Ayurveda sees food and spices as medicinal substances and good digestion as one of the main factors to optimal health. This is why it places great emphasis on proper food combining and on the concept of shad rasa, or six tastes. These six tastes –sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent– should be present in balanced proportions in the diet. Understanding them and how they relate to our individual constitution can help us make better choices to promote and maintain health.
According to Ayurveda, we are born with a unique constitution, which is an individual combination of the three doshas, or principles that govern the function of our bodies on the physical, mental and emotional levels. These three energies are vata, pitta and kapha. Disease is caused by an imbalance of any of the doshas and by the presence of ama, or toxic food byproducts (food that hasn’t been totally digested).
Vata is the subtle energy associated with movement. It governs respiration, circulation and elimination, as well as the pulsation of the heart and motor neuron impulses. When aggravated, it can cause disorders such as flatulence, constipation, tremors, spasms, asthma, rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, as well as many neurological problems.
Pitta represents the fire element in the body. It governs digestion, absorption, assimilation, nutrition, metabolism and body temperature. Pitta type of disorders include hyperacidity, ulcers, all sorts of skin eruptions, chronic fatigue, Crohn’s disease, colitis and numerous inflammatory problems.
Kapha is the energy that forms the structure of the body and provides lubrication to the joints and organs. Out of balance, kapha can cause problems such as obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, edema, asthma, tumors and a variety of congestive disorders.
According to Ayurveda, the best preventive medicine and support of the natural healing process is a diet and lifestyle specific to the constitutional needs of the individual and in line with the seasons and cycles of nature.
Because of their qualities and taste, foods that tend to increase a certain dosha may aggravate it and likewise, foods that decrease that dosha will pacify it and normalize its functions. Vata pacifying foods will have more sweet, sour and salty tastes and less of excessively hot, bitter and pungent tastes. Pitta pacifying foods will be more sweet, bitter and astringent and less sour, salty and pungent. Finally, kapha pacifying foods will be more pungent, bitter and astringent and less sweet, salty and sour. A quick overview of the six tastes can give us an idea of what types of food will aggravate one dosha or the other.
Sweet taste is present in foods such as sugar, milk, rice, wheat, dates, maple syrup and licorice. Its qualities are usually oily, cooling and heavy. In moderation, it promotes the growth of plasma, blood, fat, muscles, bones, marrow and reproductive fluids. In excess, sweet produces many disorders in all doshas. Sweet foods can cause colds, heaviness, loss of appetite, obesity, abnormal muscle growth, lymphatic congestion, tumors, edema and diabetes.
Sour taste is present in foods like citrus, sour cream, yogurt, vinegar, cheese, lemon, unripe mangoes, green grapes and fermented food. Its qualities are liquid, light, heating and oily, and it has anabolic action. In moderation, sour foods are refreshing. They stimulate the appetite, improve the digestion, energize the body and nourish the heart. In excess, this taste can cause hyperacidity, ulcers and perforations. Its fermenting action can be toxic to the blood and cause skin conditions like acne, dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, boils and edema, as well as burning sensations in the throat, chest, heart, bladder and urinary tract.
All salts, seafood and sea vegetables are examples of salty taste. Salty taste is so strong that it can easily nullify the effect of all other tastes. It is heating, heavy and oily. In moderation, it is laxative and can lessen spasms and pain in the colon. Like sweet and sour, it is anabolic in action. It promotes growth and maintains water electrolyte balance. It stimulates salivation, enhances the flavor of food and aids the digestion, absorption and elimination. Too much salt in the diet makes the blood viscous and thick, can cause hypertension and aggravates skin conditions. Heat sensations, fainting, wrinkling and baldness may be due to excess salt, as well as edema, water retention, ulcers, bleeding disorders, skin eruptions, hyperacidity and hypertension.
Pungent taste is present in foods like hot peppers, black pepper, onions, garlic, ginger and asafoetida. Its qualities are light, drying and heating. In moderation, it improves digestion, absorption and elimination, stimulates circulation, breaks up clots, and kills parasites and germs. In excess, it may cause sexual debility, choking, fainting and fatigue. If it leads to a pitta aggravation, it can cause diarrhea, heartburn, nausea, peptic ulcers, colitis and skin conditions. If it provokes vata, it can cause tremors, insomnia and muscle pain.
Examples of bitter taste are bitter melon, turmeric, dandelion, aloe vera, rhubarb and coffee. It is the taste most lacking in the North American diet. Its qualities are dry and light. It promotes the flavor of all tastes, is antitoxic and kills germs. Bitter helps to relieve burning sensations, itching, fainting and obstinate skin disorders. It reduces fever and stimulates firmness of skin and muscles. In small doses it can relieve intestinal gas and work as a digestive tonic. Because of its drying quality, excess bitter taste may deplete plasma, blood, muscles, fat, bone marrow and semen, which may result in sexual debility.
Unripe bananas, pomegranate, chickpeas, yellow split peas, okra, turmeric, alfalfa sprouts and alumroot are examples of the astringent taste. Its qualities are cooling, drying and heavy. In moderation, it aids in healing ulcers and promotes clotting. In excess, it may cause constipation, distension, heart spasm and stagnant circulation. It may also lead to depletion of sperm and affect the sexual drive, and can give rise to a variety of neuromuscular disorders.
Ayurveda encourages the use of herbs and aromatic spices, which are also considered medicinal substances, to create a balanced mix of all tastes. The most common spices found in an Ayurvedic kitchen are: cumin, coriander, ginger, hing (asafoetida), ajwan, turmeric, fenugreek, garam masala, cinnamon, clove and cardamom. Ingesting small quantities of these aromatic, stimulating and carminative spices on a regular basis helps maintain the health of the digestive fire (agni) and the entire GI tract. Toxins that accumulate from improperly digested food can also be greatly reduced by slowly introducing these spices into the diet.
Obviously, there is more to food than just taste. Yet taste, from the perspective of its qualities, is very important for maintaining good health. Ayurvedic cuisine is unique in that it makes sure each dish is cooked and spiced so as to achieve maximum digestibility, avoid the formation of toxins and nourish all tissues.
Understanding the qualities in food, how they affect the doshas, and how they can be balanced is a great asset to prevent disease. An Ayurvedic clinician can make this a more practical task by providing specific guidelines and food charts for the individual constitution and health needs of each person. Ayurveda knows that the action of any medicinal substance starts in the tongue, so let your food be your medicine!
© Vishnu Dass. This article was originally published on New Life Journal, Feb. 2006.