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Taste and the Elements

by Ingrid Naiman

As anyone who has ever consumed a hot curry soup knows, such meals can really stimulate the sinuses to drain. In fact, such draining, called errhine therapy, is a recognized Ayurvedic mode of treatment for phlegmatic conditions. Foods and spices, along with special culinary and medicinal herbs, can be used to help balance the elements. Such therapies can be effectively used in conjunction with astrology (or independently thereof) if the consultant is qualified. Since this is one of those therapies that interfaces readily with astrology and since my own Jupiter in Cancer predisposes me to a love of cooking and this particular form of chemistry, a special section is being added to this site to enable visitors to understand the energetics of eating.

In the West today, we tend either to pride ourselves on our efficiency and to toss frozen dinners into the microwave, or we try to exhibit nutritional awareness by counting calories, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, etc. Many, if not most, of my clients either hate cooking and ignore the consequences of neglect of this most fundamental requirement of life, or, they pop supplements as though it were possible to live creatively on tablets instead of real food. Moreover, our food is often so adulterated that the average American eats some five pounds of chemical preservatives per year. Add to this the probable long-term side effects of irradiation and microwaving and other presumed sources of free radicals, and we have a formidable picture. Even if all of our foods were as safe as our Federal agencies would like us to believe, nothing in our culture, even the saner concepts of nutrition, takes into account the energetics of food. Not only do no standardized tests reveal the lack of prana in processed foods, but absolutely no Western nutritional concepts profoundly address the issues of body type and energetics. For instance, a hot spice, such as cayenne pepper, stimulates fire. If the individual eating such a spice is already of a fiery nature, the fire element may aggravate and result in diarrhea or temper flare-ups. However, if the person is watery, cayenne may not only increase the appetite and digestion but result in a little dehydration and weight loss due to its metabolic effects. If the individual has a cold, the cayenne may help to warm the body so that mucus liquefies and is easier to expectorate. This is real kitchen medicine, easy to understand and to apply, but it will require an investment in cooking and eating.

Before covering this subject more fully, it may be interesting to note some situations that were observed during the years I operated a clinic. First of all, most, perhaps even 90% or more of my clients, say they do not like to cook. Many are unable to do so because they have become too ill, but others insist that they simply do not have the time or the interest. For me, this is like saying, "I don't have time to live; other things are more important." There is little that can be said to someone who has just bought a microwave oven in the hopes of making her life more efficient. It goes without saying that such people are seldom readily convinced to buy a good wok or slow cooker instead! One wonders how much one's health has to deteriorate before eating will be taken seriously. Since almost no one knows what it would be like to function optimally, nearly everyone is used to a pill for this and another for that, but as has been pointed out in my writings, conditions tend to be systemic. That is, it is not really possible to have good digestion and poor elimination. Therefore, though a laxative may help one part of the problem, it does not treat the root cause. Thus, such therapies are like pruning a tree which needs water or fertilizer rather than surgery. A dead branch may be expendable. Likewise, a woman may be able to survive just fine without her uterus; she may even enjoy the freedom conferred by no longer risking pregnancy, but does she really want to give up her gall bladder and perhaps also a breast? We have almost become numbed to such operations, but are they necessary? Can we avoid them by treating the underlying imbalances before any serious problems occur? This is what proper eating can offer persons who are willing to make provisions for good health by learning what their bodies need in order to function harmoniously. Consider eating the same way you would a carburetor adjustment, tune-up, and fuel filter replacement for your car. You would do this for your car, but would you do it for yourself?

These are some of the questions I ask clients, many of whom have been sick for years or even decades and who no longer know what it feels like to feel good. Often, one will find a psychological issue standing between them and health. It can usually be traced to childhood and to a fundamental lack of nurturance when an infant or toddler. The pattern, moreover, may have been perpetuated throughout youth and never rectified in adulthood. The adult may therefore be entirely convinced that it is impossible to feel good and to feel nurtured and nourished. Some people are emaciated because of such feelings and others eat and eat and eat without feeling satisfied because they keep hoping to experience what they, on some level, know that they need. The Moon in the horoscope is the key to what a person needs in order to feel nurtured, and it is also a clue to what a person needs to experience in intimate relationships as well as what he or she needs to eat in order to feel nourished on a physical level. As everyone studying my work knows by now, the Moon is the major factor in constitutional type and hence the primary indication of what throws an individual off balance and what could restore harmony. A certain amount of counseling around the issues of mother-child relationships, nurturance, and their interrelation with eating often contributes to profound and healthy changes. There is a strong connection between issues involving the ability to receive nurturance, love, and support from partners, friends, and family and the ability to "digest" or receive nourishment on the physical level. Those of us who have tried this approach recommend that others give it a whirl, too. It can be absolutely amazing to watch an alcoholic give up drinking or a depressed person come in happy by simply eating properly for a few days and finding out what a difference it makes.

