Ayurveda is India's traditional medicine. It's a holistic, preventative approach to health that uses nutrition to keep the body optimized and in sync with nature. Ayu means "life", Veda is "knowing."
The five elements feature strongly in Ayurvedic medicine and nutrition. They give us clues about how to eat to prevent illness and maintain harmony with the seasons. Indeed, an Ayurvedic diet for summer includes foods that balance the body's natural fire element.
The great sages, known as rishis believed that organic living bodies, including those in the botanical kingdom, arose from the interaction between elements. Each one contains an energy that subtly influences our health. The elements correspond with our senses too: ether with hearing, air with touch, fire with vision, water with taste, and earth with smell.
The five elements manifest in the human body as three primary energies known as the tridosha. The doshas are vata, pitta, and kapha, and they govern the physiological, psychological, and biological functions of mind, body, and consciousness. Each person has a specific doshic constitution. That is, one or two doshas comprise their energetic body. Although rare, some people are tridosha.
An imbalance in the doshas impairs agni, our digestive fire. According to Ayurveda, digestive disturbances are the root of illness because they cause ama to develop, a toxic substance that forms in body tissues. The doshas subtly communicate through various mild or alarming symptoms. Any health condition, such as chronic fatigue, acne, depression, or even PMS signal impaired digestion and an imbalance in the doshas that requires our attention.
That's why food is such a powerful part of Ayurveda - it also contains energetic qualities that can help or hinder an imbalance. For example, someone who has a vata-pitta constitution has fire, water, air, and ether energies. The earth element is required to maintain equilibrium, which can be obtained through grounding foods such as root vegetables. That doesn't mean one should favor the earth element and avoid the others. Too much of any one element, such as fire, can tip the scales and cause pitta-borne conditions, such as skin rash or acne.
To Everything There is a Season
The doshas also correlate with the seasons, giving rise to the basic energies found within each element. In summer, pitta dominates with the fire element. Dry, windy vata governs fall, kapha and vata govern winter, and kapha takes spring when the earth is damp and heavy with new life.
Summer is upon us, which makes it the season of pitta. What does that mean exactly?
Summer bestows warmth, sunshine, and energy from the sun's position relative to the earth. Ayurveda associates the sun with awareness and consciousness, and summer is the season of mobility and transformation. It's an ideal opportunity to re-energize tired or stagnant parts of ourselves and ignite the energy of change.
What does that mean for food? Wonderful edible pleasures that pacify pitta;s strong fiery energy. Keep in mind that we don't want to completely eliminate pitta because its the dosha responsible for agni, our digestive fire, that maintains a healthy metabolism.
Ayurveda's Best Summer Foods
An Ayurvedic diet for summer includes foods that are sweet, bitter, and astringent because they balance and cool the fire element. But it's easy to misinterpret the effect different tastes have on our constitution. In Ayurveda, there are six rasas, or tastes: sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter, and astringent. They pertain not just to taste, but to the influence each one has on the body and how it influences the doshas.
We might intuitively believe that an icy cold drink is ideal to cool us down on a hot summer day. Actually, it has a heating effect on the digestive system. That's because the body is always trying to maintain equilibrium, so when exposed to very hot or very cold food, it turns up the furnace to regenerate heat.
Here's an easy reference list of the six Ayurvedic tastes and their actions:
During summer, minimize or avoid foods that are hot, spicy, heavy, sour, salty, or pungent, and load up on foods that are light and cooling. They will be most balancing during the summer months because they offset heat and are easier to digest.
Sweet, bitter, and astringent foods are the way to go, and there is a lot of delicious, natural fare to pacify pitta and support a balanced constitution:
- Fresh leafy greens
- Alfalfa sprouts
- Homemade yogurt
- Soybean products
The following are a few of our favorite pitta-balancing foods for summer eating:
Spinach, kale, romaine, watercress, arugula, collard greens, swiss chard, mustard greens (oh my!)… the list goes on. Leafy greens are one of nature's most beloved superfoods, and it's no wonder––they contain a lot of prana, or life-giving energy. Their light, airy quality makes them perfect for summer salads, and they're loaded with micronutrients. Leafy greens balance the pitta dosha and keep the body well-hydrated with their high water content. They also help purify and nourish the skin.
Ginger has a natural zingy kick that suggests heat but actually has a cooling effect. It's one of the best roots to ease overheated and irritated skin, common during the hot summer months. Ginger also has anti-inflammatory properties and has been used for thousands of years to soothe stomach discomfort. For a refreshing summer elixir, steep slices of fresh ginger root in hot water and cool to room temperature. Then add lemon, fresh mint, and a touch of honey or maple syrup.
Summer tends to raise the body's acidity. Alkalizing vegetables like leafy greens, sweet potato, beetroot, carrots, lemon, almonds, garlic, avocado, basil, and red onion help neutralize stomach acid.
The metabolic waste that accumulates in your body affects your body's pH. Acidic foods leave behind an acidic ash, which is believed to promote illness. Alkaline ash, however, has a protective quality. Consuming alkalizing vegetables during an acidic season can help neutralize metabolic byproducts that impact our health.
Meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, grains, alcohol are acidic foods. Natural fats, starches, and sugars are neutral, and fruits, nuts, legumes, and vegetables are alkaline. Calcium, magnesium, and potassium are alkalizing minerals.
This fragrant herb is a lovely addition to summer salads. Fresh or dried, it's aroma has a clearing and opening quality, and in Ayurveda, dill is used as a blood and liver cleanser. Its heating quality is tempered by its bitter taste, making it an ideal herb to enjoy all summer long.
Ghee is similar to clarified butter, but it cooks slightly longer, which gives it a richer color and aroma. Use ghee wherever you'd use butter. It's rich in micronutrients and has powerful gut-healing properties. In Ayurveda, ghee is considered tridoshic, so it balances vata, pitta, and kapha. It's loaded with healthy fats, and it helps balance internal moisture––a natural response to the summer heat. Take a more in-depth look at the benefits of ghee here.
The coconut might be nature's finest bounty. Botanically speaking, coconuts are actually part of the nut kingdom; they're not a fruit. Coconut meat, coconut water, coconut oil, coconut milk––every part of this incredible food is Ayurveda-approved. Coconut water contains electrolytes like zinc, magnesium, calcium, potassium and sodium. It's a powerful rehydrator that helps rejuvenate your body. You can literally feel the difference in drinking a cup of coconut water versus regular water after a good sweat. Indulge in anything naturally coconut––beware of brands that add artificial sweeteners to the water or meat, or fillers to the milk. Pure 100% coconut oil, water, and milk are best.
The list could continue––there's no shortage of healthy, pitta-balancing summer foods. If you're curious about Ayurveda, check out this excellent, highly-accessible resource, written by Susan Weis-Bohlen:
From our kitchen to yours, happy summer snacking all season long!