Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lesson #27: The Qualities of Taste

The Qualities of Taste

By Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.

Ayurveda is known as a qualitative science. Like all qualitative sciences it honors each person’s experience of life. Ayurveda also makes use of quantitative methods such as carefully studying cause and effect relationships or determining the specific nutrients that can be isolated in a particular food or herb. However, ayurveda remains qualitative first and quantitative second. One expression of this is observing quality over quantity in the diet. You may know how much vitamin C is in an average orange, but you probably don’t know how much vitamin C is in the specific orange you are about to eat. Qualities such as freshness, taste, aroma, color and shape become more important in our assessment of the orange. The quality of each substance has to be experienced first hand. In our day-to-day life we experience life, people, foods and herbs in our own subjective qualitative way. We experience things with our senses. Ayurveda is therefore a common-sense approach to health care. We examine things with our senses in terms of their qualities and we experience them in their full context, not in an isolated way. We honor the complex holistic context of each person’s life and resist reducing our conclusions to isolated variables, events or causes. Indeed, we often consider a-causal and synchronistic occurrences to be meaningful. We look to see the over-all patterns and connections that run through our lives and we honor the meanings we each find in our lives. This web of life and meaning is the field of our study.

On the other hand, as mentioned above, it is also a tenet of Ayurveda to look for specific causes to specific illnesses or conditions, or to see that specific qualities have specific effects. These laws of cause and effect are known as the karma or action of the person, food or herb being studied. In this more quantitative approach, if a single cause can be determined, the principle is to eliminate the cause of the suffering.* However, when there are multiple causes or no known single cause such as in a syndrome, then the qualitative holistic approach is taken. For this reason Ayurveda has a good success rate dealing with chronic conditions and syndromes.

In our most recent series of articles, we have been exploring the qualities of the six tastes and also their actions, taste being one of our senses and one of the ways we experience the world around us. Nature sometimes presents us with a substance that is of a single taste such as salt. We have also made the habit of extracting and concentrating certain tastes like sweet from their natural form. Ayurveda teaches that a single taste has a very specific action that leads to a very predictable effect. Repeated use of single tastes often leads us to an extreme, a fault, an imbalance. This is the meaning of the word dosha in Sanskrit – tending towards an excess or a fault. Single tastes can be most helpful for short-term use in a therapeutic context where a strong action may be needed to move the person away from an opposite extreme. For everyday use however, a blend or balance of tastes is recommended as they tend to balance or harmonize each other’s actions. For example, it is recommended to include all six tastes in a meal – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.

Before proceeding, let’s review and compare the qualities of the six tastes. Pungent taste is the most heating, followed by sour taste then salty taste as least heating. Bitter taste is the most cooling, followed by astringent taste, then sweet taste as least cooling. Sweet taste is the most wet, followed by salty, then sour. Pungent is the most drying taste, followed by bitter, then astringent. Sweet is the heaviest taste, followed by salty, then astringent. Bitter is the lightest taste, followed by pungent, then sour as the least light. For example, sweet taste is the least cooling, most moistening and the heaviest of the tastes.

We have already examined foods and herbs that typify the six tastes in previous articles. Here we shall explore those foods and herbs that contain multiple tastes:

Two tastes: There are many everyday foods and herbs that combine two tastes. Sweet and astringent are combined in such foods as nuts, poultry, corn, fish, beans, peaches, pears, asparagus, green beans and squash. Sweet and sour are found together in hawthorn berries, oranges, pineapple and yogurt. Sweet and pungent combine in cardamom, ginger and onion. Sweet and bitter herbs include dandelion, red clover, sarsaparilla and shatavari. Sour and astringent are together in cherries, cranberries and tomatoes. Pungent and bitter herbs are coriander, cumin, dill and myrrh. Pungent and astringent are found in bayberry, horseradish and turnips. Bitter and astringent are together in burdock, eggplant, golden seal, kale and yellow dock.

Three tastes: Many cooking spices and foods combine three tastes. Consider the complexity of basil, cinnamon, fenugreek, raw honey, pomegranate, rosemary, sage and tarragon. Many medicinal herbs also combine three tastes including many herbs that are favored in Ayurvedic herbology such as ashwagandha, brahmi, boswellia, ginseng, guduchi, sandalwood and turmeric. Turmeric for example is a complex of bitter, astringent and pungent tastes. The complex taste indicates a complex yet balanced action when ingested.

Four tastes: Substances that combine four tastes are rare. They include aloe vera, rose flower and guggul. Ayurveda has a whole group of medicinal preparations based on guggul.

Five tastes: Substances with five tastes are extremely rare and much prized for their balanced medicinal action. Examples are amalaki (Indian gooseberry), haritaki, schisandra and garlic. Amalaki and haritaki are two of the three ingredients in the famous Ayurvedic formula known as triphala (three fruits). Triphala is used by itself and also as a base for other medicines. There is an entire Ayurvedic treatise dedicated to just the medicinal qualities of garlic. In Tibetan Ayurveda haritaki is known as the king of medicines. Depictions of the Medicine Buddha invariably show him holding a branch of haritaki.

Six tastes: I am not aware of any single substance that includes all six tastes although many formulas and meals are prepared to include all six tastes. This blending of tastes is an art in itself as they are not usually included in equal proportions. For example, in a meal perhaps ninety percent of the foods will include the sweet taste and ten percent will be split amongst sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent tastes. There is a saying to let food be your medicine. Ayurveda explains that the food is that which is digested and the medicine is that which helps digest the food. In the above example, the sweet taste is the nourishing food and the other tastes help digest and balance that food.

In summary, we have seen how foods and herbs are classified first into six tastes. This is usually done by the predominate taste. Then we consider the presence of secondary tastes that give the food complexity and balance. We can also combine foods, herbs and tastes to create complexity and balance.

References for further study: “The Yoga of Herbs” by D. Frawley & V. Lad, “Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing” by U. Lad & V. Lad, and “The Roots of Ayurveda” selected and translated by D. Wujastyk.

*This tenet is fully developed in the Buddhist approach to Ayurveda and leads to some enlightening views of the causes and cures of suffering based on the Four Noble Truths which we will save for a future discussion.

Lesson #26: Astringency

by Gary Gran CYT, DAy.

