An Ayurvedic View on Allergies
By Vishnu Dass, LMT, NTS, CAyu
Ayurveda, the ancient “Science of Life,” is one of the oldest systems of health care in the world. The purpose of Ayurveda is to heal, to maintain a high quality of life, and to increase the longevity of the individual. It is a holistic clinical science, as well as an art of daily living, that encourages the maintenance and restoration of health through proper diet, lifestyle and attitude, as well as the use of traditional Ayurvedic herbs and rejuvenating therapies.
In the case of allergies, as with any other health problem, Ayurveda has a holistic, constitutional approach. Even though many allergy sufferers experience some sort of respiratory symptoms, such as congestion, sneezing, or nagging sinus pain and pressure, allergies and their symptoms vary as much as those who have them. They are deeply rooted in the physiology of a person and a holistic approach is necessary if we are to deal with them effectively. Finding the causative factors, whether they are food and/or environmentally related, and avoiding them can help and may very well be necessary for a certain time to bring the organism back to balance, but this is only part of the puzzle.
According to Ayurveda, each person has a particular constitution or prakruti —an individual combination of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual characteristics. The individual prakruti is determined by many factors surrounding the time of conception and birth. The disturbance of this constitutional balance —by emotional and physical stress or trauma, improper food combinations and choices, seasonal and weather changes— may lead to disorders and disease.
The three fundamental doshas or principles that govern the function of our bodies on the physical, mental and emotional levels are known as vata, pitta and kapha. Vata is the principle of movement, pitta is the fire component that transforms food into energy, and kapha is the cementing, constructing matter of the body. The original constitution or prakruti is a unique combination of all three of these energies, one usually being predominant in the individual.
Furthermore, according to Ayurveda, life expresses itself with certain qualities. Each of the three doshas has its own set of qualities. These qualities are known as gunas and they are 20 in number (10 and their opposite (see Table below).
The gunas present in each dosha manifest on all levels —physical, mental and emotional. So, vata is very much like the wind —it is light, cool, dry and mobile. People with a vata constitution experience more of these qualities. Their bodies tend to be light, their bones thin, and their skin and hair dry. They often move and speak quickly. When out of balance, they lose weight easily, get constipated and their immune and nervous systems become weak. Pitta tends to be hot, sharp and penetrating. It is also somewhat volatile and oily. People with a pitta nature reflect these qualities as well. They tend to feel warm, have somewhat oily skin, penetrating eyes and sharp features. They tend to have moderate weight and good musculature. Kapha tends to be cool, moist, stable and heavy. In the body these qualities manifest as dense, heavy bones, lustrous, supple skin, low metabolism and large, stocky frames.
Ayurveda believes that the constitution predetermines disease: Vata people are prone to vata disorders (such as neuromuscular and musculoskeletal problems), pitta people are prone to pitta disorders (inflammatory infections, hives, rashes, urticaria), and kapha people to kapha disorders (congestive and metabolic disorders, obesity, high triglycerides, high cholesterol, diabetes). This doesn’t mean that a vata person will necessarily get a vata disease, if the cause is, say, excess pitta due to excessive pitta provoking foods in the diet. If an individual has a kapha provoking diet with excess cheese, wheat and dairy products, that will make him prone to kapha disorders. And again, eating only cereals and raw vegetables, or eating in a hurry can aggravate vata.
Ayurveda also states that like increases like. For example, the summer season has attributes similar to those of pitta. Therefore, in the summer pitta in the body will be increased. Likewise, the dry, cold, windy seasons of fall and winter tend to increase and aggravate vata in the body. And in the winter and early spring, when kapha qualities predominate in the external environment, internal kapha tends to be increased and aggravated as well.
So, from an Ayurvedic perspective, an allergic reaction to a certain food or type of environment is mainly due to certain qualities in that food or environment, and therefore one may have allergic reactions to other foods or environments with the same qualities. This is why a skilled Ayurvedic clinician has to determine which doshas and qualities are out of balance (in excess) and what type of environment or substances are contributing to the problem. In other words, allergic symptoms are always related to doshic imbalances. The clinician must examine thoroughly the diet and lifestyle of the client to tailor an appropriate regime. Removing the foods or substances that are triggering the allergic reaction may at times solve the problem, but the main aim is to find and remove the root cause of the doshic imbalance that is the real, underlying problem. In other words, to lessen or remove the predisposition to the causative factors that trigger the reaction in the first place.
According to Ayurveda’s view of samprapti, or pathogenesis of disease, allergies are a doshic response to specific allergens in the environment, such as pollen, mold, dust, ragweed, chemicals, or foods. The individual response to these factors often relates to the predominant dosha in the constitution, but other factors (such as diet and lifestyle) may disturb the other doshas and cause non-characteristic allergic reactions. In general, allergies can be classified as vata type, pitta type, or kapha type.
Vata type of allergies are accompanied by gas and bloating, abdominal discomfort and intestinal colic. There may be wheezing, due to the dry quality of vata, sneezing, ringing in the ears and difficulty sleeping. When vata people are exposed to dust and pollen, they may experience some or all of these symptoms. With this type of allergies there is usually less mucous and more constriction of the bronchial tree.
Pitta type of allergies manifest on the skin. If a pitta person is exposed to allergens such as chemicals (especially those with a strong odor), ragweed, or even synthetic fiber in their clothes, this may cause pitta dosha to get to the surface through its hot and sharp qualities, bringing hives, rashes, urticaria, burning eyes, allergic types of dermatitis and eczema, all of which are fiery in nature.
Kapha type of allergies are often experienced in the spring, when all the plants and trees are pollinating. They are characterized by irritated mucous membranes, leading to hay fever, cough, colds and congestion, even sinus infections and asthma.
To discover the root cause of allergies we must first understand the role that toxins (ama) play in the picture. There are numerous causes for the formation of ama (toxins) in the body. Ama is, basically, whatever our system does not absorb or digest properly. So, improper food combining, overeating, eating food that is not appropriate for our constitution, or even emotional factors can impair the digestion, which in time can lead to the production of ama.
If one is constantly exposed to certain qualities, the doshic balance can become disturbed and this, in turn, may disturb the digestive fire (agni), leading to poor digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients, and creating ama as a result. Ama can affect the tissues and cells and can clog and obstruct channels. In the case of allergies, ama can be viewed as an antigen. When certain qualities are already in excess and more of these qualities are forced upon the organism, the immune system creates more and more antibodies to contend with the invading qualitative ama. As a result, whenever there is even the slightest exposure to the specific allergen the body responds with all its protective forces. This is what is experienced as an allergic reaction. It is the system trying to rid itself of excess ama (antigens).
When the organism is loaded with toxins it can be difficult to achieve maximum benefits from any therapeutic approach. This is why Ayurveda offers the cleansing and rejuvenating therapies known as panchakarma. Once the excess ama has been cleansed and the digestive fire rekindled through panchakarma, the organism will respond more efficiently to an Ayurvedic program or any other type of therapy.
This article was first published in Integrative Health & Healing magazine, Summer 2002.
© 2002 Vishnu Dass. No reproduction allowed without written permission from the author.