Mental health disorders have become so common in the United States that according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an estimated one in four Americans ages 18 and older suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. One factor that mental health scientists agree on is the imbalance of the complex, interrelated chemical reactions of the brain. How this imbalance occurs continues to be a cause for study. Meanwhile research has produced a pharmacopoeia of prescription meds to ease our mental suffering. Rarely is quality of diet mentioned as a treatment plan for mental illness, yet the ancient Ayurvedic practitioners and yogis knew the affects food can have on the brain.
The human body requires essential nutrients on a daily basis to function properly. We know from medical research that a lack of these nutrients can cause chemical imbalance in organ and brain functions. Ancient practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine — the world’s oldest surviving healing system — created a lifestyle in which the body and mind maintain optimal health and mental well-being. By creating a harmonious chemical balance in the body, and practicing yoga and meditation, one can become more spiritually liberated.
The practice of Ayurveda distinguishes food as having particular energetic qualities, known as the three Gunas: sattvic (lightness, purity), rajasic (overactive, passionate), and tamasic (lethargy, inertia). These energies are universal in dimension and permeate all living and inanimate life. Eating too much of rajasic or tamasic foods will create a chemical imbalance in the brain. Instead eat these foods in moderation and aim for living a sattvic lifestyle. The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center incorporates this knowledge into its teachings and has compiled a list of foods for students of yoga to follow.
“The foods that are bitter, sour, saline, excessively hot, pungent, dry, and burning, are liked by the rajasic and are productive of pain, grief and disease.” Bhagavad Gita, 17-9
These are foods that over-stimulate the brain causing anxiety, stress and nervous disorders. Rajasic foods are very hot, bitter, sour, dry or salty. Too much rajasic food or eating too fast will over-stimulate the body and excite the passions, making the mind restless and uncontrollable. Rajasic foods include:
• Garlic and onions
• Coffee and caffeinated tea
• Refined sugar
• Soft drinks
• Over-salted foods
“That food which is stale, tasteless, putrid, rotten, and impure refuse, is the food liked by the tamasic.” Bhagavad Gita, 17-10
A tamasic diet causes Prana, or energy, to decline, depresses the mind, causes the person to become dull, lazy and unmotivated. The body’s immune system is weakened and the mind filled with dark emotions, such as anger and greed. Overeating is also regarded as tamasic. Tamasic items include:
• Fermented foods, such as vinegar
• Fried foods
• Stale or overripe foods
“The foods which increase life, purity, strength, health, joy, and cheerfulness, which are savory and oleaginous, substantial and agreeable, are dear to the sattvic people.” Bhagavad Gita, 17-8
The sattvic diet is considered the purest, the most suitable for anyone, but especially for the serious student of yoga. It nourishes the body and creates a peaceful and calm state of mind. A sattvic diet leads one to attain optimal health, a peaceful and focused mind, with a balanced flow of energy between them. Sattvic foods include:
• Fresh and dried fruit and vegetables
• Fresh fruit and vegetable juices
• Raw milk, butter and cheese
• Nuts, seeds and sprouted seeds
• Fresh herbs and herbal teas
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