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.”

Lesson #21: Sourness

by Gary Gran CYT, DAy.

“I don’t understand what happened,” she was saying. “At first he was so excited, even elated. But now he seems to have soured on the whole deal.”
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” her friend replied. “He’s really just mellowed a bit. It’s not like that last time...”
“You mean when he was all sour-grapes about that break-up?”
“Yes, like we learned in Ayurveda, the sweet rasa really turned sour that last time.”
In Ayurveda, it is said that we taste our life experiences. The essence of each experience is called rasa. The six rasas are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. In this article we will explore the sour taste especially in regard to foods and herbs.
The general rule is that a sour-tasting substance has the attributes (guna) of hot, moist and light and implies the corresponding effects of heat, wetness, and lightness when ingested. Therefore, if a person is suffering from too much coldness, dryness, or heaviness, the sour taste may help.
However, keep in mind that compared to other tastes, sour is only mildly heating, and only slightly damp and light. The main use of sour foods is as a digestive aid. As we discussed in our last article, most foods are sweet-tasting (as in good-tasting rather than sugary) and have the qualities of cold, wet and heavy. When a sweet food is allowed to ferment the cold quality turns slightly warm and the heavy quality becomes lighter. Both of these changes imply that the food will be easier to digest, or that it is in fact being partially pre-digested.
It is important to understand how the digestive process works. In simple terms, most food is cold, wet, and heavy. The digestive fire has the opposite qualities of hot, dry, and light. If an individual’s digestive strength is over-matched by the quality or quantity of food taken, the fire goes out and digestion is incomplete. Undigested food becomes stuck in the system and is known as ama, one of the culprits in disease formation. We usually experience the initial build-up of ama as a general feeling of dullness, sluggishness and discomfort.
However, the body may be more intelligent than we are, and has a back-up plan. When the digestive fire is put out by our poor food choices, the mass of food begins to ferment. We experience what is called a “sour” stomach, perhaps with some gas, bloating, or gurgling.
The sour stomach is sometimes mis-diagnosed as an excess of digestive acids and anti-acids are prescribed. This only further weakens the already compromised digestive secretions. What is actually needed is to help the digestive fire, not put it out.
One way to help the digestive fire is to eat less. Another way to help the digestive fire is to eat less. And, oh, by the way, did you know that eating less will help the digestive fire? Another method is to use some sour foods to aid the digestion and pre-empt sour stomach. But do not try to justify over-eating by eating a lot of pickles. Too much sour food can itself lead to sour stomach, blood toxification and itching. That is itching of both the skin and the mind as in having an over-stimulated appetite where one is itching for more, more.
“More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul.” said William Blake.

Important Sour-Tasting Foods & Herbs
General: Sour foods are anything that is cultured, fermented, soured, pickled, vinegared, yeasted and/or aged in order to preserve the food or enhance it’s flavor or digestibility. Ayurveda recommends this group in small portions only. Another source of sour taste are the acid and sub-acid fruits which are considered to be much milder and healthier. To put it another way, Ayurveda prefers fresh foods which are full of prana to aged foods.
The vata type individual may benefit the most from the sour taste. Vata types have cold, dry and light qualities with a variable digestion and can benefit from the slightly warming and moistening qualities of the sour taste in moderation. In contrast, pitta types’ hot qualities could be aggravated and kapha types’ damp qualities could be aggravated.
Grains: Grains are often fermented to make various beers, brews and spirits. However, alcohol is considered too strong and is best avoided. In Tibetan Ayurveda, some medicines are given to common people with beer as a vehicle. The idea is that the beer makes the medicine easier to digest. However, the monks do not take beer as it has a strong effect on consciousness and is considered overly rajasic (stimulating) followed by overly tamasic (dulling) to the mind.
Other examples are yeasted breads and sour-dough breads. Yeasted bread is less sour but the yeast can aggravate vata (too light and active). It may be necessary to eat day-old bread when the yeast is less active, or to toast the bread to de-activate the yeast. Sourdough bread is more sour as it generally uses both yeast and friendly bacterial cultures. Other examples in planetary cuisine are amazake, injera and various fermented batters.
There are also various vinegars made from rice and barley malt that are used as a condiment or for pickling.
