The information in the following blog was presented as a webinar sponsored by NCSU OLLI on April 8, 2020.
On my return from India at the beginning of March, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic was well underway, maybe half the passengers were either coughing, sneezing or wearing surgical masks (usually over their mouths only). My arduous journey took 36 hours each way. I followed my program and experienced neither illness nor jet lag.
The average adult in the USA endures 2-3 common colds a year. Children have more. We’ve come to take that for granted. That’s a mistake. Covid-19 has capitalized on this vulnerability. Our health care and political leadership has advocated social distancing and better hygiene. Some have even suggested a much more aggressive “war” on the virus: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMe2007263 with the goal of “crushing” the bug not just “flattening the curve.” Yes, collectively something must be done to slow the pace to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed. But none of this is sustainable. Moreover, the handwriting is on the wall that this germ has the potential to circulate year after year like influenza. What more can we do at the personal level?
Missing from the dialogue is the basic biological understanding that it takes two to tango: an infectious organism and a vulnerable host. Western medicine acknowledges the principle of “host resistance” but has little to offer to improve it. Let’s not forget that over 80% of those exposed to this coronavirus have either mild symptoms or none at all. Why is that? Let’s call it strong immunity.
Ayurveda, the original owner’s manual for the human body, offers timeless wisdom on this subject. If you want to improve your personal resistance to this and other diseases, let me review the basic principles for you.
Maximize Ojas—the Source of Strength, Vitality and Immunity
Ancient Rishis saw that the human body is a machine for creating consciousness from food. The health of the body and the quality of the consciousness it can uphold depend on those habits of diet and daily routine that support proper digestion of food and its transformation into healthy tissues.
Ojas is the finest product of digestion (see https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/dhatus.htm). It represents the wholistic value and essence of the bodily tissues which it nourishes and sustains. Ojas connects mind and body. In particular, it enlivens the connection to the transcendental, self-referral field of pure consciousness, which is the ultimate source of life and home of all the laws of nature.
We know Ojas by the vitality it produces—strength, stamina, inner calm, lustrous skin, radiant eyes and clear thinking. Ojas supports the evolution of consciousness in the direction of enlightenment, which removes the basis of sickness and suffering. Ojas is a product of the action of Sattva, the fundamental force of nature that moves life in the evolutionary direction (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/sattva.htm). That is why so much of Ayurvedic practice is devoted to enlivening Ojas and eliminating blockages to its circulation in the physiology. It’s also the basis for the injunction to favor Sattva in all things if you want to optimize health, vitality and longevity.
What Depletes Ojas?
Even though you may not have been familiar with this word, Ojas, you have lots of experience of the things that deplete it and make you feel depleted and vulnerable to illness:
- Negative emotions
- Exhaustion from excessive work, exercise or sex
- Late night activity or insufficient sleep
- Over-exposure to sun, wind, rain, etc.
- Physical injury
- Alcohol and recreational drugs
- Prolonged fasting or rough diet
Many people have come to associate fasting with detoxification. If done properly, this can be the effect (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/fasting.htm). If over-done, it will rob the body of needed nutrients and impair the ability to maintain Ojas. A diet would be considered “rough” in Ayurvedic terms if it prominently features raw or otherwise hard to digest food. Such a diet might be helpful for those who are overweight and who have strong digestion. For others, seemingly healthful food like salads or apples can impair digestion and give rise to toxins. See: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/blog/healthful-eating-habits/.
What Enhances Ojas?
On the other hand, you may be less familiar with the things that increase Ojas:
- Transcendence (see https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/routine.htm)
- Self-less love
- Other life-supporting behaviors (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/sattva.htm)
- Pure food
- Balanced diet
- Good digestion
- Pancha Karma [intensive Ayurvedic detox] (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/detox.htm)
- Rasayana herbs (see https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/rasayana.htm)
Rasayana herbs deserve special mention. Many people rely on dietary supplements. They don’t get much for their money. Without proper diet, supplements are of no benefit. With proper diet, they aren’t needed. So goes a famous Ayurvedic aphorism. Rasayana formulas are a partial exception. They enhance Ojas. Those who follow healthful eating principles and adjust their choices as needed to maintain balance get the greatest benefit from Rasayanas.
Since Ojas is a product of digestion, we can’t expect to produce much if our digestion is disturbed (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/indigestion.htm) or if our dietary choices (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/what-diet-is-right-for-me.htm) and eating habits (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/guidelines.htm) are out of tune with the laws of nature.
If we don’t digest our food properly due to violations of these principles, we produce toxins collectively known as Ama which block the channels of the body and create conditions favoring the development of disease (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/ama-reduction.htm) . Even “nectar” turns to Ama and fails to produce Ojas when taken at the wrong time, in excessive quantity or in improper combination with other foods. Also see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/blog/healthful-eating-habits/.
Here are the main points for good digestion:
- Take your main meal at mid-day when digestion is strongest
- Avoid heavy foods or a large quantity of food in the morning and evening when digestion is weaker (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/blog/breakfast-of-champions/)
- Eat with your attention on your food so that you can enjoy it, chew it well and stop eating when your hunger is satisfied
- Favor freshly prepared dishes made from wholesome ingredients
- Minimize raw food other than sweet ripe fruits
- Avoid cold beverages
- Have lassi with lunch or as an afternoon drink (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/yogurt.htm)
- Maintain a regular daily routine, especially for meals and sleep
- Get fresh air and exercise daily, ideally in the morning after sunrise
- As time allows, enjoy a brief leisurely walk after lunch and dinner
Make Dietary Choices to Maintain Balance
If you understand the salient qualities of food, you can easily choose suitable items based on those qualities you are experiencing in your physiology at mealtime. Since this is a complicated subject, it’s more practical to start with the general principles. Then, to refine your choices, use the information on this page of my website as a guide: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/what-diet-is-right-for-me.htm.
A healthful diet is also nutritionally balanced. This means whole grains, legumes, fresh vegetables, fruits, milk products and healthy oils. Most Americans don’t get enough of the astringent taste represented primarily by legumes including lentils and beans. They also take short-cuts by eating leftovers or buying pre-packaged meals, frozen, canned and other highly processed foods. Such items lack Sattva and are not going to contribute to Ojas. No wonder new research has shown a strong connection between ultra-processed foods and the obesity epidemic. Ultra-processed foods are designed to promote hyper-consumption, not to strengthen the physiology.
Moreover, beware of literature highlighting the unique benefits of this or that superfood. This genre invariably focuses on the biochemical level of analysis (vitamins, antioxidants, or whatever). It’s a partial view of the effects of such food. Freshly prepared lacto-vegetarian food cooked with love is as good as it gets. Simple, easy and not expensive. See my blog for tips on how to get started: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/blog/quick-and-easy-ayurvedic-meal-preparation/.
How to Care for the Common Cold
If despite your best efforts you fall sick, don’t despair. There are some simple things you can do to minimize the consequences and hasten your recovery. Stay home. Get extra rest and meditation. Keep warm, especially your head hands and feet. If you bathe or shower, keep your head dry. Favor warm, light food and drink. Avoid heavy foods.
Interestingly, Ayurvedic remedies for cold and cough, focus principally on improving digestion. Cumin-coriander decoction is particularly valuable. To make it, boil a quart of water with 1 tsp. each of cumin and coriander seeds for at least 5 minutes. For greater effect, you can add a slice of fresh ginger and a little black pepper. Strain into a good thermos and sip small amounts between meals during daylight hours. Make it fresh each day until your symptoms resolve.
Raw honey is good for congestion in small amounts as long as you don’t have significant fever. Take a half-teaspoon or so up to 4 times a day with a little warm water. You can add a pinch of turmeric if you like. Don’t add honey to hot liquids or cook with it. Heat makes it toxic. Tulsi (Holy Basil) and ginger tea are also good.
To help suppress cough, you can gently roast ½ tsp cumin seeds in a dry pan. Grind them in a mortar and pestle with an equal amount of whole cane sugar like sucanat. Take a small pinch as often as you like. For sore throat, you can gargle with a pinch of turmeric and ¼ tsp. salt in a half-cup of warm water.
While you’re recovering, reflect on those habits or circumstances that likely triggered the illness. Assess yourself in light of Ayurvedic recommendations for health, vitality and longevity (see for example: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/php/habits.php). Address digestive disturbances (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/indigestion.htm) and symptoms of Ama (see: https://qatoqi.com/ayurveda/php/ama.php). Then, take the time to plan for improvements to reduce future risk.