The Rest and Repair Diet From an Ayurvedic Perspective
I recently watched a remarkable lecture by Dr. Stuart Rothenberg as part of the online Master’s Program in Maharishi Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine at Maharishi University of Management. Dr. Rothenberg is a western doctor who is highly trained in Ayurveda and the concepts he mentions explain the deep connection between our new book, The Rest and Repair Diet, and the ancient principles of Ayurveda.
After only 10 days on this diet, Samantha and I both experienced improvement in our digestion problems and gut health. The Rest and Repair Diet makes use of your body’s natural ability to heal itself and restore your microbiome. It is designed to detox and allow your gut to repair itself, with weight loss as a side benefit. Samantha began the diet above her ideal weight, but her focus was to help her gut problems and the last thing she was thinking about was weight. After 9 months on the diet, however, she stepped on a scale to discover that she had lost 50 pounds—without trying. Since then, she has continued to use the Self Discovery phase of the program to adjust her diet and fine-tune her weight.
The microbiome is a huge health topic right now. Technically it is defined as all of the microorganisms that live in you or on you—including their genetic material. The vast majority of these microorganisms consist of 30 trillion friendly bacteria which live in your lower gut and have an enormous impact on the health of your body and mind.
With the discovery of the microbiome and the role gut bacteria play in both health and disease, we are now better able to comprehend Ayurveda, and The Rest and Repair Diet includes practical and effective Ayurvedic recommendations to help improve the state of your gut and microbiome.
Ayurveda has always held that food is medicine and digestion is the key to health. Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Up to now, conventional doctors considered this a strange concept, but today many agree with Hippocrates. In America, however, we are in the middle of a highly publicized “Diet War” (Paleo, Vegan, Mediterranean, etc.), which makes it hard to figure out what diet is best for your individual physiology.
Agni and Ama
Fortunately, Ayurveda has an effective and time-tested method to assess the strength of your digestion and help determine exactly what foods improve your individual mental and physical health. Agni and ama are two important concepts in Ayurveda are. In his lecture, Dr. Rothenberg defines agni as the power of digestion, which can be understood in modern terms of stomach acids and the digestive enzymes in the small intestine that break down different foods. The discovery of the microbiome helps define another aspect of agni in the large intestine that correlates with the ability of the gut bacteria to break down foods which are hard to digest.
According to Ayurveda, ama is present in 80% of all chronic disease. Ama literally means “uncooked food,” but it can be understood from a scientific perspective as endogenous toxins resulting from imbalanced or incomplete digestion. Dr. Rothenberg tells us on that ama is initially formed in the digestive tract, but at a later stage of disease it can leak into the bodily tissues. This is notably similar to the current understanding of leaky gut as a condition in which undigested proteins and foods leak into the bloodstream and cause inflammation. The Rest and Repair Diet explains the latest findings regarding leaky gut in detail.
If your agni is weak, ama accumulates and clogs your system, eventually causing health problems. Symptoms of excess ama include fatigue, a feeling of heaviness, congestion, constipation, and mental confusion or “brain fog.” Dr. Rothenberg explains that ama becomes particularly harmful when it leaves the digestive system and becomes localized in specific tissues, leading to tissue disruption, and chronic inflammation and disease. He uses the term Ama visha to describe a reactive form of ama which may be correlated with free radicals and other toxic metabolites on a cellular level.
How does Ayurveda go about correcting the problems caused by ama? Dr. Rothenberg gives two basic approaches: ama pachana and agni deepana. Ama pachana refers to a wide variety of detoxification procedures which digest or eliminate any ama that has accumulated in our system. The first week of the Rest and Repair Diet uses some of the simpler techniques. When your ama is reduced, it is then possible to rekindle your digestive fire or agni. The second, third, and fourth weeks of the diet are designed to give your digestive system a chance to rest and repair itself in order to strengthen your agni.
In a previous blog, we mentioned that in the winter, both Kapha and ama build up in the body. Spring is a period of awakening and renewal, the ideal time to re-balance Kapha and reduce ama in order to prevent toxins and excess mucus from creating congestion and allergies. It’s also the perfect time to detox your physiology, reboot and increase your digestive fire or agni, repair your gut, and eliminate excess weight!
Foods that are primarily Kapha in nature—heavy, greasy, and mucus forming—tend to increase both Kapha and ama. During the Rest and Repair Diet, it’s important to reduce or eliminate Kapha foods like milk products, wheat products, sugar, and red meat.
Rest and Repair Diet Plans
The diet offers you three options: a Basic Plan, and two types of Variety Plans, one with simple recipes and one with more elaborate recipes. The Basic Plan is a strict Ayurvedic detoxification diet with cooked fruits for breakfast, and kitchari and cooked vegetables for lunch and dinner. The Variety Plans are more liberal, with varied recipes.
Whether you are a vegetarian or a meat eater, on this diet you will temporarily eliminate gluten, dairy, and most sugars, to determine if they are the cause of your digestive problems. Dr. Rothenberg tell us that Ayurveda refers to this type of elimination diet as upashaya, a therapeutic diagnosis in which something specific is changed in the diet and the result is observed. If the result is positive, the change is considered to be upashaya. If the change doesn’t work or is negative, it is anupashaya (i.e. something that makes the condition worse). This is the point of the Self Discovery program in The Rest and Repair Diet. After you have cleansed and healed your system, you reintroduce one food at a time and carefully observe how each food affects you. You will also keep a Food Journal to help you clearly monitor how different foods and behaviors affect your digestion and health.
The basic Ayurvedic concepts in Dr. Rothenberg’s lecture have been used successfully for centuries. What is different is that we are now beginning to understand the science behind their effectiveness. For example, a recent study on Triphala, an ancient Ayurvedic preparation used in The Rest and Repair Diet, shows that this herbal preparation can increase friendly bacteria and reduce harmful bacteria.
Dr. Rothenberg speaks about an extraordinary substance called Ojas, which is defined as “the finest product of digestion.” Ojas strengthens the immune system and has many beneficial effects on the mind and body. How can this chemical be identified in terms of modern science? It turns out there are many possible candidates which might actually be Ojas.
One is serotonin, a key regulator of mood, sleep, appetite, and other brain functions. Your gut produces 90% of all your serotonin, which circulates throughout your bloodstream and influences, not only your immune system, but your heart rate, blood clotting, intestinal motility, pulmonary arteries, heart, brain, and mammary glands, as well as the cell growth of your liver and bone cells. Among others chemicals that is being considered is butyric acid. Produced by the gut bacteria, this biochemical has numerous beneficial effects, improving immunity.
Ojas also represents the perfectly balanced functioning of all three doshas, which according to Ayurveda are the governing principles of the body. Vata represents movement and communication, Pitta represents heat and digestion, and Kapha, structure and lubrication.
In The Rest and Repair Diet we include a complete description of each dosha and how to keep it in balance. According to Ayurveda, everyone is born with a unique combination of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. This is called your Prakriti or nature. The state of your health at any one time is referred to as your Vikriti. By knowing both your Prakriti and Vikriti, an Ayurvedic physician can personalize your diet, lifestyle, and herbal supplements to prevent disease and create your best possible state of health.
A recent study published in Frontiers in Microbiology showed that predominantly Vata, Pitta, or Kapha people have a different composition of bacteria in their microbiome. This finding is a huge breakthrough in the scientific understanding of Ayurveda.
Dr. Rothenberg’s lecture helps clarify how the importance that Ayurveda places on digestion and gut health can be understood in terms of conventional medicine. We are at remarkable crossroad today—the integration of the ancient knowledge of Ayurveda with the latest findings of modern science to create a new system of natural health. The Rest and Repair Diet is an important first step to heal your gut.