“You know something? My face used to be kind of puffy looking,” she was saying.
“Well your skin looks great now. What did you do?” he asked.
“I’ve been using a new astringent and it’s really toned up my skin.”
In Ayurveda, astringent is listed as one of the six tastes along with sweet, sour, salty, pungent and bitter. Like pungency, it is also an action in itself meaning it has a direct action on any tissue, not just the taste buds.
For example, if you put a pungent substance on the skin it will create a burning sensation. If you put an astringent substance on the skin it will create a drawing or firming effect. Webster’s dictionary tells us that astringent means to bind tight or the ability to draw together the soft organic tissues.
The sage Atreya, in the classic Ayurvedic text called Vagbhata Hridaya (VH), tells us that astringent taste is composed of earth and air. Earth is cold, dry, heavy and contracted. Air is cold, dry, light and expanded. Together astringent taste has the qualities of cold, dry, slightly heavy and contracted. Therefore, if applied to the skin or ingested, astringent substances will have a corresponding cooling, drying, nourishing and toning effect. Remember the basic rule in Ayurveda is that a substance’s qualities will indicate the substance’s effects. This rule is called “like increases like.”
“The astringent taste deadens one’s tongue and causes constriction of one’s throat” (VH1.10.5). Ayurveda is an experiential common sense approach to nature and health care. Tasting a substance is an immediate way to judge it’s qualities and effects. Astringent taste is recognized by a strong puckering or drawing effect on the mouth and throat. If you don’t know what that means, try eating a bite of pomegranate or persimmon.
“The astringent taste removes pitta and kapha” (VH1.10.20). Pitta (fire and water) tends to an excess of hot, damp and light qualities. Therefore, the astringent qualities of cold, dry and heavy are all helpful. Kapha (water and earth) tends to an excess of cold, damp and heavy qualities. Here the astringent taste is only helpful to counteract excess dampness.
“It is heavy and purifies the blood” (VH1.10.20). Heavy in this context means that astringent foods are not always easy to digest or that they can take longer to digest. This is due to the heavy qualities of earth. Astringent foods tend to be detoxifying unless taken in excess. They have the ability to “draw together” and carry toxins out of the body. For example, most beans are astringent. They may not make your mouth pucker, but they will help clear toxic heat and dampness from the body. There are many blood-cleansing herbs that possess the astringent taste such as alfalfa, aloe, barberry, nettle and yellow dock. Please note that many herbs are a complex blend of two or more tastes.
“It squeezes, is healing and cooling” (VH1.10.20). The squeezing action of astringent substances has the power to draw together and heal wounds and ulcers. For example, used topically, aloe can heal burns, and comfrey, plantain and self-heal can heal wounds.
Astringent taste by itself is cooling as noted above. However, there are some astringent foods and herbs that also have pungent taste and are therefore heating instead of cooling. Heating astringents include basil, bayberry, buckwheat, marjoram, rye, turnips and poultry.
“It dries out moisture and fat” (VH1.10.20). This emphasizes astringent taste’s anti-kapha drying action. A standard anti-kapha diet will include many astringent foods such as barley, buckwheat, corn, rye, beans, asparagus, celery, cruciferous vegetables, lettuce, parsley, apples, berries, tea and lemon.
“It can hinder digestion of other food, is absorbent, and extremely cleansing for the skin” (VH1.10.20). Astringent foods are potentially constipating due to their overall drying effect. The constipation is what hinders the digestion of other food. Therefore, astringents are good for kapha types who are naturally moist, but are potentially too drying for someone who is already dry.
Astringents are absorbent means that they can soak up excess moisture and stop excessive discharges. For example, barley, buckwheat, chicken or psyllium are used to counter diarrhea and improve the stool, eyebright and nettles are used for watery eyes and nose associated with allergies, mullein is used for excessive lung discharges and yellow dock is used for acne. Chicken soup and basil tea with honey are used for the common cold. Many women’s herbs have an astringent action that can help regulate the menses.
Astringents can be applied directly on the skin and other tissues for their cleansing and toning effects. Notable astringents for the skin are alum, blackberry leaf, raspberry leaf, burdock, lemon, raspberry leaf, rose hips, sage, witch hazel and yarrow. Please note that the leaves and fruits of the rose family make good astringents.
Also note that what goes on goes in. Ayurveda maintains that anything placed on the skin is “digested”, absorbed and assimilated into the body. Therefore take care as much as possible that all cosmetic products are made from the highest quality food grade ingredients without chemical additives.
“If it is used habitually, it causes constipation, flatulence, and pain in the heart region” (VH1.10.21). Too much astringent taste means too much coldness, dryness and congestion. The digestive system can become stagnant and start to back up causing gas and pressure against the heart.
“It causes thirst, thinness, loss of virility, blockage of the tubes, and the accumulation of impurities” (VH1.10.21). Excessive dryness can eventually cause thirst, loss of water weight to the point of thinness or emaciation and drying up of the reproductive fluids. This can also be called excessive air or vata. Remember that astringent taste is defined as the combination of earth and air. Excessive earth is called stagnation and can lead to blockage of the tubes and the accumulation of waste.
To summarize, astringent taste is an excellent corrective for for pitta and kapha types but are used in smaller amounts or in combinations for vata, vata-pitta and vata-kapha types. Also remember that most foods and herbs just like most people are a combination of several tastes, qualities and actions. Sometimes it is possible to match just the right food or herb to the right individual. Other times we will have to combine foods, herbs and tastes in an artful and balanced way to create the desired effect. For this reason, it is good advice for all of us to eat a balanced diet which includes all the food groups and all the tastes in some measure.

Astringent: arjuna, bibhitaki, blackberry, green banana, nettles, red root, shankha pushpi

Astringent/Sweet: alfalfa, amaranth, artichoke, asparagus, bamboo, bilva, borage, Brazil nuts, chicken, comfrey, corn, fish, flaxseed, green beans, hazelnuts, hibiscus, lotus, macadamia nuts, mung beans, nutmeg, mullein, okra, parsnip, peaches, pears, pecans, pine nuts, plums, psyllium, raspberry, red lentils, rutabaga, soy beans, squash, sunflower seeds, strawberry, tofu, turkey

Astringent/Sour: cherries, cranberries, persimmon, rose hips, tomato

Astringent/Pungent: bayberry, coriander, gurmar, horseradish, marjoram, parsley, sage, turnips, vidanga

Astringent/Bitter: barberry, burdock, cramp bark, devil’s claw, eggplant, golden seal, henna, Jerusalem artichoke, kale, kutaj, lodhra, peony, plantain, self-heal, shepherd’s purse, squaw vine, uva ursi, wild cherry bark, witch hazel, yarrow, yellow dock

Astringent/Sweet/Sour: pomegranate

Astringent/Sweet/Pungent: cinnamon, honey, poppy seed, rosemary, tarragon

Astringent/Sweet/Bitter: ashwagandha, basil, boswellia, bhringaraj, fo-ti, guduchi, jatamamsi, phyllanthus, sandalwood, sesame seed

Astringent/Pungent/Bitter: turmeric

There are many foods which have astringent as either the primary or secondary taste:

Fruits: apple, avocado, green beans, cherries, cranberries, kiwi, green mango, peaches, pears, persimmons, plums, pomegranate

Vegetables: artichoke, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, burdock, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower,celery, cilantro, fresh corn, eggplant, green beans, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mushrooms, okra, parsnips, peas, peppers, white potato, rutabaga, spinach, sprouts, squash, tomato, turnips, zucchini

Grains & Beans: all beans, amaranth, buckwheat, corn, oat bran, rye, spelt, tapioca

Animal Foods: chicken, fish, turkey, venison

Nuts & Seeds: Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia, pecan, pine nut, popcorn, psyllium, safflower, sesame, sunflower

Addendum: Here is a translation from the “Charak Samhita” 1.26.43 concerning astringency for further study and comparison: “Herbs and foods having astringent taste are sedative and constipative. They produce pressure on the affected part and cause granulation, absorption and stiffness. They alleviate kapha and raktapitta (disease characterized by bleeding from various parts of the body). They absorb the body fluid and are dry, cold and heavy. In spite of all these good qualities, if used in excess in isolation they cause dryness of mouth, affliction of the heart, distention of the abdomen, obstruction of speech, constriction of circulating channels, dark complexion and destruction of seed. They get digested slowly and obstruct the passage of flatus, urine, stool, menses and semen, cause emaciation, weariness, thirst, stiffness and by virtue of their roughness and dryness they produce diseases like spasm, convulsion, facial paralysis, etc. due to the vitiation of vata.”

References for further study: “The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from the Ayurvedic Classics” by Dominik Wujastyk, “Ashtangahrdaya or Heart of Medicine” by Vagbhata, “Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing” by Usha and Vasant Lad, and “The Yoga of Herbs” by David Frawley and Vasant Lad

Lesson #25: Bitterness

by Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.

