In the last twenty plus years, Western society has witnessed a stark increase in inflammatory diseases (an umbrella term to refer to diseases associated with chronic inflammation of the digestive tract). According to a recent study, chronic inflammatory diseases are the cause of death for 3 out of 5 people. In the United States, chronic inflammation is a serious problem that is anticipated to only get worse in the next 30 years.
Thankfully, Ayurveda provides a path forward that heals the body at the foundational level. It does so by restoring balance in the body between one’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual layers. As with all things, Ayurveda approaches chronic pain and inflammation by discovering and treating the root causes rather than merely treating its symptoms.
How does pain and inflammation show up in the body?
Chronic pain is often caused by an inflammatory response in the body. If you have chronic pain, you likely first had inflammation that developed into pain. Inflammation becomes chronic when the root cause isn’t addressed and it then festers in the body for a long period of time. Unlike other diseases in the body, symptoms aren’t always obvious with chronic inflammation until the issue becomes much worse and manifests as serious disease.
Common signs of inflammation in the body:
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Body pain, arthralgia, myalgia
- Chronic fatigue and insomnia
- Depression, anxiety, and mood disorders
- Gastrointestinal complications (constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux)
- Acne or psoriasis
- Joint pain and/or stiffness
Common ailments associated with inflammation:
- Heart disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease
- Inflammatory bowel diseases (inflammation of digestive tract)
- Autoimmune disorders
- Food sensitivities and allergies
What causes inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s natural, self-healing mechanism against infection, toxins, injury, and trauma. Once the issue has been resolved, the body produces an anti-inflammatory response to bring the body back into balance.
Inflammation is actually a positive and protective response in the body. However, chronic conditions or a weakened immune system impair the body’s ability to regulate itself. This can then cause chronic inflammation, leading to severe and long-term damage to one’s health.
A variety of factors can cause chronic inflammation in the body, but it’s typically provoked by poor, long-term diet and lifestyle choices.
Inflammation Causing Foods
Poor quality foods, especially processed foods, are a major cause of chronic inflammation. Unfortunately, processed foods make up the majority of food items in the Standard American Diet (SAD).
Common SAD ingredients that can cause inflammation include sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, artificial trans fats, vegetable oils, refined carbohydrates, processed meat, and high amounts of alcohol. Many of these ingredients are found in packaged and processed foods, which fill the majority of the aisles at the grocery store. Bags of chips, frozen dinners, white bread, granola bars, fruit snacks, and many other common food items all fall under the category of processed foods.
An easy way to detect processed foods is to look at the ingredient list on the back of food items. The more ingredients on the list that you don’t recognize (i.e. monosodium glutamate or MSG), the more processed it likely is.
You can also learn which foods are processed and which aren’t by considering how close a particular food item is to its natural state. An apple for example is in its whole form, whereas an apple flavored NutriGrain bar is much more processed and lacks important nutrients.
Other common causes of chronic inflammation:
- Lack of exercise
- Lifestyle habits, like being excessively busy
- Using toxic body products
- Heavy consumption of alcohol
- Drinking an excess amount of coffee
- Long-term exposure to irritants like industrial chemicals or air pollution
- Chronic stress
- Trauma, both emotional and physical
- Obesity or excess weight
Pitta Dosha and Inflammation
In Ayurveda, chronic inflammation is thought to be the result of an imbalanced Pitta dosha. Doshas (a foundational concept in the teachings of Ayurveda) are energies within the body that influence how we feel and how we act. (Discover your dominant dosha here.) Pitta is the fire (or agni) of the body, responsible for digestion and transformation.
When Pitta is out of balance, it means there’s excess heat in the body. This heat can manifest in a number of different ways. It can show up on the skin as acne or psoriasis, in the digestive system as diarrhea, or even in the way we treat others. Excess heat can also cause someone to feel more reactive, jealous, or irritable.
Treatment of excess heat in the body varies depending on the location and cause of inflammation. But in general, Ayurveda suggests balancing any dosha by incorporating its opposite qualities (like increases like and opposites balance each other). To pull Pitta back into balance, it’s best to avoid foods and activities that increase heat and replace them with options that offer cooling qualities.
Tips to Cool The Fire
Since chronic inflammation often leads to disease in the body, it’s critical to incorporate inflammation-reducing habits into your life to experience optimal health. Inflammation can be controlled and even reversed by prioritizing healthy, anti-inflammatory foods and choices into your life. Here are additional tips to cool the fire:
- Eat a cooling and Pitta-pacifying diet, which includes:
- Coconut oil
- Coconut water
- Kale, collards, and dandelion greens
- Sweet and juicy fruits like dates, apples, avocado
- Avoid Pitta (heat) provoking foods:
- Spicy foods
- Nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, white potatoes)
- Citrus fruit
- Fatty and fried foods
- Refined sugar
- Caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol
- Salty, sour, and pungent foods
- Consume pitta-pacifying herbs, like Boswellia, Turmeric, Ginger, and Ashwagandha. Herbs are especially helpful in controlling chronic inflammation, but it’s important to note that diet and lifestyle changes are necessary for long-term changes. Before using herbs, always consult an Ayurvedic or Holistic Health Practitioner first.
- Practice abhyanga (self massage) with cooling oil, like ZV Botanicals CHILL Oil
- Prioritize stress reduction activities, like Yin Yoga and pranayama
It’s important to remember that regardless of the health challenge, treatment is always individual. Ayurveda can provide a framework for understanding health issues like chronic inflammation, but treatment always depends on the unique needs of each person.
Chronic inflammation is a major health concern in the United States. We experience inflammation when our bodies are out of balance and unable to regulate themselves, leading to serious health concerns down the road. Thankfully, Ayurveda paves a path forward and reminds us that we don’t have to wait for symptoms to appear before we start treating our bodies with care and intention. The journey toward healing yourself begins by simply acknowledging that you have the power to do so.