Concept of Immunity
Human beings are born with a basic immune system that is weak. Through constant interaction with the microbes in our environment, and within our gut, we learn to fight against new microbes, which helps to strengthen the immune system.
In the last 40 years or so, excessive microbicidal use in the name of hygiene and lack of constant interaction with plants, soil and other organisms has gradually made our immune system weaker, even though our overall health and lifespan has increased.
Immunity, as we understand it through modern medicine, is the function of certain cells, enzymes and immunomodulatory chemicals that attack pathogens and prevent them from creating diseases. This concept of invasion from microorganisms and a biological defence system against it led to the development of the range of antibiotics and vaccines in the 20th century. Various developments in the last decade, like the emergence of auto-immune issues, widespread antibiotic resistance in microbes, and wider understanding of friendly bacteria and its functions, especially inside our gut, have forced us to rethink the unidirectional concept of the immune system.
In Ayurveda, diseases are broadly classified as Nija and Aganthu. Nija diseases are those which are caused by an imbalance that has originated within one’s body and can be mostly prevented from occurring by understanding one’s natural tendencies. Aganthu is caused by an external factor, which may include various injuries, both physical and mental trauma, and lack of focused health and hygiene policies within a particular society.
Even though the understanding of microbes came much recently, Ayurvedic books do acknowledge the presence of widespread communicable diseases in societies with improper nutritional guidance and lack of sanitation facilities, created by local governing bodies known as Janapadaudhwamsa. This concept of an epidemic caused in a community due to common external factor was mentioned in the text of Charaka Samhita in 2nd century AD. Charaka, the author, mentions the important sources of microbe spread as air, water, and land. This is most relevant in the current era, not just because of the infections which spread through these means, but the overall impact of soil, water and air due to human exploitation, climate change and excessive usage of antibiotics and other chemicals.
Ayurvedic concepts related to immune system functions
Immunity is a concept explained in Ayurveda under multiple topics. The most important ones are Bala or the concept of strength, Vyadhi Kshamathwa or the concept of resistance to illness development, and Ojas or the concept of supreme resilience. The concept of Bala explains the ability of the system to repair and nourish itself and be effective in disease prevention, whereas Vyadhi Kshamatwa is the ability of the immune system to fight against the disease-causing pathogens. While former is a product of the overall balance of body functions, tissues, digestion, and elimination, the latter is purely denoting the function of our immune system and recovery after coming in contact with pathogenic organisms.
The preventive aspect of our immunity function is majorly related to our digestive system. Balanced doshas or bio-energies, through cleansing, are also essential for proper resistance to illness. The concept of Ojas explains the direct correlation between digestion and immunity. Ojas is the final product of physiological transformation happening in our body as part of tissue nourishment. The seven layers of tissues are nourished one by one as a result of properly functioning metabolic pathways and the result of this process is Ojas. Ojas is considered as the essence of the food we consume, and a healthy level of Ojas indicates proper tissue nourishment. The function of Ojas is not just explained as resistance to disease but it is resilience to any form of unfavorable physical, mental or environmental change which would normally create an imbalance, leading to disease, but is otherwise dealt with effectively due to the presence of Ojas.
Mind and its effect on immunity
For a truly holistic concept of immunity, we should bring together the understanding of all three concepts mentioned in Ayurveda above and see it as a product of homeostasis and balanced metabolism. The influence of mind and emotion on our immunity is a very new system that is being studied in the past four or five decades, known as Psychoneuroimmunology. This studies the effect of the central nervous system on various factors responsible for immune response. The Ayurvedic concept of Ojas explains the impact of immunity caused by excessive anger, craving, worry, sadness, and exertion. This interconnected understanding of digestion, mind, and immunity in Ayurveda helps us develop natural remedies that influence all three positively. After all the ability to withstand change can only be developed by maintaining a state of equilibrium in the body, mind and soul.
Factors that act negatively on our Immunity
- Imbalanced diet – A diet that is not nutritionally balanced and supportive to dosha balance. Excess intake of processed sugars and additives for artificial flavoring is known to weaken the immune system. Eating disorders like anorexia can also lead to nutritional imbalance and weak immunity.
- Excessive alcohol intake – Physicians are already aware of the impact of alcohol on resistance and recovery from illness. Researches have also shown that regular alcohol intake can weaken immune systems effectiveness against common pathogens
- Irregular sleep – Constantly varying sleep patterns, lack of sleep or interrupted sleep.
- High stress – increases the cortisol level in blood reducing the focus on immune system nourishment.
- Obesity – Excess weight gain can itself be an indicator of an imbalance in metabolism and hormonal functions. Lack of exercise and Its negative effect of immunity is also well researched.
- Chronic medications – Long term use of antibiotics and certain other medications are also proven to be detrimental for immunity
- Dehydration – Various studies have shown that not having enough liquid intake can reduce our effectiveness of the body’s resistance mechanism
Factors that help augment immunity in Ayurveda
- A well-balanced diet (with all six tastes and qualities balanced), based on one's dosha
- A regular yoga practice
- Include a variety of spices into the daily dietary routine. Most spices are high in their oxygen radical absorbance capacity, and reduce cell damage and maintain integrity
- Regular detox plans like fasting, or a proper panchakarma cleanse, once a year
- Consumption of Rasayana herbs like ashwagandha and amla
- Ayurvedic treatments like Navara Kizhi and Pizhichil
5 Ayurvedic remedies for improving immunity
- Start the day with Tulsi, Pippali (fruit of long pepper) and ginger tea to strengthen and cleanse the upper respiratory tract.
- Use turmeric and black pepper in the meals daily, to boost immunity and reduce ama (toxins). Turmeric can be taken as a drink with almond milk or added to morning oats to prepare a nourishing golden porridge.
- Minimize intake of red meat and avoid usage of any processed meats like bacon, sausage, nuggets, ham, etc.
- Take 15 ml of Amla juice daily. Optionally, take Chyavanprash to supply extra antioxidants and strengthen the immunity.
- Drink plenty of warm water. Staying well hydrated will keep the throat and mucous membrane moist, supporting its action as a good barrier to all microbes.
Always maintain good personal hygiene, eat seasonal fruits and vegetables and be stress-free.
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