“That sure was a bitter pill to swallow,” said the man who had just been turned down for a transfer.
“Yes, but it’s no reason to become cynical,” said his friend. “Try to think of it as a reality check. Did you really think that requesting a transfer was a good idea to begin with?”
“Well, I guess you’re right. It was kind of a pie in the sky notion, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, I think this way you’ll be better off in the long run.”
There is a saying in ayurveda that “bitter is better”. The bitter taste, whether from a food, an herb or an experience, has a strong clearing and cleansing effect. The resulting purification can leave a person better able to perceive reality. Let’s explore the ramifications of this saying by studying what the Ayurvedic texts have to say.
The sage Atreya, in the classic text called Vagbhata Hridaya (VH), tells us that bitter taste originates from the elements ether and air. Ether is cold, dry, light and subtle. Air is also cold, dry, light and subtle, but also reducing, moving and dispersing. Together, they create the image of wind (air) moving through space (ether). Students of ayurveda will recognize this as the image of vata, one of the three doshas. Therefore, bitter taste will strongly increase vata dosha. Or to put it another way, bitter taste has a strongly cooling, drying, reducing, moving and dispersing effect.
“The bitter taste clears one’s palate and inhibits one’s sense of taste” (VH 1.10.4). Bitter taste is first experienced in the mouth and is said to overpower or correct all the other tastes. This makes bitter taste one of our best sources of medicine. When we say that bitter corrects the other tastes, we are saying that bitter corrects the effects of over-doing the other tastes. For example, if you have been over-indulging in sweets you may be feeling a bit heavy, dull and slow. You can lay off the sweets and take some bitter herbs instead to clean out.
“The bitter taste is unpleasant on its own” (VH1.10.14). Let’s just say that bitter is an acquired taste and one that is often lacking in the average diet. The most common bitters are salad greens like endive or radicchio. Coffee can also be bitter. That’s probably why it is not always taken “on its own” but combined with cream and sugar.
“It overcomes a loss of appetite” (VH1.10.14). Another common use of bitters is as an aperitif. Digestive bitters are popular in liquid form. There are various recipes which usually include bitter herbs and roots like gentian. The theory is that the bitter taste strongly stimulates the tongue and causes the digestive system to counter or react by releasing digestive juices. Try a few drops on the tongue or mixed with water about 10 minutes before eating.
“It overcomes worms (bacteria, parasites, etc) and poisoning” (VH1.10.15). As medicine, bitter herbs can be strongly anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-parasitical due to their strong drying effect. The strategy is to dry out the environment within which the microbes are living, making it a less hospitable place. And bitters can counter-act many poisons and environmental toxins as well. We can think of bitters as strongly anti-fire and toxins as toxic fire.
It can be noted that most modern pharmaceutical medicines are extremely bitter, a sign of their strong medicinal action, and also a sign of their potential side effects.
Depending on one’s constitution, bitter taste should not necessarily be taken “on its own”. Often pungent and sweet herbs are added to bitter herbs to provide some heat and moisture respectively. Vata types (cold, dry, thin, nervous) need to be most careful. Pitta types (hot, oily, wiry, inflamed) don’t need to add heat. Kapha types (cold, damp, heavy, congested) don’t need to add moisture.
“Bitter taste overcomes skin disease, fever, burning sensations and pitta” (VH1.10.15). Pitta is the combination of fire and water and is usually recognized by heat symptoms and conditions such as skin diseases (the burning, irritated, red kinds), fever and burning sensations in general. Bitter taste is the strongest of the cooling tastes (the other two being sweet and astringent) and therefore the best when a medicinal corrective anti-fire action is needed. Bitter herbs that help clear the skin are known as alteratives or blood purifiers.
“Bitter taste overcomes fainting, nausea and kapha. It dries up moisture, fat, grease, marrow, faeces and urine. It is light (easily digestible) and increases intelligence. It is cold, dry and clears the throat and breastmilk” (VH1.10.16) This verse tells us that bitter taste is corrective to kapha conditions (cold, damp, heavy, sluggish, dull, slow, congested). It does this by virtue of its drying and reducing power. Please note that bitter is cold just like kapha. For this reason, as stated above, bitter and pungent herbs are often combined to correct kapha imbalances. Also note that bitter taste “increases intelligence.” Due to its subtle and clearing qualities, bitter taste can help clear the mind. Most of the herbs used to support mental function have a strong bitter component.
“If it is used too much, it makes the body tissues shrivel, and causes diseases of the wind” (VH1.10.16). Because of its strong cooling, drying and reducing effects, bitter taste can easily aggravate vata (“wind”) which shares the same qualities. This is according to the basic principle that like increases like. Typical vata disorders are constipation, dry skin, emaciation, palpitations, nervous twitches, shooting pains, dizziness and a scattered mind.
To summarize, bitter is an excellent corrective for pitta and kapha types and should be encouraged in the diet and as medicine. Vatas can use small portions of bitter but must be very careful to mix and balance the bitter taste with other tastes.

Some herbs are almost completely bitter in taste. They are considered to have the strongest action. Others have secondary tastes which makes them more palatable and balanced in their action. There are some special herbs that exhibit a combination of 4 or 5 tastes which makes their harmonizing and healing potential the greatest in and of themselves. Single, double and triple taste herbs can be combined to provide a more balanced action.
Because of the balancing action of multiple tastes, it is not recommended to extract the most medicinal compound from an herb or food to make a medicine as is routinely done in modern medicine. The idea of isolating the active principle may increase the action of the medicine, but also may increase undesirable side effects. Most herbalists feel it is better to go with nature. The natural compounds which bind together with the active principles are there for good reason. The action may be slower but it will be safer.

Single taste bitter herbs include bhringaraj, blessed thistle, cascara sagrada, chaparral, chicory, chiretta, eyebright, gentian, gotu kola, gymnema, jasmine, neem, nettles, oregon grape, passion flower, pau d’arco, pokeroot, rhubarb root, senna, skullcap, usnea, vervain and willow bark.
Bitter herbs with a secondary sweet taste include blue cohosh, chickweed, chrysanthemum, dandelion, honeysuckle, manjishta, milk thistle, red clover, sarsaparilla and wild yam. The secondary sweet taste makes these herbs better choices for vata and pitta types.
Bitter herbs with a secondary pungent taste include andrographis, barberry, black cohosh, boswellia, bupleurum, burdock, calendula, chamomile, cilantro, coriander, cumin, dill, echinacea, elder flowers, eupatorium, forsythia, guduchi, hops, horehound, hyssop, motherwort, myrrh, osha, picrorrhiza, rue, St. John’s wort, tansy, tarragon, thuja, tulsi, turmeric and vitex. The secondary pungent taste makes these herbs better choices for vata and kapha types.
Bitter herbs with a secondary astringent taste include crampbark, devil’s claw, ginkgo, goldenseal, peony, self-heal, tea, wild cherry and yellow dock. The secondary astringent taste makes these herbs better choices for kapha types.
Good digestive bitters are barberry, cilantro, coriander, cumin, dill, gentian and tarragon.
When an alterative or blood cleansing action is needed choose from barberry, burdock, chaparral, chickweed, chicory, chrysanthemum, dandelion, forsythia, gentian, goldenseal, gotu kola, honeysuckle, manjishta, neem, nettles, oregon grape, pau d’arco, pokeroot, red clover, sarsaparilla, self-heal, turmeric and yellow dock.
Good women’s herbs for cleansing the blood and balancing the menstrual cycle and hormones are black cohosh, blessed thistle, blue cohosh, chamomile, crampbark, dandelion, jasmine, motherwort, myrrh, peony, red clover, rue, tansy, turmeric, vitex and wild yam.
For antibiotic action, choose from andrographis, chiretta, echinacea, forsythia, goldenseal, honeysuckle, oregon grape, osha, pau d’arco, picrorrhiza, tulsi and usnea.
For anti-viral action, choose from chiretta, echinacea, elder, goldenseal, honeysuckle, hyssop, osha, St. John’s wort and thuja.
Neem and barberry are anti-parasitical and pau d’arco and usnea are anti-fungal.
For colds and flus choose from these bitter herbs: andrographis, chiretta, echinacea, elder, eupatorium, forsythia, goldenseal, honeysuckle, horehound, hyssop, myrrh, oregon grape, osha, poke, st. john’s wort, thuja, tulsi, usnea and willow bark.
Gymnema is known as gurmar or sugar destroyer as it blocks the sweet taste. It is an excellent tonic for diabetics as it helps control blood sugar.
Good anti-inflammatory bitters are bhringaraj, boswellia, bupleurum, chiretta, devil’s claw, eyebright, gentian, guduchi, honeysuckle, myrrh and turmeric.
Good bitters for the liver are barberry, bupleurum, burdock, chrysanthemum, dandelion, eclipta, milk thistle, neem, sarsaparilla and turmeric.
For a laxative or purgative action, choose cascara sagrada, rhubarb and/or senna. Please note that bitter laxatives are habit forming and only recommended for occasional use.
Several bitters have special action on the nerves and the mind. They include chamomile, chrysanthemum, gotu kola, ginkgo, jasmine, passion flower, skullcap, tea and tulsi.
Some bitter herbs are favored for food use. Coriander, cumin and turmeric are used in masala for their balancing and flavoring action. Cilantro, dill and tarragon are used as potherbs. Burdock root, chicory, dandelion and nettles are used as vegetables.
Other foods which have some bitter taste include artichoke, arugala, bitter gourd, bitter melon, bok choy, brocolli, brussels sprouts, coffee, collards, cress, cucumber, eggplant, endive, escarole, kale, lettuce, mesclun mix, parsley and radicchio.