Photo by Barbara RaisbeckAccording to Ayurveda, each food has a particular taste that correlates to its digestive action and that has a bearing on the balance of the elements. This taste is not a coincidence but is a direct result of the biochemical traits of the food and therefore also of its pharmaceutical properties. There are six tastes: sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, salty, and astringent.

The Sweet Taste

The sweet taste consists predominantly of the water element and secondarily earth. It is found in carbohydrates (starches), sugars, fats, and amino acids and is, to no one's surprise, anabolic, i.e. building. In other words, it helps to build body tissue. It is therefore absolutely necessary in the diet of emaciated people such as extreme air type individuals. The sweet taste acts quickly on the taste buds and saliva. Its nature is heavy, cold, and viscous (oily and gelatinous). In excess, it is clogging. In moderation, this taste, associated as it is with water and earth, is stabilizing, tonifying, and calming. It is therefore "medicinal" for air and fire types who are irritable. It may even help promote fertility and longevity for such persons. However, where there is overweight, mucus congestion, coldness, or chills, excessive consumptions of sweet foods is contraindicated. It is important to realize that anything watery is anti-fire so where the fire element is already low, sweets will cause considerable short- and long-term harm.

Nearly all staple foods, vegetable oils, nuts, sugars and syrups, dairy products, and meat belong to the group of foods having this taste. They are all, therefore, nourishing provided they are not consumed in excess. The exception to this rule is honey which has a slightly drying or astringent taste and is hence not apt to increase weight to the same extent as cane or beet sugar or even maple syrup.

As everyone knows, sweets are fattening. What many appear not to understand is that they also contribute to mucus formation and eventually to congestion and coughs. Thus, though they may be soothing where the disposition is overly excitable and in cases where there is dryness, brittleness, and/or burning sensations, sweets can be lethal for those with a weak fire element. Not surprisingly, then, despite whatever pick-up a candy bar is expected to offer, the sudden rise in blood sugar is followed by a drop in insulin that is necessary to carry blood glucose to the cells that can utilize energy. Therefore, in reality sweet foods contribute to lethargy and drowsiness and other symptoms of water and earth excesses, including poor digestion, sweetness of breath, intestinal worms, vomiting, difficulty breathing, eye diseases, urinary disorders, and in extreme cases headaches, diabetes, elephantiasis, and tumors.

The Sour Taste

flavonoidsSourness is found predominantly in fruits, fermented foods (like yoghurt), and organic acids (oxalic acid, for instance). Oxalic acid is poisonous and should not be eaten in large amounts. The sour taste is similar to the sweet except that sour is hot where sweet is cold. Otherwise, both heavy and somewhat oily. Fire is the predominant element in sour foods. Fermentation produces heat because the process itself creates combustion. Earth is second strongest element in the sour taste, but there is also some water present in such foods. In other words, the sour taste tends to increase all but the air element. It is hence the taste of choice for air type persons.

The sour taste promotes salivation, the first step in the digestive process. Sour foods are generally cleansing as well as stimulating to the appetite. They are also carminative and often diaphoretic (cause perspiration) due to their heat producing qualities. Overconsumption of fruits can derange the fire element and lead to excess catabolism. The first evidence of this will usually be muscle weakness and/or diarrhea. Dark rings around the eyes are another indication that purification has been carried too far and should be balanced by proper tonifying foods, particularly those that address kidney-adrenal functioning. One of the favorite sour foods used in India is tamarind. This is prepared as chutney, juice, or a paste and is often used for alcoholism. In the West, rose hips, lemons, limes, raspberries, etc. are used where mangoes and tamarind might be in India. It is important to keep in mind that each fruit has some specific properties as well as the general ones.

It is worth noting that during my many years of living in Hawaii, there was frequent occasion to observe people who had been on fruit fasts. Though there is much to be said for periodic cleansing of the body, fruits tend to be more eliminative than building. Hence, many of those who carried such fasts too far, often making lifelong occupations out of fasting, were in severely debilitated condition after sometimes only a few months. Though Ayurveda may teach that this is due to the predominantly catabolic effects of fruit, it is my opinion that after a certain point, the body begins to consume its own earthiest parts, joints and bones, to obtain the trace minerals that the vital organs need in order to function. Therefore, though a well planned fruit fast may be excellent for people who have consistently overeaten heavy and junk foods, beyond a certain point, it is reckless. It is certainly ill advised once thirst, fever, or dizziness make their appearance. Also, though this is often celebrated, it is also probably unwise to continue fruit fasts if a woman ceases to menstruate. Likewise, a severe drop in the libido may not be a sign of spiritual transcendence but rather of loss of genuine vital power. So, though sour foods are generally purifying and they aid digestion and impart strength to the heart and other organs of the body, they should not be consumed injudiciously.

The Salty Taste

Unlike our sodium phobic medical community, Ayurveda holds a fairly lofty opinion of salt, which like sour foods, elevates all but the air element. Salt is consequently soothing for people who are very nervous. Salt aids digestion and circulation. It also affects the fluid action of the body by increasing saliva and diluting phlegm. It opens up blocked channels. In excess, salt causes contraction and can lead to general debility: wrinkles, hyperacidity, high blood pressure, impurities in the blood, itching and burning sensations, inflammation of the lymph glands, gout, heart conditions, impotency, loose teeth, baldness, and darkening of the skin pigmentation.

Salt is considered to be heavy, hot, unctuous, and pungent. Its sharpness stimulates the appetite, changes the consistency of saliva, and softens food. Though Ayurveda considers salt to be hot, its capacity for retaining fluids gives it a fairly balanced fire-water action. Salt's hygroscopic action, the technical term for salt's action on fluids, is soothing and cleansing as salt helps to loosen denser materials that tend to impact and clog the body's vital organs and ducts. In high enough dosages, salt is an emetic (causes vomiting).

It ought to be quite obvious that intake of salt should be curbed when there is excessive thirst. It is also contraindicated where there is any kind of skin disease, where teeth are loose, or where there are signs of premature aging such as graying or balding of the hair.

It should be remembered that all Ayurvedic teachings arose in a time preceding our age of processed, devitalized, and chemically altered foods. Indians think of rock salt and sea salt (and alkaline foods) when they say salt. These forms of salt are often rich in other trace minerals . . . and they are available in health foods stores in the West, too, but, be careful, the taste of these salts is stronger and you will require far less to get your salivary glands going. It is also important to realize that wholesome foods have wonderfully appetizing tastes and require less conjuring to make them appealing to the palate. However, if eating something utterly bland from the freezer, it may take a considerable effort to render such a meal interesting to the taste buds. It is on such occasions that people are prone to dumping ketchup and salt on their food, and this is no doubt quite medically unsound.

Thus, it should be made clear that salt, in moderation, is calming for people who are highly excitable, but, in excess it is harmful to the arteries, just as doctors have warned.

The Pungent Taste

Photo by Gabriel HowearthThe pungent taste stems from the essential oils in the herbs and spices. These stimulate the appetite and are useful to the assimilation and absorption of food. They cause an elevation of the air and fire elements and are hence drying and exciting to all organs. Pungent foods are light, hot, and dry; their volatile oils, besides rendering the spices aromatic, tend to cause a tingling sensation on the tongue, to promote salivation, and sometimes also lachrymation. They are hence indicated in cases of excess water, but due to their drying effects have to be used somewhat more carefully with air types and much more judiciously with fire types. Earth types generally benefit from the use of spices so long as their dryness is compensated for by moisture in the food.

Hot spices are vivifying and decongesting. They can be used to drain the sinuses, to promote expectoration of phlegm, to decongest cholesterol clogged arteries, and to treat obesity and diabetes. Since Westerners tend use relatively few really hot spices in their cooking and even fewer in a medicinal way, it is worth taking some time to understand the pharmacological properties of spices. For example, though many people use herbs such as thyme, marjoram, and oregano in sauces and salad dressings, they seldom realize that ginger root and black pepper can be used to clear up a cold. It is important to realize that watery disorders are a major cause of ill health, probably not just in the West, but certainly everywhere that refined sugar and other hazards of civilization have made strong inroads. People with excess water tend also to have high levels of mucus, serum cholesterol, undigested fatty acids, as well as extra pounds straining efficient functioning of their bodies. Spices will relieve many such problems and should be considered by those with excess water conditions as a substitute for pastries, ice cream, and other sweet foods. Many snack foods can be made with spices though the truth is that watery types do not need snacks between meals. Still, a spicy trail mix is a marvelous substitute for chocolate. Dalmoth, a product available in many Indian import shops is excellent as are some spicy nuts; these help to reduce craving for sugar and alcohol.

Besides aiding fat metabolism and reducing the tendency towards arteriosclerosis and myocardial infarction, many spices are antifungal, antibacterial, and vermicidal. This means that they help to wipe out low grade infections, candida albicans, and intestinal parasites. The essential oils also stimulate peristaltic action of the intestines, aid assimilation and elimination, and clear congestion in the body.

Lest this sound too much like a hymn of praise to spices, it should be mentioned that most spices are irradiated. As of September 1987, 48 spices were approved for irradiation in the U.S. This list includes almost everything you would expect to see on the spice racks of your supermarket: allspice to turmeric. Gamma radiation levels for these spices is not supposed to exceed 30,000 Gray (Gy), 30 times the irradiation permitted other food products. It is generally agreed that 1000 Gy would kill a person several times over, but the explanation where spices are concerned is that spices do not constitute a major part of the diet and that higher exposure to gamma rays is therefore "safe". My own opinion is that it is worth the trouble to find nonirradiated spices. Many health food stores, herb shops, and special mail order distributors provide such spices—not only are they free of radiation, but they taste a lot better.

It is not possible to say whether the pharmacological actions of spices are affected by radiation, but logic compels me to believe that the air element is deranged and the molecular structure is affected by radiation. The oils are also affected so that irradiated spices are drier and more irritating. It therefore makes no sense to use spices medicinally if they have been irradiated.

Since many herb books provide information on the special medicinal effects of spices (for instance, The Yoga of Herbs by Dr. Vasant Lad and David Frawley, Lotus Press), little more will be said here except that wider use of spices, at the beginning of meal preparation when the onions are being sautéed, will benefit many people. The purchase of a good Indian cookbook and some spices may be the first step towards better health for many persons.

Spices are slimming; many can also be chewed after meals, like cardamom or fennel seeds, to cleanse the mouth and give fresh breath. Aside from the warnings already given, pungent foods are excellent except where there is fever or other indications of an elevated fire element or where the palate is so unaccustomed to this taste that the spices have to be introduced slowly and gradually. In excess, spices can produce symptoms of too much air and fire: dizziness, trembling, burning sensations in the throat, impotency, spots before one's eyes, ulcers, and hemorrhoids.

The Bitter Taste

herbal alkaloidsBitter foods elevate the air element and reduce the excesses of the other elements. Consequently, bitter foods aid the intellect. They are light, cold, and dry, and their characteristic taste is due to the presence of alkaloids (such as caffeine, nicotine, etc.), bitter principles (e.g. berberine), and glycosides. The dryness of bitter foods helps relieve mucus, pus, and watery accumulations. Bitter foods are generally overwhelming in taste and therefore obscure the presence of the other tastes. Such foods are slimming, and according to Ayurveda, reduce fat, flesh, and marrow. This taste is therefore much needed by diabetics. Bitter foods absorb mucus and the minuteness of bitterness (a characteristic of air and ether) enables it to move through narrow channels and clear the way for better circulation.

Of all the tastes discussed herein, the bitter one is perhaps the one best known in Western herbalism which has long touted various bitters (gentian, dandelion, aloe vera, goldenseal, etc.) for treating a wide range of conditions predominantly associated with the liver. Bitters are purifying and detoxifying and they help to remove poisons from the blood as well as from mother's milk. They are also useful when a person has suppurating wounds. They are hence indicated for skin disorders, especially where there is also fever, jaundice, or loss of appetite. Many bitters are germicidal, bactericidal, and anti-inflammatory.

Because of the catabolic quality of bitters, an excessive intake will be debilitating. Moreover, many bitter plants are poisonous; however, many have well appreciated pharmaceutical uses, such as foxglove which is used in making digitalis. Bitters are strong medicine and should be used carefully. There are many bitter herbal formulas on the market. The best known is perhaps Swedish Bitters. It is quite intense but well regarded. The Floradix formula is my personal preference. It can be used relatively safely to regulate appetite and digestion. Of the culinary spices which are bitter, turmeric is perhaps the most widely used. It is turmeric which imparts the yellow color to curry, and this spice is extremely beneficial both internally and externally. Coriander is another bitter spice used in curry; it helps to provide energetic balance since it is slightly cooling whereas many of the other ingredients of curry are heating.