Beans: Beans are often fermented or cultured to aid digestibility. Good examples are tempeh, tofu, miso, tamari, koji and natto from Japanese cuisine and the fermented rice/bean batters used to make idli and dosa in Indian cuisine. Tamarind is a naturally sour tree pod or legume that is used as a flavouring or digestive aid.
Vegetables: Vegetables are often pickled and used as a condiment. Examples are sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers, ketchup, kimchi, and all the various chutneys and pickles used in Indian cuisine. Please note that many of these products are complex and may contain more than just the sour taste. Naturally sour vegetables are tomato and sorrel. Sorrel makes a great addition to soups.
Fruits: The mildest and best source of the sour taste is from acid and sub-acid fruits. The acid fruits are oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, pineapples, lemons and lime. Lemon is especially prized in Ayurveda for it’s cleansing, digestive and protective effects and is used in place of vinegar. Along with limes, it has the special quality of being cooling rather than heating. Sub-acid fruits are apples, apricots, berries, cherries, grapes, mangoes, nectarines, peaches, pears and plums.
All of the above are considered to be cleansing, refreshing and an aid to digestive health. All fruits are best eaten raw on an empty stomach as they digest quickly. If they are eaten with other food they can easily ferment and cause gas and bloating.
In fact, many fruits are purposely fermented to create vinegars, wines and spirits. Wine is well-known as a digestive aid but like beer is not recommended for yogis.
Dairy: Another good source of the sour taste is fermented or cultured dairy products. These include yogurt, kefir, sour cream, buttermilk, and cheese. Even fresh cheese which is not aged or fermented uses a souring agent to curdle the milk. For example, paneer is made with lemon juice.
All cultured dairy foods are considered easier to digest with the exception of hard cheese. Those with active cultures like yogurt help maintain a healthy balance of intestinal flora needed for good digestion, assimilation and elimination. Ayurveda also distinguishes between fresh yogurt which is more sweet and old yogurt which is more sour.
Supplements: When digestion and elimination are not working well, it may mean that the intestinal flora has been compromised. This is often the case when taking anti-biotics. One can supplement with pro-biotics such as acidophilus and bifidus to restore the intestinal flora. Another useful supplement which is considered sour is vitamin C, aka ascorbic acid. Bromelain derived from pineapple has anti-inflammatory and digestive properties.
Herbs: Ayurveda often recommends amla, or Indian gooseberry, for it’s stable and high vitamin C content. Primarily sour tasting, it is listed as a rejuvenative herb for the whole body and is the prime ingredient in the rejuvenative formula known as Chavyan Prash. Rose hips are another good natural source for vitamin C.
Ayurveda often prepares herbs in the form of drachsa, or herbal wine. These preparations are traditionally fermented but not alcoholic. The ferment helps in the digestion and assimilation of the herbs. A modern variation of this practice is to prepare herbs in tincture form. The alcoholic tincture helps extract, preserve and deliver the medicinal principles. If a tincture is then added to hot water, most of the alcohol evaporates before being ingested.
Other valuable sour medicinal berries are hawthorn berries for the heart, schizandra berries for the liver & adrenals, elderberries for the immune system and bilberries for the blood vessels & the eyes.
In summary, don’t get too sour with life or your food. A little taste of sour we can handle. It mellows us a little. But too much sour can lead to distaste, resentment, disgust and aversion.
According to Vagbhata’s classic Heart of Medicine, “If it is used too much, (sour taste) makes the body slack, and causes blindness, giddiness, itching, pallor, spreading rashes, swellings, spots, thirst, and fever.” But if used judiciously, “the sour taste makes the digestive fire burn bright. It is smooth, as well as good for the heart, digestion, and appetite.”

Lesson #20: Sweetness

by Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.
Remember the last time you lifted a perfectly ripe sweet piece of fruit to your mouth? The smell filling your mind with anticipation, the sweet juice filling your soul with pleasure and satisfaction? Then you know something of the rasa or sap of life. Our experience of life is called rasa in Ayurveda. Rasa is a multivalent term which can indicate the sap, the juice, the essence, the emotion and/or the flavour or taste of an herb, our food, or our life experience.
