Ayurveda on eating disorders

A lot has been going on. It’s hard to put in words, I have been re-writing this sentence several times now. Part of me wants to tell the whole story, another part doesn’t think it’s relevant for anyone but me (maybe that’s true, or maybe that’s just the part talking that is reluctant to show itself for what it is).

Waking my demons

The short version is: The circumstances in my life – less than two weeks away from unemployment, a long week at work coming up involving travel, and spiritual growth – have awoken an old demon: my eating disorder (binge-eating). It hasn’t been this bad since university, in some respects it’s even worse. For several weeks now it has been a daily struggle (“struggle” seems like a euphemism since I haven’t had much fight in me it seems), I have even gone and bought stuff I craved, which I never ever have done before.

Practical remedies for when you feel weak

I think I know what the underlying issue is here: and old karmic trauma, the memory of which I recently conjured when I made a wish. I do want to get into that at some point but right now I want to focus on the symptoms. For while I believe that my best chances of overcoming this self-destructive habit is by dealing with the issues I am trying to distract myself from with it, I also feel a need for something more hands-on, a lower obstacle. Because honestly: sometimes the advice “Well then just don’t give into these cravings, and you’ll find out what’s really the issue” is just not practical. If it were easy, or if I felt that strong, I probably wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.

This is the part I want to share with you not just because it helps me writing about these things but because I think that the information I came across this afternoon is helpful to anyone with an eating disorder/an unhealthy relationship to food (just out of curiosity, are there any people left who have a healthy one?).

An Ayurvedic approach to eating disorders

I remembered some of the Ayurveda books I read also mentioned eating disorders as symptoms of dosha imbalances (I wrote about Ayurveda and its terminology before, click on the category “Ayurveda” or scroll down to the relevant links if you want to know more). So I tried to find books with an Ayurvedic perspective on eating disorders. Once again I am grateful for the internet, and people sharing their work there so generously. I found a very informative article (please note that all facts I’ll be stating are from that article, unless otherwise marked):

“Pathology of Eating Disorders From an Ayurvedic Perspective” by Alakananda Devi

It uses a lot of Ayurveda terminology, so I am trying to make this a sort of easy to understand summary. I encourage you however to read the original article in any case. There are lots of cases to illustrate the technicalities, and also because I will (for obvious, selfish) reasons mostly be going into the things that pertain to my situation, since those caught my eye.

Some basic insights

Let’s start from the beginning:

  1. Eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia, overeating) are related to stress and/or food allergies.
  2. How we react to stress in our eating habits depends on our individual constitution (dosha – Vata, Pitta or Kapha).
  3. Bad choices regarding food may stem from lack of education (meaning: we just don’t know any better than to eat they way we were taught as children), and for some (especially Pitta) they are a way to cope with trauma.

I am a Pitta-Kapha (right now with a severe Kapha imbalance, I’d say). For me, just recognizing myself in a lot of the symptoms stated in this article helps. Heck, just reading that

  • Vata types are prone to anorexia/bulimia and tend to forget to eat,
  • Pitta cannot skip meals and has a tendency to sugar addiction,
  • Kapha easily puts on weight and is inclined to overeating

is huge! It takes away the feeling of personal guilt, and shifts the perspective to “This is how I as a Vata/Pitta/Kapha person react to stress, now let’s see what can be done about that”.

There is no “one size fits all” solution

I have been praising Ayurveda for its individualistic approach in probably every article I wrote, and I find myself wanting to stress this crucial point once again: what is great about Ayurveda is that it does not claim to offer a universal solution. What is good for you always depends on who you are, therefore any “‘one size fits all’ approach”, as Alakanda Devi puts it, is bound to set you up for failure. Unless, of course, you just happen to be the right person for the method but I’d prefer finding the right method for me …

Like increases like

Although there are no universal remedies, Ayurveda knows of certain universal principles. One of them is: like increases like. Often times like is also attracted to like, which is highly relevant when it comes to eating disorders. For according to Devis article, some eating disorders are the result of food allergies, and once recognized as such can be (relatively) easily cured.

