more simple words, these describe physical appearance and function, what you like and dislike, sensitivities and tendencies, and what sort of vulnerabilities you have to various health ailments. If you’re curious about what yours is, have some fun and take this quick quiz to find out.
Ayurveda suggests that while we all have each dosha present in us, we’re born with one that tends to be consistently dominant throughout our lives. However, within our day to day, they can fluctuate. For example, if you tend towards the vata dosha (which I, as a vata-pitta type, do in some ways), you’re more likely to be cold frequently, sleep lightly, have dry skin and sensitive digestion. Knowing your most dominant constitution is helpful because Ayurvedic medicine offers recommendations for day to day living (foods you eat, how much you sleep, what kind of exercise you do, etc) that can help you to manage some of the troubling qualities that come along with that dominance. On a side note, being more vata-dominant isn’t all bad – there are some great vata qualities too!
What does this have to do with fall, winter and the other seasons?
If you live in the Northern hemisphere, late fall and winter coincide with what Ayurveda would consider the vata season. It has characteristics of being cold, brittle, dry, and light, which sounds kinda similar to the vata dosha, right? Regardless of your constitution, the vata season can mean all of us – not just the vata-dominant – become more prone to things like digestive issues, constipation, dryness, irritability, body aches and anxiety.
3 Ayurveda-inspired changes for better digestion this fall
As I said earlier, Ayurveda isn’t just about food and digestion, but these topics come up a lot. We know that food has the power to drastically affect the way we feel, our energy, sleep, appearance – all the things! Most of what I’m about to share is focused on food, plus the things you can do around mealtimes for better digestion.
1. Focus on becoming as relaxed as possible before you eat.
We’ve all had the experience of eating a meal in a rush or in the midst of a stressful day, right? One minute it’s on your plate, and the next, it’s gone and you have no recollection of the bites in between. But what you do notice is the uncomfortable indigestion, bloating, cramping, or perhaps all three, shortly after? Trust me, I’ve been there. And I totally get that it’s not always possible to do a full-on meditation session before you eat, although from personal experience, the difference it makes is significant in the best of ways! But anything you can do to calm your mind before eating – even if it’s just a few deep, slow breaths, will cue your body to follow suit, relax, and prepare to process the food you’re about to nourish it with. You’ll also enjoy it more.
2. Cook your vegetables, especially the cruciferous ones.
This is a really, really important one, especially in the winter. Cruciferous veggies like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale have so many amazing health benefits and they’re amongst my favourites in the veggie kingdom. They’re touted for their anti-cancer compounds, dense vitamin and mineral profile, and they also taste amazing in so many different recipes. So why should they be cooked? If you’ve ever eaten a lot of them – especially raw ones – you probably already know.
Cruciferous veggies contain sulfur, and when that gets broken down in the intestines, it produces a lovely (sense the sarcasm) smelling gas. Yep, think rotten eggs. They also contain an oligosaccharide (a type of carbohydrate) that our bodies can’t properly digest, so it passes through the digestive system without being broken down. As you can imagine, the high fiber content of cruciferous veggies can make us gassy and bloated – particularly if you already deal with conditions like IBS.
The fix? Cook! Steaming your cruciferous vegetables helps to eliminate some of the effects above, and if steaming sounds boring, then roasting or stir-frying with a healthy, heat-appropriate fat source is also a great way to enjoy these. Not only do heat-stable fats like coconut oil, avocado oil and ghee make the cruciferous fam taste amazing, but this also helps our bodies make better use of the fat-soluble vitamins found in the veggies.
3. Incorporate more warming foods.
I’m not just talking about trading your salad for cooked vegetables here, but also soups, stews, curries, broths and anything made warming herbs and spices. As you may have guessed, since vata is characterized as being cold, light, brittle and dry, many seasonal vata-appropriate recipes provide balance by being on the more heavy, oily, warm and moist side. Ayurveda emphasizes eating what’s in season, so many of the foods below won’t come as a surprise.
- Fruit (Ayurvedic medicine recommends serving warm)
- Herbal tea, and in general, swap out any cold liquids for warm ones
- Mung beans
- Nuts + seeds (high in protein and fat to help insulate the body, especially for vatas who typically have thinner frames)
- Oats, quinoa, rice
- Oils: avocado, coconut, flax, olive, sesame, ghee
- Spices + herbs: Ginger, turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, fennel, licorice (the tea and the herb, not Twizzlers!)
- Sweet potatoes
- Winter squash
Recipes to try
Of course, food is just one element of overall wellness, whether you’re looking at Ayurvedic traditions or Western practices that we’ve become more familiar with. Other aspects like relaxation, sleep, stress management and social connection are equally important, so if you’re feeling a little mood swingy or irritable over the coming months, take a look at these areas and try to identify where you might be lacking. There’s nothing wrong with taking a day to yourself to do what you need, whether that’s spending the day in bed with a good book, a massage, or a walk while catching up with a close friend. Whatever you need, make it happen!