Ayurveda recognizes six tastes, sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent, but in this article we will focus on the sweet taste. Taste is the heart of the Ayurvedic classification system of foods and herbs. So let’s explore how the sweet taste gives us important clues about the attributes, effects and actions a substance will have when ingested.
The general rule is that a sweet-tasting food or herb indicates the attributes (guna) of cold, moist and heavy and implies the corresponding effects of coldness, wetness, and heaviness when ingested. Therefore if someone is suffering from the attributes of too much heat, dryness and/or lightness, sweet-tasting foods and herbs could provide an antidote.
On the other hand, if one were to eat only sweet tasting foods, they could become too cold, too damp (think mucus) and too heavy/congested. However, there are exceptions to the above rules which can be due to a substance’s prabhav (uniqueness) or due to the blending of more than one taste.
It’s important to distinguish simple sweet taste and complex sweet taste. Simple sweets like refined sugar are considered too strong and disturbing for regular use. And instead of a heavy nourishing effect they are empty of real nourishment. The end result of overuse of simple sweets could be obesity, lethargy, inability to concentrate, excess mucus, loss of appetite, parasites and diabetes.
Complex sweet tasting foods include proteins, complex carbs, fats and sweet-tasting fruits, vegetables and herbs. In fact, most of our food is considered sweet, nourishing and satisfying. Proteins, complex carbs and fats are heavy, nourishing, and slow to digest. Fruits, vegetables and herbs are generally lighter, provide more subtle forms of nourishment and are quicker to digest.
Just as simple sugars are considered disturbing, too much flesh food, animal fat or refined oils are also considered disturbing. So the discriminating palate will seek high-quality proteins, complex carbs, and high-quality fats and oils. The emphasis is on quality over quantity and a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet.
Important Sweet-Tasting Foods & Herbs
Whole Grains: Whole grains are mostly neutral in temperature, moistening, nourishing (heavy), and slow to digest. Buckwheat or kasha however have the unique quality of being slighty warming so are excellent for cold climates. Buckwheat, corn, millet and rye are slightly drying so are better when there is too much dampness.
Natural Sweeteners: Good choices for natural sweeteners are dates, figs, raw honey, barley malt and rice syrup. They are all neutral in temperature except for honey and molasses which have a slightly heating prabhav (unique effect). They all produce heaviness (weight/nourishment) except for raw honey and maple syrup which have a light quality. Heating or cooking honey renders it heavy and hard to digest. The warm and light qualities of raw honey give it the property of cutting mucus and is therefore used to balance milk which is cold, moist and heavy.
Sweet Fruits: Sweet fruits and fruit juices can also be used as natural sweeteners. Most sweet, ripe fruit is cooling, moistening but not heavy, and quick to digest. Because they are so quick to digest, they may best be eaten alone to avoid indigestion. This is considered especially so for melons. The saying is “eat them alone or leave them alone.” Some fruits like avocado and banana and heavier and more unctuous and therefore are more moistening and slower to digest.
Sweet Vegetables: Vegetables tend to be more complex in taste and offer a wide variety. Sweet tasting veges like beets, carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet corn, sweet peppers, sweet potatoes and squash are all near neutral in temperature, moistening and nourishing. Cucumbers, sweet peppers and summer squash are less starchy and therefore lighter in quality and effect.
Protein/Whole Grain & Bean combinations: Ayurveda recommends complex plant-based protein combinations such as whole grain and bean combinations with vegetables. They offer a complex mixture of tastes, balanced nutrition, and complete protein. They are generally neutral in temperature (see above discussion of grains), moistening, nourishing and slow to digest. Amongst the beans, the sweetest are chickpeas, mung, red lentils, tofu and urad dahl. They are all slightly cool except for urad dahl which is slightly heating. They are all heavy except for red lentils and split mung beans which are prized for being lighter and easier to digest.
Supplemental Protein: In addition to whole grain and bean combinations it is important to include a supplemental source of animal protein in a well-rounded diet. Supplemental means it is secondary but not unimportant in the diet. The exact mix of plant-based vs. animal proteins varies according to the constitution and digestive strength of each individual.