Addendum: Here is a translation from the “Charak Samhita” 1.26.43 concerning bitterness for further study and comparison: “Drugs and diets having bitter taste are by themselves not delicious but when added with other things they promote deliciousness. They are antitoxic and germicidal. They cure fainting, burning sensation, itching, obstinate skin diseases...and fever. They promote firmness of the skin and muscles. They promote carmination and digestion, purify milk, cause drying and help in the depletion of moisture, fat, muscle-fat, marrow, lymph, pus, sweat, urine, stool, pitta and kapha. They are rough, cold and light.
In spite of all these good qualities, if used singly and excessively, by virtue of their roughness, coarseness and non-sliminess they deplete the plasma, blood, muscle, fat, marrow and reproductive fluids. They produce roughness in the circulatory channels, reduce strength, cause emaciation, weariness, mental confusion, giddiness, dryness of mouth and produce other diseases due to the vitiation of vata.”

References for further study: “The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from the Ayurvedic Classics” by Dominik Wujastyk, “Charak Samhita” by Charak, “Ashtangahrdaya or Heart of Medicine” by Vagbhata, “The Yoga of Herbs” by David Frawley and Vasant Lad

Lesson #24: Pungency

by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay.

The basic tenets of Ayurveda have been handed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition. The oral traditions themselves have been committed to writing from time to time. There are two well-known compilations of ancient Ayurvedic theory and practice which are still studied today. They are the Charak Samhita (Compendium of Charaka) and the Susruta Samhita (Compendium of Susruta). Around 600 AD, there appeared a brilliant synthesis of the ancient traditions called the Vagbhata Hridaya (Vagbhata’s Heart of Medicine). It has been translated into numerous languages including Tibetan, Arabic, Chinese, German and English and it’s influence helped spread the teachings of Ayurveda around the world.
Traditionally, these texts have been put to memory as part of one’s medical training. Each passage can then be recalled and expounded upon as needed. As modern students of Ayurveda we too can look to these passages and add our own commentaries in light of our own times and our own understanding.
So let’s consider the passages from the Vagbhata Hridaya (VH) that relate to the taste of pungency and then amplify their meaning.

“’And now we shall expound the chapter on the different tastes,’ said Atreya and the other great sages. The tastes, ‘sweet’ and so on, originate from the physical elements being sequentially in dominant pairs: earth and water (sweet); fire and earth (sour); water and fire (salt); ether and air (bitter); fire and air (pungent); earth and fire (astringent).” VH 1.10.
When pungent or spicy taste is described as originating from fire and air we are to consider that the substance tasted is composed of primarily fire and air. Ayurveda defines all substances in terms of the five elements ether, air, fire, water and earth. Each element represents a specific set of qualities. Fire is hot, dry, light, sharp, intense, yet subtle. Air is cold, dry, light, moving, dispersing and subtle. When combined, we can say that pungent is hot, very dry, very light, sharp, intense, moving, dispersing and subtle.
When we taste a substance we experience first-hand it’s qualities and it’s effects. The basic theory is that the specific qualities (guna) lead to specific effects or actions (karma). Like increases like. So we can infer upon tasting a substance what it’s effects will be when ingested. Eating substances of pungent taste will have a heating, drying, lightening, cutting, intensely moving, stimulating and dispersing effect.

“The Outward Form of the Tastes...The ‘pungent’ savour stimulates the tip of one’s tongue, making it tingle. It makes one’s eyes, nose, and mouth water, and produces a burning feeling in one’s cheeks.” VH 1.10
The pungent taste is not just a taste experienced in the mouth. It has a stimulating and burning action on any surface of the body. Cut and place a hot pepper on your arm and you will feel a burning sensation. Pungent herbs are often prepared as ointments, salves or liniments and placed on the skin to relieve pain or break up congestion. One example is to simmer ginger in a pot of water, place a cloth in the hot ginger water, ring partially dry and then apply as a compress. When it cools return the cloth to the hot water and repeat.
The fact that pungent substances ‘makes one’s eyes, nose, and mouth water’ is part of it’s stimulating action. It stimulates, moves and disperses water. If a person has excess water, dampness, mucus or phlegm, collectively referred to as kapha, the pungent taste can break up and disperse the congestion. Therefore, pungent taste is said to be anti-kapha.
It is interesting that kapha types will often complain that spicy food makes their noses run. Here is a case where something that is anti-kaphic and helpful in the long run is seen as not helpful and unpleasant in the short run. The play on words is not intentional. The point is that suggesting spices to kapha types may be a hard sell. To overcome this resistance it is necessary to teach the difference between the merely pleasant and the ultimate good. This is a teaching from the Katha Upanishad which bears repeating. We are too influenced by our notions of pleasant vs. unpleasant or likes vs. dislikes for our own good.
Going back to our quote, the degree of ‘burning’ felt (in the cheeks or elsewhere) will depend on the degree of pungency in the substance. A useful practice is to categorize pungent articles as mild, medium or strong in degree. For example, basil is mildly spicy, fresh ginger is medium spicy, and hot peppers are strongly spicy.

“The Effects of the Tastes...The pungent savour overcomes throat diseases, colds, and swelling. It reduces the size of wounds. It dries out oil, fat, and moisture. It stimulates the digestive fire, is digestive, an appetizer, and an evacuant. It dries out food. It cuts through blockages, opens up the tubes and removes phlegm.” VH 1.10
Throat diseases, colds and swelling are of different types according to the doshas. To use a sore throat as an example, you may feel intermittent discomfort, weakness or a scratchy feeling with dryness in your throat. This is a vata-type or vata-stage sore throat. You could also feel a sharp irritation with redness and acute burning. This is a pitta-type or pitta-stage sore throat. You could also feel dull pain, with chronic swelling and congestion in the throat. This is a kapha-type or kapha-stage sore throat. The key to the symptoms is vata is cold, dry and changeable, pitta is hot, burning and red, and kapha is cold, moist, slow and stagnant.
Pungent taste is best suited to overcome kapha-type diseases. Strong spices can heat up and move out the swelling and congestion. Mild spices can be used to overcome the vata-type diseases as vata is cold and pungent is hot. The precaution is not to be over-stimulating.
For example, some basil tea with honey may be soothing to vata without being overly stimulating. Kapha types might need dried ginger tea with a pinch of cayenne and honey. Pitta conditions are already hot, so something cooling like mint or bitters would be a better choice.
Pungent taste is known ‘to reduce the size of wounds’. Whereas I have not experimented with this approach, I believe using pungent articles topically on wounds would act something like cauterization.
Pungent taste ‘dries out oil, fat, and moisture.’ Oil, fat, and moisture when excessive are examples of kapha. Kapha is defined as water held in earth. The key qualities are cold, damp, heavy and unctuous. Pungent taste is defined as fire and air. The key qualities are hot, dry, light and sharp. These represent opposite qualities. Pungent taste is a perfect antidote for kapha. This passage is emphasizing the drying action of pungency.
Pungent taste ‘stimulates the digestive fire, is digestive, an appetizer, and an evacuant.’ The key word here is ‘stimulates.’ Pungent articles are used as stimulants in that they stimulate into action. They stimulate the saliva to flow in the mouth, they stimulate the digestive track to mobilize digestive enzymes which digest the food, and they can help stimulate the peristaltic action of the colon. However, please note that pungent articles, just like fire itself should be used judiciously, carefully and in moderation.
Pungent taste ‘dries out food.’ Here is another reference to pungent taste’s drying action. A safe way to use pungent taste is to mix it with food. This can be done as the food is cooked. It can be added to the cooked food before it is eaten (i.e. as with black pepper). Or, to bypass the runny nose, pungent spices such as ginger can be taken in a capsule while eating the food.
Pungent taste ‘cuts through blockages, opens up the tubes and removes phlegm.’ Pungent taste is said to have a sharp quality. This translates into a ‘cutting’ action. Pungent taste can cut through and break up congestion or blockages. For example, if your nose is blocked with excess phlegm, ginger tea may help ‘open up the tubes.’
On a more subtle level, yoga and ayurveda describe subtle tubes known as nadi’s that carry prana through the subtle body. Pungent taste can help keep the nadi’s clear. One practice of the yogi’s is to grind seven black peppercorns every morning, blend the fresh powder in a spoon of honey while repeating the fire mantra ‘ram’ or equivalent, and then swallow to break up any phlegm which has collected in the stomach over night. The effect of this practice is to break up phlegm, open the subtle channels, stimulate prana and clear the mind.

“If it is used too much, it causes thirst, a diminution of seed and strength, fainting, cramps, trembling, and pain in the waist and back.” VH 1.10
It is always prudent to consider counter-indications. Because pungent taste is drying, too much could cause thirst. When considering fertility, water is seen as the key element. If you have studied the chakras, you may know that the second chakra is associated with reproduction, fertility and water. Too much pungent taste can literally dry out water and the reproductive ‘seed’.
‘Diminution of seed and strength, fainting, cramps, trembling, and pain in the waist and back’ are classic vata symptoms. Vata is the combination of air and space qualities, notably cold, dry, light, changeable with erratic movements. Pungent taste is composed of fire and air. Where the fiery qualities may benefit the coldness of vata, the airy qualities are more likely to aggravate vata. This is why only mild spices are recommended for vata types.

“Examples...The class of pungent items includes asafoetida, black pepper, mixed spice...and green herbs like sweet basil...” VH 1.10
Mild spices are called carminatives or digestives. They are generally sattvic (harmonious), good for all types and are used in cooking. They include the ‘green herbs like sweet basil,’ bay, chervil, cilantro, dill, fennel, oregano, tarragon and thyme.
Other examples are carminative seeds. They include ajwain, anise, black cumin, carraway, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and mustard. They are often ground just before use and cooked in ghee as a base for cooking vegetables, grains or beans. One famous combination is known as panch phoron or five seeds which include black cumin, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and yellow mustard. All of the mild spices are used to support digestion without increasing pitta.
Medium strength spices include asafoetida, black pepper, cinnamon, garlic and fresh ginger. Of these, fresh ginger and cinnamon are considered sattvic (harmonious). The others are rajasic (potentially over-stimulating). Asafoetida has a reputation for dispelling gas and countering intestinal yeast infections. It can be indispensable for vata types. It is also used as a substitute for garlic in taste and action. Black pepper is sometimes used by yogi’s despite it’s rajasic quality to ‘keep the channels open’ as discussed above. This is an example of using rajas to counter tamas (sluggishness).
Strong spices, such as the ‘mixed spice’ mentioned in the text, include dried ginger, cayenne and other hot peppers or chilis. One mixed spice recipe is known as trikatu, or three peppers. It is equal measures of dried ginger, black pepper and long pepper. It is used for it’s heating and stimulating action to counter coldness and phlegm or as an addition to herbal formulas as a digestive aid.
One aspect of pungency that our text did not address is it’s effect on the mental/emotional level. Pungency is an antidote for complacency and lack of focus. The sharp quality includes the helpful effect of sharpening and clarifying the mind. Of course, too many hot spices can make the mind and tongue too sharp. Watch out for the sharp language of angry people eating hot spices!

References for further study: “The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from the Ayurvedic Classics” by Dominik Wujastyk, “Charak Samhita” by Charak, and “Ashtangahrdaya or Heart of Medicine” by Vagbhata

Addendum: Here is a translation from the “Charak Samhita” 1.26.43 concerning pungency for further study and comparison:
“Pungent taste cleanses the mouth, stimulates digestion, absorbs food, causes secretion from the nose and eyes; makes the sense organs clear, alleviates swelling, corpulence, urticarial patches, channel-blocking,... gives relish to food, destroys itching , depresses wounds, kills organisms, scrapes muscles, checks the coagulation of blood,... opens the channels, pacifies kapha, and is light, hot and rough. This, though having so many properties, if used singly and excessively, damages sexual potency ... causes unconsciousness, weariness, emaciation, fainting, choking, giddiness, burning in throat, body-heat, loss of strength and thirst. And due to abundance of air and fire, it produces vatika disorders in feet, hands, sides, back etc. particularly with symptoms like movements, burning pain, tremors, piercing and tearing pains.”

Monday, August 30, 2010

Lesson #23: Salts of the Earth: The Mineral Kingdom

Salts of the Earth: The Mineral Kingdom
by Gary Gran, CYT DAy.

