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:
- Eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia, overeating) are related to stress and/or food allergies.
- How we react to stress in our eating habits depends on our individual constitution (dosha – Vata, Pitta or Kapha).
- 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
Which is your dominant dosha?
Here comes some of that „basic Ayurveda stuff“ I have been meaning to write about. I have been using terms such as „Pitta“, „dosha“ and „dominant dosha“ without actually explaining them. Maybe you’ve looked them up yourself, maybe you just overread them.
The ten pairs of gunas
Ayurveda is much about qualities (gunas) of things, more precisely: keeping the balance of pairs of qualities. The Charaka Samhita, tells of twenty different qualities, or ten pairs of qualities (a pair consisting of two opposite qualities):
- heavy – light
- cold – warm
- oily – dry
- dull – sharp
- static – mobile
- soft – hard
- cloudy – clear
- smooth – rough
- dense – porous
- solid – liquid
Two basic rules
These qualities are used to describe especially food but also the different doshas, our environment, etc. When it comes to the relationship of the pairs, Ayurveda knows two basic rules:
- Like increases like.
- Opposites balance each other.
It is important to remember that everything is relative here: „hot“ can be „cold“ when compared to something even hotter, etc. Also: like is often drawn to like. This is the part where listening to your intuition gets a little tricky. For example, sometimes your body seems to be craving exactly what it actually has too much of.
Space, Air, Fire, Water, Earth – the five elements
These qualities can also be found in the five elements, that everything in the world consists of – according to Ayurveda:
- Space – cloudiness
- Air – lightness, mobility, dryness
- Fire – warmth, lightness, sharpness, liquidity
- Water – cold, liquidity, softness, smoothness
- Earth – heaviness, density, stability
Vata, Pitta & Kapha – the three doshas
These five elements in turn make up the three vital energies (doshas) that are the foundation for all physical and mental processes in body and soul:
- Vata – consisting of air and space, air being the dominant element
- Pitta – consisting of fire and water, fire being dominant
- Kapha – consisting of water and earth, water being dominant
Click on the excerpts to get to the source and read a little more about each dosha:
„Vata is the principle of mobility that regulates all activity in the body. It is this energy that governs the movement of everything from our own thoughts to the food in our intestines. Vata is responsible for creativity, speech, inspiration, excitement, adventure, happiness and joy.“
„Pitta is the principle of combustion and integration. Pitta is responsible for the absorption and assimilation of foods, thoughts, experiences and emotions, and is signified by order, logic, and reason.“
„Kapha is the principal of structure and density. It is responsible for lubrication of joints, tissues and cells. Kapha is also the dosha of devotion, beauty, endurance, and peace.“
Do you recognize yourself in any of this? Maybe in more than one dosha? That’s what I like about Ayurveda: although it may at first seem like this is about filing people away into one of three neat little drawers – the system is actually quite complex, and helpful and easy to apply to yourself all at once.
Your dosha constitution – your finger print
According to this, yes, we all are a combination of only these three doshas. Yet, there are many possible combinations: some have one very clearly dominant dosha, others two (with one being dominant over the second), very few are evenly balanced. Yet, even individuals who have the same dominant dosha (combination) can be very different, for each dosha has many qualities, and we all express different aspects of each dosha, so it’s kind of like with finger prints: we all have them, yet no two people’s finger prints are the same.
Obviously, there is a lot more to learn about this than I can convey in a single blog entry. This is really more to give you an overview of what I find fascinating. If you’re hooked: Once again, I recommend Judith H. Morrison’s The Book of Ayurveda. Also, for the Swedes among you: Skapa din hälsa med Ayurveda by Maivor Stigengreen (available in German as Ayurveda: Die eigene Gesundheit stärken).
So what is the point of knowing your dosha(s)?
To put it simply knowing your nature is what it takes for you to be able to live according to that nature. Maybe you are so in tune with your intuition that you already do – then you don’t need any of this. This is just the irony: Ayurveda is actually a tool for following your intuition – which only those of us need who have forgotten/“over-written“ our ability to do just that. My guess is that there are many more like me who have been taught, and allowed others to teach them to obey somebody else’s rules rather than the signs their own body gives them. How many of us weren’t taught that everybody in the family eats at the same time, the same food? But what if we have different needs? The idea to make everyone equal is not a bad one. However, we are not all the same, so what’s really important isn’t „the same for everyone“ but creating the same opportunity for everyone to meet their individual needs.
Living in tune with your nature according to Ayurveda does not mean balancing out all three doshas so that you have exactly the same amount of each in you. Maintaining a balance means taking into account your personal dosha constitution and living according to it. This is nothing stable – your constituiton can change, and is dependent on factors such as environment, age, your particular situation in life (work environment, relationships, etc.). Everything is connected. Also, since like increases like, and like is often drawn to like, you will most likely develop imbalances in your dominant dosha(s).
Who are you?
Maybe you are curious now as to what your dominant dosha(s) might be, and whether you have any imbalances. Or maybe you just enjoy these kind of „personality tests“. Either way, here is a link to an online test. If you want to figure out whether you have any imbalances: take the test twice. Once answer according to your current situation, the second time answer according to what you would consider your normal state. The areas where you get different scores show you where your imbalance lies.
PS: This is a scheduled post by the way, like most everything today, Friday and Saturday will be. Contrary to what it may seem like, I am not a only a homemaker, I do have another job, one that society deems worthy of recognizing as such (= I get paid for that one). I have a weird schedule where I sometimes have long periods where I am off work, followed by days where I do nothing but work and sleep. So that’s that.
A Science of Sleep
My infatuation with Ayurveda still feels new, it’s only been a few weeks. That’s why it’s so amazing to me that it already has made such a huge impact on my life. The biggest change Ayurveda has led me to – perhaps like a lot of significant changes – is concerning something seemingly banal: my sleeping rhythm.
I already knew about myself that I really am a morning person. I have always loved the early hours, rising with the rest of nature. Most of all I have the best energy to get things done in the morning. Already in the early afternoon I feel like I can’t work/be productive anymore. After 4pm I really want to be done. The evening hours are definitely not mine, I get like a little kid: way too tired but still throwing because some part of me doesn’t want to go to bed. It’s a What?!-Surely-this-can’t-be-everything-something -more-needs-to-happen kind of mood. Do you know what I mean?
Yet when I had no external reason that forces me to get up early, I simply could not bring myself to do it. I have tried many times, and failed. I was trapped in that vicious circle of not being able to go to bed early, then for fear of lack of sleep not being able to get up early, either (or maybe it’s the other way around, you know, the hen and the chicken).
For some reason not getting enough sleep (enough being about 8 hours for me) bothered me a lot. I used to make myself even more anxious by checking out the clock, and thinking „I still have seven hours left – if I fall asleep RIGHT NOW“. I realized that that never helps (yup, I am that smart!). There is just something I resent about this tired state that you walk around in the day after, which makes it really hard to function even when you have to. Thus, whenever I could let myself sleep in, I did.
Thanks to these amazing Ayurveda books (man, am I sounding like a salesperson on a teleshopping channel or what?), I came to understand why my way of trying to compensate for lack of sleep did not work. Also, I’ve come to understand that being tired is not so much connected to actual lack of sleep but depends on what time of day you get up. After about two weeks, I now get up between 5 am and 6 am – without even setting an alarm. I try to make a point of going to bed between 9 pm and 10 pm, which works for the most part (and when it doesn’t turn out that way, it is now more often than not a deliberate choice because I choose to meet up with friends or something). The more important point: I am now able to fall asleep within minutes of going to bed, which has NEVER been normal for me. Even as a kid I often was the last person laying awake in their bed.
Before I go into what the Ayurveda take on sleep is, I just want to say that if you are not familiar with Ayurveda, then a few of the terms will probably be confusing. I am aware of that, and I do want to write more about the basic stuff – but I just felt like writing about this today, so I am just going be so bold as to refer you to „the internet“. I assume that that’s what you all do anyway – look up stuff you don’t know. Although it would obviously be much neater if I wrote everything in „the right order“, one post building on the next, it would not be very authentic (I know there is a better word, but I can’t come up with it right now). I don’t know about you but I am not really used to this concept yet, so I need to remind myself of this: You don’t need me to explain the world to you, and I do not need to sacrifice the impulse to write about anything to formal or stylistic rules. This linear way of expressing things/ourselves is no longer necessary today. We are free. To make the reading not completely aggravating, I will probably insert a few short explanation here and there anyway, but I will not go into too much detail. You would probably have found it yourself but here’s a link to an Ayurveda 101.