For example, Kapha types are often (or more often than other types) allergic to wheat, gluten, and cow dairy. The “like increases like” and “like is attracted to like” explains why someone can be craving food that is actually bad for them. Various readings and nutrition experiments have led me – time and time again – to the conclusion that I am better off skipping sugar, dairy, and carbs (mainly wheat/gluten). Yet when I have cravings, I want ice-cream, cereal with lots of milk, and bread with cheese. Now I know why. (I kind of want to put sugar in a separate category because it seems like it works more like drug. Some say that refined sugar isn’t good for anyone, especially not the amounts we are used to consuming nowadays, others say that only certain people are more sensitive to its negative effects – either way, I’m it, I guess.) I know that cutting out the foods that are bad for me does not help with the psychological aspect of my eating disorder – but I imagine that for someone whose problems with eating are the result of an (undetected) food allergy, this information is really a big piece of the puzzle.

I think my Kapha is out of balance …

Even before I read this article I had been observing myself and recognizing certain tendencies which just seemed to have “excess Kapha” written all over them:

  • I have been feeling very tired, pushing my getting-up time gradually to way into the Kapha or even Pitta phase of the day.
  • I have been feeling heavy, and at the same time craving foods with that exact quality (peanut butter with honey turned out to be my no. 1 poison, not to give you any ideas …), which made me feel even heavier – both principles, “like is attracted to like”, and “like increases like” working at their utmost here.
  • My cravings and the binges have been at their worst at night, between 6 pm and 10 pm, which is the second Kapha cycle of the day (despite the knowledge of the different dosha cycles, I had not been able to connect the dots previous to reading Devi’s article, so thanks for that!).
  • I have been lazy, not exercising at all, basically the thought of physical labor could make me feel exhausted.

There is a lot more in that article but this seems like a good place to stop for now.

Now that I have realized all this, what am I to do with this?

First of all, like I mentioned in the beginning, just having this information and recognizing myself in the symptoms/cases described makes me feel like a weight has been lifted off me. Apart from dealing with the underlying issue, which may seem daunting and hard to grasp at times, there are “hard facts”. There are factors that contribute to me going on binges, and factors that can make it easier to withstand them. Those seem more tangible, easier to change, even when I don’t feel strong enough to deal with the big picture.

Once again, it’s the little things – baby steps.

Like being aware of the fact that it’s not necessarily just a question of willpower and discipline whether I can withstand cravings at night but that the Kapha dominance during these hours is a contributing factor. So I prepare myself for the risk, and find something to do to take my mind off of food – like writing this post.

I am reminded of the impact that sugar, wheat, and dairy have on me – not only on my physical well-being but also emotionally. This makes me feel motivated to try and make more deliberate choices about what I eat. I try to focus on what is good for me, and what I enjoy eating instead of thinking of it as “All the things I’m not allowed”. This is a tricky one since I am never oblivious as to whether what I eat is good for me or not …

Exercising helps reduce Kapha – as with everything, I am going to try and set the bar as low as possible, and raise it gradually (I tend to set my goals to high, get frustrated by failure, and respond by giving up completely). Going for an hour long walk every day seems do-able.

I want to try and see my cravings as something positive: after all, they are undeniable hints of something being awry. In my quest to find out my what my issues are, what it is that I am so afraid of to surface that I need to stuff it down with vast amounts of food, there is one fail-proof way of finding out: not giving in to the cravings, and seeing where that leads me. Like I said before, this is the hardest part.

I want to get better at asking for help. Both friends and the universe in my morning meditation.

Going to see to it that I get back to getting up early again.

More practical advice

Here’s another site with a few more hands-on things to do, e. g. different yogi techniques, which I want to try:

  • Sweet Ayurveda Treatment to Stop Emotional Eating & Lose Weight – I know I’ll feel silly doing this even when nobody’s around, but it’s worth a try, right?
  • Healthy Ayurveda Diet To Burn Fat & Lose Weight – OK, that title does not sound good, and I am not so sure about some of the advice but still, I’m definitely in need of some Kapha reduction.
  • 5 Healthy Weight Loss Tips from Ayurveda – More weight loss stuff. I am actually proud of myself for not even having tried hard to not make this the focus of this post (gee, that was a lot of negatives). And the fact that I am finally at a point where weight loss isn’t my main concern anymore (although claiming that it isn’t a concern at all would be a lie, sadly).
  • 6 Safe & Natural Weight Los Solutions – again, dumb title, not so sure about some of the advice (drinking hot water with honey? From what I understand honey has the same effect as sugar, so probably a red flag for me) but most of it sounds pretty good to me, especially the meditations and yoga exercises.
  • 11 Guidelines for eating healthy | Guide on how to eat right – This is straight up Ayurveda, you can probably find this in every book on the subject. I should print these out and put them up somewhere to remind myself. Very basic, very true – often times hard to abide by because we’ve overwritten this common sense (for that is really what this, or anything Ayurveda, is) with other rules.

Other relevant links

Ayurvedic Diet – A good overview

Ayurveda – Becoming your own expert

A Science of Sleep

Which is your dominant dosha?

What’s your morning routine?

4 thoughts on “Ayurveda on eating disorders

  1. Solveigh, thank you so much for sharing this! Please don’t ever doubt again if what you write is relevant or not :) It has been so helpful for me to read this and I have been looking for this all over the internet. I recognize so much in your post. Although I am not completely sure of my dosha (have my first consultation next week), I think I might also be pitta-kapha.
    Hope you find your balance back soon :)

    1. Thanks, Marissa, for your kind words, I appreciate them! Sorry for not responding to your comment sooner, I don’t spend much time online these days (not completely voluntary, hehe). How did your consultation go? I wish you all the best, I feel like this response doesn’t express how much your comment means to me. It really does, though!

  2. Solveig, thank you so much for writing this, and I am going to explore other posts in your blog. That is, after I take my walk :-)

    I am a vata all the way but looking over my past can recall times of clear pitta and kapha imbalances. I developed anorexia/bulimia around the age of 11 and that went on until I was directed to a 12 step program for people with eating disorders. That began my spiritual path, and I believe (and as you have discovered as well), spiritual practice has been a huge part of my healing. Ayurveda has been indispensable to me in learning that we are indeed all different. To think that as a vata, I lived on raw salads, diet soda, and coffee for years! No wonder I spun so out of balance I was actually diagnosed bipolar. Thankfully, medications made it worse so I’ve been able to bring myself (slowly) back to center with the idea of living naturally and striving for balance, which is what Ayurveda is all about. I also pay attention to the seasons, both in nature and in life. I remember my pitta phase well (I was a performer, traveling all the time, very competitive, working out like crazy) and now that I’m 53 I am in the vata phase of life. I need to allow myself to slow down and let go of the fierce need to achieve. I need to embrace routine (ugh!) It is also winter here in New York State, so I am balancing Vata as much as I can. LOTS of oil massages, neti pot with naysa oil every day, easy strolls in the snow, light yoga. In Kapha season, I add Kapha balancing – more aerobic exercise (break out the bike – but take it easy), more fresh fruits and vegetables. In summer, I can allow a little more cooling food in, and I can’t overexert or I get depressed. The one variable is that I’m looking for a job now. I think useful employment is going to help me balance more and establish more routine.

    Thank you for your thoughtful work.

    1. Speaking of vata – here I am replying to myself . . . just wanted also to point out that even a 24-hour day is divided in to Vata (2:00-6:00), Kapha (6:00-10:00) and Pitta (10:00-2:00) times when those energies are in play and need to be honored and balanced!

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