In Part One of this article, we established that saltiness is one of the six tastes recognized by Ayurveda. Salty taste is said to increase fire and water which means it is warming and moistening. Therefore, an excess of salt could create too much heat or too much water which is called an aggravation of pitta (heat symptoms) or kapha (damp symptoms), or both. For example, we could observe a skin rash, redness, puffiness or swelling of the skin after an overly salty meal.
We also expanded the notion of salt to include not just table salt, but all mineral salts and minerals themselves. In this article, we will take a closer look at the role minerals play in our diet and some ayurvedic techniques to improve mineral nutrition.
Traditional Ayurveda classifies minerals according to their source: from the ground, from plants and their ashes, or from animal parts. Modern Ayurvedic practitioners divide minerals into the major minerals (needed in relatively large quantities), the trace minerals (needed in relatively small quantities) and the heavy metals (toxic in small quantities). The most important major minerals are calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, phosphorous, sulfur and chlorine. Some important trace minerals are iron, zinc, selenium, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, silicon and iodine. Some toxic heavy metals are lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminum and cadmium. There is a special place in traditional Ayurvedic lore for the alchemical minerals mercury, salt, sulfur, gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and lead.
Ayurveda tells us that salts (minerals) increase fire and that fire represents the principle of transformation. In the body, transformation means the metabolism or digestion and assimilation of our food. In modern terms, minerals are needed to support all enzyme activities which govern metabolism. Therefore, a mineral deficiency or imbalance can disrupt enzyme activity and metabolism. For example, the trace mineral chromium is involved in sugar metabolism and the utilization of insulin. A problem can occur two ways. There could be a deficiency of chromium in the diet, or there could be an excess of highly refined carbohydrates in the diet which deplete whatever chromium is available. Not surprisingly, both of these scenarios tend to reinforce each other.
Ayurveda tells us that salts increase water. Two minerals in particular, sodium and potassium regulate water in the body. Ayurveda suggests that sodium has an undifferentiated primitive oceanic quality as sodium is found primarily in the ocean. It tends to build up in the extra-cellular fluids of the body and causes that characteristic puffiness when in excess. Potassium is considered to have a more intelligent, organizing, upward-moving quality as it is found primarily in plants. Potassium tends to build up within the cells.
An excess of sodium (salt is sodium chloride) drives out potassium from the cells and gradually wears down the body tissues. It is as though the body is returning to a primitive non-differentiated oceanic state. Potassium on the other hand balances excess sodium, and lends it’s organizing qualities to water metabolism. The lesson here is that sodium and potassium need to be balanced in the diet. For most people that means reducing the amount of salt in the diet and increasing the amount of vegetables in the diet.
Ayurveda also tells us that the potential post-digestive or long-term effect of salty taste is sweet. Sweet is defined as a combination of earth and water. Translation: Whereas an excess of common salt can break down body tissues, minerals in general provide the building blocks for all the tissues of the body. Think of the big picture. Minerals start out either dissolved in the ocean or formed as the very structure of the earth. Running streams and rivers break down the rocks and water our fields. Natural soil which is rich in humic acids further break down the minerals which are absorbed into plants which are eaten by animals and humans. The minerals are then transformed into living tissues. The water and earth of the outer world have become the fluids and tissues of our physical bodies.
The main problems in this process are mineral imbalances (such as sodium-potassium discussed above), mineral deficiencies (primarily from poor soil and/or poor food choices), pollution (from heavy metals which tend to build up in animal tissues), and poor assimilation (from a lack of digestive ability which itself can be caused by mineral deficiencies).
Now let’s take a fresh look at the various food groups and see how ayurveda addresses these issues.

Important Foods, Herbs, Supplements & Techniques
General: The main point is that the nutritional profile of all the food groups is dependent upon the soil. To insure a healthy balanced intake of major and trace minerals eat a varied diet of quality organically grown foods. In addition, observe the following food preparation tips to maximize mineral absorption.
Grains: In general, whole grains are higher in minerals than refined grains, but they can be hard to digest. Therefore, in ayurveda, grains are typically processed in the following ways. The very roughest portions of the grain husks are removed to improve digestibility and keep the rough fiber from blocking mineral absorption. Grains can also be fermented to improve mineral availability. This can be thought of as sour taste helping the salt taste. Also, grains can be stone-ground. It is possible that minute portions of the grinding stone find their way into the flour. Commercial flours and grain products are often enriched with vitamins and minerals but what is the point of stripping a food of it’s nutrition only to add it back in piecemeal? Grains can also be sprouted to make them easier to digest. For example, wheat grass and barley grass are high in easily digestible calcium and magnesium.
Beans: Beans are handled as follows. Sometimes the husk is removed and the bean is split in half before cooking. All beans are typically soaked before cooking. The soak water is thrown out. They are then boiled with spices. Fresh spices themselves contain an impressive array of trace minerals which is one of the best reasons for including them in the diet. Another technique is to add a piece of kombu sea vegetable to the bean pot which also adds trace minerals and aids digestibility.
Traditional soy foods are excellent for their mineral content. Traditional tofu is processed with nigari which is rich in trace minerals or with a calcium salt which adds a significant amount of easily digestible calcium.
Vegetables: Vegetables are judged by their appearance and their flavor. For example, yellowed leaves may indicate a mineral deficiency. In general plants help breakdown minerals into minute particles suspended in water. These are termed colloidial minerals which are easier for humans to absorb.
Green leafy vegetables are especially prized by ayurveda for their high mineral content, especially calcium, magnesium and iron. However, various plant compounds such as phytates and oxalates can block their absorption. For example, oxalic acid in spinach and chard blocks the absorption of iron. Other vegetables that contain oxalic acic are beets, beet greens, and to a lesser extent, kale, celery and parsley.
For this reason, ayurveda does not recommend raw spinach or chard. Instead, all green leafy vegetables are typically blanched or boiled and the cooking water is discarded to remove some of the undesirable compounds. The blanched greens are then cooked down in ghee or vegetable oil with spices and perhaps other vegetables. This is often done in an iron skillet. As the vegetables cook the minerals are chelated or bound into more digestible compounds. Also, a small amount of iron from the skillet may be absorbed into the food. This is why aluminum cookware is not recommended as minute particles of aluminum may be chelated into the food, especially if cooked with anything acidic like tomatoes. After boiling and sauteeing the leafy veges, a large quantity of leaves is cooked down to an easily digestible portion full of condensed nutrition. They can be served with lemon juice which further increases the mineral absorption.
Vegetables can also be juiced to remove all the fiber or pulped to help break down the fiber.
Salad greens can be lightly salted. In fact, the term ‘salad’ actually means ‘salted.” If a natural salt such as sea salt or rock salt is used this can add important trace minerals. Adding a good quality oil and vinegar dressing helps in their digestion and assimilation.
Sea vegetables are a great source of trace minerals. However, sea vegetables do not mix well with dairy products in everyday cuisine. Therefore, they can be served at different times or one can be excluded in favor of the other. They are both excellent sources of calcium and magnesium.
Fruits: Organic fruits are rich in easily digestible colloidial minerals. Some fruits can be peeled to remove the indigestible portion or juiced. Dried fruits can be soaked or cooked into cereal. Dried fruits such as raisens and apricots are often high in iron. Some fruit is salted such as salt plums or olives which adds to their mineral profile and alkalinizing effect. A mildly acidic fruit juice can be sipped about half an hour after a meal to increase mineral absorption of the meal. Organic apple juice is a good choice.
Proteins: Some ayurvedic practitioners list amino acids and meats as including the salty taste. Certainly many meats are preserved with salt, tenderized with sodium based meat tenderizers, or cooked with salt. Therefore, a high meat diet is often sodium excessive. Excessive sodium intake competes with calcium. In addition, a high meat diet tends to be high in phosphorous which also competes with calcium. Therefore, a better choice for supplemental protein is dairy which is low sodium/ low phosphorous and high calcium. Fermented dairy (sour taste aiding salt taste) such as yogurt ranks near the top for easily absorbed calcium.
Fish and poultry can be rich in minerals. But depending on what they themselves have eaten, they are often high in toxic metals as well. For example, almost all fresh water fish is contaminated with mercury. Smaller fish like sardines are less likely to be contaminated and when eaten with the bones are high in calcium. Whatever supplemental protein you choose, whether it be meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy or soy foods, make sure it is of the highest quality.
Nuts, Seeds & Oils: Nuts and seeds can also be processed to reduce their indigestible portions and maximize their nutritional components. For example, almonds, which are high in calcium and magnesium are typically soaked overnight. This wakes up the life force which mobilizes the nutritional benefits and enables us to slip off the husk which is indigestible and can block mineral absorption. Sesame seeds, also rich in calcium and magnesium, are often roasted and ground. They can be made into a paste called tahini, or combined with a natural salt to be sprinkled on food. Cold-pressed oils remove all the fiber for easy digestion of the oil. Oil can help assimilate minerals, but don’t overdo it. A good rule to follow is to limit your added oil to three spoons a day.
Condiments: World cuisine offers many salty condiments besides table salt. Pickles, chutneys, pastes and sauces are often very salty. Soy sauce, tamari, miso, gomashio, fish sauce, brown sauce, Worcestershire sauce and liquid amino condiments are highly salty and often high in glutamates.
Glutamates: A special mention needs to made for glutamates. Since 1908, glutamates have been recognized as an additional taste. This followed the discovery of dedicated taste buds on the tongue. The taste is now referred to as umami or savory taste. Ayurveda simply includes this group under the salty taste.
The strongest glutamate is mono-sodium-glutamate, the notorious MSG which is used as a flavor enhancer and often causes headaches or allergic type reactions. It turns out that many world cuisines have used glutamates for centuries to enhance flavor. For example, Parmesan cheese is nearly as high in glutamates as MSG. Roquefort and blue cheeses are also very high, and most aged cheeses have glutamates. Meats are high in glutamates since glutamic acid is one of the amino acid proteins. Hydrolized vegetable protein is high in glutamates. Soy sauce, miso and fish sauce contain glutamates. Sea vegetables, mushrooms, milk, anchovies, bacon, bouillion, Worcestershire sauce, steak sauce, brown sauce and even tomatoes and grapes contain glutamates.
There is often a craving for these foods when someone is transitioning from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet. One cooking technique that Ayuveda offers is to brown some high quality mushrooms along with other vegetables in a mixture of ghee and spices. When the vegetable dish is nearly ready, a small amount of milk is cooked into the dish which creates a savory gravy.
Supplements: Ayurveda normally recommends obtaining minerals from a well-balanced diet rather than from supplements. Minerals often compete with one another, so taking a single supplement of one mineral may throw off the availability of another mineral. There are a few minerals that may require supplementation however. The most common mineral deficiencies are calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.
Calcium and magnesium are usually found together in foods and should be combined if taken as a supplement. As they are hard to digest they need to be taken in small doses spread throughout the day. Some people do very well with liquid calcium/magnesium supplements which are herb based. Others benefit from including the biochemic cell salts calcium flouride and magnesium phosphate in their daily regimes. These are taken in pellets under the tongue away from meals for long periods of time. They have the power to restore proper mineral metabolism at the cellular level.
Iron absorption can be maximized using the food preparation tips described above. In addition, vitamin C or vitamin C rich foods like lemon or tomato can boost iron absorption. If meat is not included in the diet, good sources of iron are beans, spinach, kale, collards, raisens, apricots, molasses, whole grains and burdock root. Many people do well on a liquid iron supplement which is herb based. Some herbs which are high in iron are alfalfa, dandelion, mullein, nettles, rosemary, sarsaparilla, scullcap and yellow dock. The cell salt ferrum phosphate can be used to maximise iron absorption and utilization on the cellular level.
Vegetarians are often deficient in zinc. The most reliable sources of zinc are animal foods and sea foods. The zinc present in plant foods is often blocked by various plant fibers or absent due to zinc-deficient soils. One of the signs of zinc deficiency is difficulty tasting your food. This can lead to a craving for extra table salt which can mask the underlying deficiency. Other signs of zinc deficiency are an impaired ability to smell, poor appetite, underweight, poor resistance to infections, skin and nail problems, reproductive problems, slow wound healing, poor memory and even depression. Fortunately, zinc supplements are easily available and relatively easy to absorb.
A special substance used in ayurveda as a rejuvenative and adaptogen is known as shilajit. It is also referred to as bitumin or mineral pitch. It is a natural exudate of humic acid which is collected from the faces of the Himalayan mountains and then purified. It is often combined with dried fruits or herbs and taken in small doses. This remarkable substance contains antimony, calcium, cobalt, copper, iron, lithium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorous, silica, sodium, strontium and zinc along with various acids, gums and oils.
Herbs & Spices: Herbs and spices contain an impressive array of trace minerals and since trace minerals are needed in small amounts this constitutes a powerful argument for their inclusion in a healthy diet. In fact, ayurveda has several recipes for combining herbs and spices into ferments, pastes, powders, soups or pills to be used as medicines, restoratives, and rejuvenatives. One famous rejuvenative paste is called Chavyan Prash which typically includes up to 40 or more herbs and fruits which are rich in trace minerals. It can be considered like a daily multi-vitamin-mineral supplement. In fact, it is often recommended when a person is suffering from food cravings. The idea is that a craving indicates an underlying deficiency and that Chavyan Prash is so rich in nutrients it can provide the missing micro-nutrient and the craving goes away. Or to put it another way, when our diet is limited to only one, two or three of the six tastes, Chavyan Prash will provide all the tastes needed to fully satisfy the palate.
For another example of how the ayurvedic system of the six tastes works consider someone who is pre-diabetic. They may be eating a diet which is too rich in sweet taste. Ayurveda would recommend decreasing the quantity and quality of the sweet taste and adding the pungent taste. The theory is that sweet taste is cold, wet and heavy in quality and that pungent taste has the opposite qualities of hot, dry and light. So good additions to the diet would be black pepper or thyme. It so happens that good quality black pepper and thyme are high in chromium, the very trace mineral needed to help process sugars.
A special note needs to made for the inclusion of roots in the diet. Roots interact directly with the soil and are often the richest in trace minerals. Alfalfa root is particularly noted for its wide array of trace minerals and can be considered like a single source multi-mineral supplement.
Tea also deserves a special mention. Although high in certain trace minerals, the tannins in the tea can block absorption of other trace minerals such as iron. For this reason it is not recommended to drink tea with meals.
On another note, one way to protect oneself from a build-up of toxic metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminum and arsenic is to include a full array of trace minerals in the diet. Selenium may be particularly helpful in this regard. The healthy trace minerals may act to block the absorption of the toxic heavy metals. Also, cilantro and chlorella may be helpful in removing toxic metals already present in the tissues.
Unfortunately, we must also note that poor quality herbal medicines from India and China have been found to be contaminated with heavy metals. Although I believe it is possible to make herbal-mineral preparations with potentially toxic ingredients in a safe way, these special alchemical preparations are not finding their way to the marketplace. The lesson is to know your sources and to buy from reliable suppliers with good reputations for testing their products, or learn to grow and make your own medicines.
To summarize the main points of the article, we have considered how: 1) minerals from the earth form the building blocks of all the tissues of our body, 2) refined foods grown on poor soil are mineral deficient unless there is an attempt to fortify the food with added minerals, 3) even then important trace minerals are left out, 4) the best strategy is to eat a diet rich in a wide variety of organically grown grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices including a small amount of natural salt and the highest quality supplemental proteins, 5) grains, beans, vegetables and fruits can be prepared and combined in certain ways to render the minerals easier to digest, and 6) there may be times when mineral supplementation is helpful or necessary.

Salt has a long history that stretches back to the dawn of time. Perhaps more than any other substance salt symbolizes our common bond with the planet earth. So to conclude our study of salt and minerals consider the journey of the traditional salt men of Tibet.
In Tibet, it has been traditional for centuries for traders to make an annual pilgrimage to one of the twelve great frozen salt lakes to collect salt for local use and to trade for barley. The traditional pilgrimage, as documented in the film “The Saltmen of Tibet”, shows a humble respect for the earth, the seasons of the year, cultural traditions and the relationship between our actions and our circumstances. In the documentary the salt men undertake a 32 day journey over rough terrain to visit the Lake of Tears, so-called because it was formed from the tears of Tara, the goddess of compassion. The fragility of this tradition becomes apparent in the documentary when we see trucks taking salt from the same lake for commercial purposes. The question arises, are we abandoning traditional values because they are superstitious and primitive or are we abandoning our reciprocal relationship with the earth which sustains us?

References for further study: “Diet & Nutrition”, “Transition to Vegetarianism”, & “Radical Healing” by R. Ballentine; “The Saltmen of Tibet” by U. Koch; “The Quintessence Tantras of Tibetan Medicine” tr. B. Clark

Lesson #22: Saltiness

by Gary Gran CYT, DAy.

If we were to call a person salty, what would we be saying about that person? We might say “he’s the salt of the earth” meaning he’s the common man, a man of experience, a real pillar of the community. Or we could say “oh, he’s just an old salt, a real salty dog,” meaning he’s a worldly soul given in to his cravings. Of course, we could say that a person is worth her salt, meaning that she is well seasoned and does a good job, that she earns her ‘salary’, her reward.
Salt is also associated with wounds. To “throw salt in one’s wounds” means to rub it in, just like “to lick one’s wounds”, means to remove the sting. Perhaps the common man, the salt of the earth is one who bears his wounds with dignity, while the salty dog is trying to forget his wounds through indulgence. Salt could be our desire to do a good job, be accepted, and taste life itself. Salt can also be where our fervor lies, where we go to excess, or where we become rigid.
Ayurveda classifies salt as one of the six rasas, or tastes of life. Each taste is associated with different foods and herbs but also with different emotions or experiences of life. The general rule is that a salty substance has the attributes (guna) of hot, moist, heavy and contracted and implies the corresponding effects of heat, dampness, heaviness and contraction when ingested. Therefore, if a person is suffering from too much coldness, dryness, lightness or expansiveness, the salty taste may help.
In terms of the three doshas, or constitutional tendencies, salt is best suited to the vata or air-type person who is naturally cold, dry, light, expansive and perhaps nutritionally deficient in some way. However, the individual qualities of salt can help all people in specific ways if used judiciously. Salt is not very heating, but it can be appetizing and help stimulate the digestive secretions. Salt is very good at retaining moisture. A pinch of salt in a glass of water can help the water absorb into the body instead of running clear through. As a counter-indication, it is well known that too much salt can lead to excessive water retention, bloating and puffiness. The heaviness of salt can help ground a person who is too flighty. It also has a slight laxative or downward-moving effect. A pinch of salt can be added to hot water, honey and lemon juice for a cleansing morning drink. The contraction of salt helps to focus the mind and can counteract the expansive, spacey, empty-calory effect of too much sugar. Perhaps the main benefit of salt however is to counteract nutritional deficiencies.
Salt and salty taste is not limited to table salt which is overused by many people. Salt can be taken to include all mineral salts and even individual minerals. Our physical nutrition comes from the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, but it all starts with the health of the soil. The mineral content of the soil feeds the plants which feed the animals. We can receive our minerals through mineral supplements, through plants and through animals. However, each method has its disadvantages.
Mineral supplements can be hard to digest. Plants convert minerals from the soil into smaller water soluble particles called colloidal minerals which are easier to assimilate. However, if the soil is deficient, the plants will also be deficient and certain plant compounds like phytates, tannins and oxalic acid can block the absorption of minerals. These short-comings can be overcome with proper food preparation, cooking, and food combining techniques. Animal foods being higher on the food chain may themselves be deficient of minerals, or worse, contaminated with heavy metals.
Therefore, ayurveda recommends a well-rounded, diverse diet rich in organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans, supplemented with fresh nuts, seeds, oils and the highest quality animal foods. To these are added small amounts of natural salts, herbs and spices which all contain significant amounts of trace minerals. Let me emphasize here the importance of organic foods. Organic farming is dedicated to preserving and building the quality of our soil. Traditionally, the best farm-land has been along river banks where the soil is renewed each year with minerals from upstream. In ayurveda, the run-off from high mountain glaciers is known as glacial milk which is high in mineral content. Food that has been irrigated with glacial milk is more nutritious, and, this is very interesting, more tasty!
Table salt is used to enhance the taste of our food. If the food has no taste, or not enough taste, we add more salt. This could be an indication that the food itself is lacking minerals. In the end, salt is said to overpower all the other tastes. We stop noticing the true quality (or lack of quality) of our food. This is why it is recommended to do a salt fast for ten days every spring to refresh our taste buds.
However, the bigger issue here is the nutritional value of our food supply. Tests have shown that nutrients vary widely from soil in different regions and even different fields within a region. Two plants of the same type grown in the same field may even have different amounts of nutrients. From a practical point of view, what is left to us is our sense of taste to distinguish the true quality of the foods we eat.
Moreover, a craving for table salt may indicate our own mineral deficiency. In fact, an undue craving for any food may indicate an underlying mineral deficiency. For example, a person who craves chocolate may be deficient in the mineral magnesium. It can be helpful to explore our cravings in this way for clues on how to improve our food selection.
Ayurvedic texts recognize many different sources of the salty taste. The three main categories are natural salts, processed salts and mineral salts:
1) Natural Salts: Natural salts are highly favored for everyday use as they are rich in trace minerals. They include rock salt, lake salt and sea salt. Modern practitioners include sea vegetables in this category.
2) Processed Salts: Processed salts include table salt (refined sodium chloride), potassium chloride (a common salt substitute) and enriched salts such as black salt and iodized salt. Refined table salt without additives is recommended for special purposes such as the neti wash, but not for everyday dietary use. Potassium chloride is helpful for those on a reduced sodium diet. Black salt comes in different grades and is noted for the addition of sodium sulphate which gives it it’s characteristic egg smell. These days, vegans like to use black salt as a flavor substitute in recipes calling for eggs. Iodized salt is important as many soils lack iodine which is needed for proper thyroid function. For example, a lack of iodine can cause goiters. However, many commercial salts containing iodine also contain additives such as anti-caking agents which are not recommended for regular use. Sea vegetables such as kelp are often recommended for their high iodine content.
3) Mineral Salts: Mineral salts include compounds such as potassium carbonate, sal ammoniac, sodium carbonate, calcium carbonate, salt petre, borax, calcium sulphate, sodium bicarbonate, etc. Some of these are naturally formed mineral outcroppings. Others such as potash are formed from the ashes of plant materials. Others can be derived from animal parts.
Some processed salts and mineral salts are used in baking. They include table salt, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), cream of Tartar, calcium phosphate, calcium aluminum phosphate, calcium citrate, potassium bicarbonate, monocalcium phosphate, sodium aluminum sulfate, sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium acid phosphate. Some people prefer to avoid the ones containing aluminum as aluminum itself is toxic. Others say that the aluminum is bound in the salt and therefore non-toxic. There are non-aluminum baking powders available commercially.
Various salts can be combined in complex formulas with various metals, gemstones and medicinal plants, powdered, cooked, burnt, buried, cooked again, purified and potentized. These alchemical preparations are accompanied by prayers and astrological observances and are called bhasmas or precious pills. These are rarely if ever available in the west. Inauthentic versions are often contaminated with heavy metals or even pharmaceutical drugs so it is buyer beware. A modern and safe alternative favored by many ayurvedic practitioners is the system of cell salts or tissue salts called biochemic medicine along with related homeopathic remedies.
The powdered wood ashes from sacred fire ceremonies are sometimes available and used for spiritual healing. The blessed ashes are known as vibhuti. Perhaps some of their healing potency comes from their trace mineral content.
To summarize, ordinary salt is considered appetizing, flavor enhancing, alkalinizing and digestive. It stimulates the secretion of saliva, helps maintain water electrolyte balance, enhances absorption of nutrients, is slightly laxative, and can help remove impurities from the body.
The early signs of too much salt in the diet are excessive thirst, dark urine, skin irritation and puffiness (especially under the eyes). The signs progress to include bloodshot eyes, clenched teeth, hair loss, angry outbursts, primitive urges, cravings and a certain rigidity of mind bordering on intense fervor. Think of an overly intense workaholic or crusader.
A prolonged excess of salt can contribute to high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, bleeding disorders, ulcers, water retention, edema, kidney damage, and calcium deficiency.
Or as stated in the Quintessence Tantra of Tibetan Ayurveda: “Salty taste toughens the body and removes whorls of wind (vata) and blockages (of the channels)...increases digestive heat and improves the appetite. Partaking of salty things in excess causes falling hair and greying of the hair, increases wrinkles, decreases strength and produces thirst, skin disorders, blood disorders and bile disorders.”