Good choices are high quality dairy, poultry, eggs or fish. Flesh food is not recommended as it is too heating rather than cooling and can be disturbing to the mind if taken in excess. An exception is for those who live in a cold climate like Tibet, where even the monks will include some meat as their supplemental protein. For those who don’t want to eat meat, it can be important to use warming herbal tonics as a substitute. More on this later. Pork is one of the most heating, followed by beef, fatty fish like salmon, poultry, fish and then eggs. Dairy can be slightly warming if fermented. Most dairy is cool, moist and heavy and is traditionally favored for it’s sattwic effect on the mind. This point becomes moot if dairy is taken in excess or is not able to be digested properly. A purely vegan diet is not usually recommended by Ayurveda, but can be achieved as long as there is a source of vitamin B-12 in the diet.
Paneer: A traditional favorite is paneer or fresh made cheese curd. Bring a gallon of organic milk to a boil and then remove from the heat. Let some steam escape. Then return the milk to the flame twice more, bringing the milk back to a soft boil. After the third boil, add the juice of one or two organic lemons which will separate the curds from the whey. Pour the separated milk through a strainer lined with cheese cloth to catch the curds. The curds or paneer are delicious, easy-to-digest and not mucus-forming. The whey is an excellent kidney/bladder cleanser used especially for recurrent bladder infections.
Nuts, Seeds & Oils: This group is generally slightly warming, moistening (oily/lubricating), heavy and slow to digest. Sesame seeds, sesame oil and mustard oil are noted as especially heating and are therefore useful during cold weather. Avocado oil, coconut, coconut oil, clarified butter (ghee), olive oil, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil are slightly cooling and are favored during warm weather. Almonds can be rendered cooling be soaking and peeling. Flax seeds and flax oil are noted as a good vegetarian source of essential fatty acids. Flax seed, castor oil and psyllium seeds can be used for their laxative/purgative effects. Flax has the mildest effect and psyllium is slightly cooling.
All nuts, seeds, whole grains and beans have a special affinity to the deeper tissues of the body and especially to the reproductive tissues/hormones as witnessed by their ability to sprout. They offer special protection against hormone disruption and inflammation, and they have a special energizing tonic effect that supports the prana, tejas and ojas of the subtle body. Prana can be said to represent subtle air, tejas or agni represents subtle fire, and ojas represents subtle water. Our ability to repair, rebuild, reproduce, restore and rejuvenate depends on these subtle elements.
Demulcent Herbs: Dumulcent herbs are sweet tasting, cooling, moistening and soothing as opposed to rough. They can protect tissues and help mucus to ‘slide’ out of the body. Licorice root is used to balance out herbal formulas and teas. Marshmallow root and Slippery Elm are soothing to the throat and lungs and can have a tonifying/nourishing effect on the deeper tissues, especially the nerves.
Rejuvenative Tonic Herbs: Rejuvenative herbs have a pronounced tonifying/strenghtening effect on the deeper tissues of the physical body and the subtle body. Like the nuts, seeds, whole grains and beans mentioned above, they support prana, tejas and ojas and can help restore our reserves. They are often discussed along male/female lines, but can be interchanged according to their qualities. The feminine tonics are primarily cooling, moistening and nourishing. The so-called male tonics are primarily heating, moistening and nourishing. Shatavari (wild asparagus root), wild yam and rehmannia are noted ‘female’ rejuvenative tonics. Ashwagandha root (winter cherry), saw palmetto berry, and ginseng root are valuable ‘male’ tonics. The primary distinction is their virya or heating potency. The sanskrit word virya, by the way, is related to the English word virile. Amongst the ginsengs, red ginseng and aged ginsengs are considered much hotter and can be used in place of meat in the winter diet to provide inner warmth and resilience. It’s best not to take them during warm weather. American ginseng is considered to be cooler. Siberian ginseng or eleuthero root is only slightly warming and is best for long-term use. It’s recommended to consult your medical practitioner before taking any medicinal herbs.
It’s also recommended to put all of the above to the test. A list or article may be a good place to start, but every premise should be tested and re-tested against experience. With practice, taste and attention you will begin to notice many fine distinctions in quality and strength. In the end, each substance is unique just as each of us is unique.
“The wild woman of the forests
Discovered the sweet plums by tasting,
And brought them to her Lord...
...the Lord, seeing her heart,
Took the ruined plums from her hand.
She saw no difference between low and high,
Wanting only the milk of his presence...”
- Mirabai as translated by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield