On March 5 of 2020, I was comfortably reclining on a plane back to Colorado from India, where I’d been teaching yoga at an Ayurveda retreat in Kerala’s tranquil backwaters for two weeks. The pure diet, gentle yoga, daily massage and other ancient detox treatments prescribed by the world’s oldest tradition of self-care had left me positively glowing with good health, and the unexpected upgrade to first class on my first leg to Quatar only reinforced my newfound sense of invincibility. COVID-19 was still just something we read about in the news, happening mostly to people far away, and we were not yet obsessively wiping down our armrests or glaring menacingly at fellow passengers who might dare to cough or sneeze. Well, no more than usual anyway.
Within a week, the world as I knew it was gone, replaced by an alien society where being passed by an unmasked panting jogger was enough to incite existential terror and any given door handle could mark the difference between life or death. Now at five months in and 115,000 U.S. deaths and counting, it seems that we still have more questions than answers. In emails between myself and my fellow retreatants, we have longingly remarked more than once that we wish we’d been quarantined back in Kerala; though we’re joking for the most part, their approach to fighting COVID-19 using Ayurveda has in fact been lauded across the globe.
Kerala is sometimes described as the birthplace of Ayurveda, an ancient system of holistic medicine developed during the Bronze Age (a time no stranger to respiratory plagues) that focuses on a natural, prevention-oriented approach to disease. Today, Ayurveda remains the primary healthcare system in this southwest Indian state, which has been promoting Ayurveda as a means to improve immunity in its 35 million inhabitants to keep the COVID-19 count low; as of writing this article, the death count there is 19.
While our government, too, has stressed a preventative approach, it has focused less on a healthy diet and living in rhythm with nature and more on keeping humans apart, wearing masks and cleaning surfaces to mitigate the spread of the virus. Ayurveda takes the “prevention is better than cure” approach a step farther, by focusing on diet and routine to build up the health of the entire mind-body complex to be more resistant to pathogens.
On March 12, Alan Marks, CEO of VPK by Maharishi Ayurveda sent out this statement regarding the role of immune system in this pandemic: “A balanced body and immune system respond in a balanced manner to any illness. An unbalanced system does not. There is a profound adage in Ayurveda that disease is not caused by germs, bacteria, or viruses, rather disease is precipitated by these pathogens in a susceptible host. To the extent you can control your life and lifestyle, do not be a susceptible host.”
The immune system is a complex, circulating system that is responsible for discriminating between healthy cells and pathogens, communicating information, and mobilizing a response system that includes inflammation, antigen cells and B Cells. Immune cells come from precursors in the bone marrow and develop into mature cells that can present in different parts of the body, such as the skin, blood, thymus gland, lymphatic system and spleen. Stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, inadequate exercise and time spent in nature, and abusing drugs and alcohol are all factors recognized in compromised immunity.
Now that we’re five months into the first wave of the pandemic with a second wave all but certain, if we want to return some semblance of normality back to our lives it’s important that we take the reigns on our health do what can we do to ensure we respond to this virus in a balanced manner. Ayurveda primarily focuses on building up immunity (known as Ojas) through a balanced lifestyle that supports the Four Pillars of Health: diet, sleep, exercise and stress reduction.
Diet always comes first and foremost in the Ayurvedic approach, which views 80% of all disease as being rooted in our digestion. Now more than ever it is important to support a healthy gut microbiome with warm, pleasing, freshly prepared meals:
- Include plenty of fruits, nuts, cooked vegetables, whole grains and plant-based proteins
- Cook with digestive spices such as cumin, coriander, fennel, ginger, black pepper, turmeric and mustard
- Sip warm water throughout the day
- Avoid stress eating
- Reduce alcohol, caffeine, junk food and sugar, all of which compromise your immune system
- Wait until you are hungry to eat, and enjoy your meals in a settled environment to optimize digestion
Sleep & Rest
This one should be a no brainer! Getting enough rest boosts your immunity, regulates hormones, and allows your physiology to reboot and detox:
- Make sure screen time ends at least one hour before bed, turn the lights down in the evening and engage in calming activities in the evening
- Try to get to bed by 9:30 p.m., lights out by 10 p.m.
- Wake up with the sun
- Practice Yoga Nidra and Restorative Yoga in place of naps if you feel depleted
Ayurveda recommends yoga and walking in daily routines for every body, and Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, gave exercise as much weight as nutrition when it comes to good health:
- Moves lymph which is crucial for a healthy immune system and eliminating toxins, supports respiratory and cardiovascular health, and releases endorphins, the “happy hormones” that help support mental health during challenging times
- Walk outdoors in the morning light, go biking, do yoga and enjoy at home workouts
- Skip exercise if you feel unwell, and allow your body to rest rather than further deplete it
The Stress Response of your Sympathetic Nervous System elevates cortisol and adrenaline levels in the body, which over time can fatigue your immune system. The Relaxation Response of your Parasympathetic Nervous System restores physiological equilibrium and relaxation. These behavioral observances from Ayurveda can help support you against stress:
- Stay free of anger and worry
- Speak the sweet truth
- Keep the company of the wise
- Limit exposure to the news
- Take frequent breaks from screen time
- Spend quality time with people you love
- Practice meditation and deep breathing daily
Remember: a balanced immune system responds in a balanced way. We attain balanced immunity by taking a balanced approach to body, mind and consciousness. Balanced living promotes immunity, the ultimate defense.