So what is the Ayurvedic take on sleep?
There are very few universal Ayurvedic recommendations, since we are not all the same in most regards. We do have different needs when it comes to how much sleep are good for us (ranging from six to eight hours, give or take), also depending on the season, where we are in our lives, etc. One thing that does apply to everyone, however, is that we are all part of nature, who „awakens“ in the morning, and that lays down to rest in the evening. So should we.
Ayurveda knows five elements (space, air, fire, water, earth) and three natural forces or energy forms (doshas) which reflect the energies of the five elements in different ways: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. This relates to sleep not only in so far as these doshas describe our own constitutions (which in turn determines how much sleep we need). The doshas are also linked to different phases of the day.
Each of the three doshas is dominant during two periods in a day:
6 am to 10 am – Morning’s Kapha period
10 am to 2 pm – Mid-day Pitta period
2 pm to 6 pm – Afternoon’s Vata period
6 pm to 10 pm – Evening’s Kapha period
10 pm to 2 am – Nighttime’s Pitta period
2 am to 6 am – Morning’s Vata period
Have you ever noticed that you woke up early in the morning – but then decided, „Nah, it’s too early!“, went back to sleep – and woke up hours later, even more tired?
That’s happened to me many times. The explanation, according to Ayurveda, is, that if you sleep through the Kapha period (Kapha having qualities like „heavy“, „stable“, „earthy“, etc.), that dosha rises in your own constitution – meaning, that you feel „heavier“ = it gets harder to wake up. This excess Kapha then influences you throughout the day. (Of course a lot of other factors play in, like always. The extend of the effects are different depending on your dominant dosha(s) in the particular situation.)
Ideally one should get up in the beginning of the morning’s Kapha period. And, looky there: the second Kapha period is between 6 pm and 10 pm, which is when nature prepares to „call it a day“. Here we should take advantage of the Kapha qualities, and do the same: finish up and unwind, so that we can go to bed, and ideally go to sleep by the end of that period.
Because the period that follows is dominated by the firy Pitta-dosha. When I read this it suddenly made sense to me how I could be tired, yet feel like I didn’t want to go to bed: I had pushed past Kapha period, and my Pitta dosha was rising again (Pitta also happens to be my dominant dosha, thus re-enforcing the effect).
So how do you break the cycle? And how do you compensate for lack of sleep?
The first rule seems to be: Whatever changes you are going to make, make them gradually. I somehow missed that part, so I went straight from sleeping until 12pm to getting up at 6 am. I had a burning stomach after every meal for over a week (still do, sometimes), and if I am connecting the dots correctly, that is the result of the sudden shift in my doshas. Before, when I slept long hours and through the morning Kapha and half of the morning Pitta period, Kapha naturally was more dominant in me. I really did have less energy then, despite getting so much sleep, as I thought. After the switch in my waking hours, my Pitta energy basically went through the roof, and all the spicy things I usually ate, that were before ok with my Kapha dominance, suddenly were too much. Sounds complicated, I know, and in a way it is, when you believe that everything is connected, which is what Ayurveda is all about. But it makes sense. Therefore:
Don’t quit any behavior „cold turkey“.
Get up 15 to 30 minutes earlier every day, and go to bed 15 to 30 minutes earlier every day – until you’ve got your ideal rhythm.
If you do get too little sleep, still get up at your usual time, and no later than 8 am. Don’t try to make up for it by letting yourself sleep in (the reasons have hopefully become apparent by now). Instead make sure that you do go to bed earlier the next day, and try to go easy on yourself during the day. I suppose for some it’s ok to take naps in the afternoon, I just know that that doesn’t work for me at all. But again, Ayurveda is all about being your own expert, so you really know what works best for you.
Well, this has turned into another long post with no pictures. I am sharing this anyway, hoping that you find this information as helpful as I did. I wish you the best for whatever changes you are making or hoping to make in your life. Remember to be kind to yourself, and forgiving if you find yourself not able to make certain changes.