The average person can probably benefit from occasional use of bitters, even as part of a detoxification program (preferably in autumn or winter). By tonifying the liver and thereby also the gall bladder and blood stream, the regular flow of bile is promoted. This, in turn, kills intestinal worms. Nearly all types, except perhaps the air type, should consider annual health programs employing bitters, but their use should be stopped if the mouth becomes too dry or if the individual becomes constipated. Bitters are contraindicated where there is a headache, dizziness, loss of muscular strength, or reduction of stamina.

The Astringent Taste

herbal tanninsThe astringent taste is perhaps the most difficult to describe. A little anecdote from my own life may help to make this point. In 1962, between undergraduate and graduate school, I spent a wonderful year studying in Japan. One day, my teacher asked me to make a sentence with the word, shibui. I had, in fact, looked up the word in the dictionary, but it meant nothing to me. She therefore suggested I ask my host family for an unripe persimmon. I absolutely insisted to my hosts that this persimmon be shibui. The result was that my mouth puckered up and remained this way for a full week. It goes without saying that it took me years to try another persimmon, but one experience like this explains the taste for the rest of an incarnation.

Astringent foods are drying. Not surprisingly, then, their consumption results in an elevation of the air and, to a lesser extent, the earth elements. Such foods are light, cold, and dry and are hence similar to pungent foods except that they are cold where the spicy foods are hot. So, though both act on air, pungent foods are more catabolic whereas astringent ones are slightly anabolic. The dryness of this taste reduces water whereas its coldness reduces fire. The astringent taste is due to the presence of tannins, usually found in the bark of trees.

Astringency, as one may suspect is absorptive. Such foods and herbs have hemostatic (arrest bleeding) and vulnerary (aid healing) properties. They can be used where there is diarrhea or hemorrhaging. Such foods also help to reduce the flow of urine when there is an excessive loss of fluid due to frequent urination or incontinence.

Tannins are chiefly useful in reducing irritability. They are slightly anesthetic and therefore calming, but they also reduce sensitivity. They can be used to help control excessive perspiration and to neutralize putrefaction. Such herbs are thus quite antiseptic. The astringent herbs perhaps best known in the West are sage and St. John's wort, but the most common item in the kitchen with such properties is aged honey (which is both sweet and astringent). Ayurvedic doctors caution against mixing honey with salt and they generally advise against heating honey.

By final word, astringent foods should be avoided where there is cardiac pain, flatulence, hoarseness, constipation, hemorrhoids, debility, impotency, or paralysis.

Summary

This is but a brief summary of the action of food, according to taste, on the elements. In addition to the basic taste, Ayurvedic medicine addresses secondary and tertiary stages of digestion. For example, a food that tastes sweet to the tongue is sour when combined with digestive juices and bitter when reaching the large intestine. Such detail is beyond the scope of this page, but interested persons can certainly study further to develop greater skill in applying the idea that there is an energetic aspect to food that is at least as important as the properties commonly considered by Western nutritionists.

 

Elements and Tastes
[ In Order]
Air
astringent, bitter
Fire
pungent, sour, salty
Water
sweet, salty, sour
Earth
sweet, astringent

It is my firm conviction that life today is so stressful, ecologically imbalanced, and socially complex that every individual is truly challenged to develop a strategy of living that obviates the risk of ill health simply due to oversights and neglects that can be rather easily remedied. For example, once we know that flying in the ozone is equivalent to about five chest x-rays and that it deranges the air element, we know that if we fly, we would also be well advised to do something "grounding" as well. Thus, we might take some ginseng to pour into hot water while in the air. Then, since we know that excess air can disturb fire and thereby affect digestion, we can take some ginger and/or cayenne capsules to help us get down the nearly universally awful food that we are served on planes. As for me, wherever possible, I order an Asian vegetarian meal, as these will have spices and no meat (which is very difficult to digest compared to most other foods). When traveling for any extended time period, it may be advisable to bring along a little "food emergency kit". Try not to let this kit go through the x-ray equipment at the airport. The kit can be hand inspected or checked through with the luggage. I have learned a few tricks I can share. Juiced ginger is a wonderful digestive stimulant. It refreshes the breath, feels energizing, and relieves most intestinal upsets caused by changes of schedules, food, etc. It keeps well and can even be doctored with a few drops of brandy or wine to make certain that it does not ferment. A few bottles of good quality seasonings can improve most any restaurant fare and make it more digestible. Though it is generally preferable to add food to spices, i.e. to start with the spices and oil and then add food instead of shaking on salt and pepper after cooking, this is impractical for travelers so a few bottles of hot and aromatic spices may mean the difference between the feeling of being clogged and vigor when eating in restaurants.

In conclusion, it might be noted that though many have strong constitutions when they are born, it is not at all easy to maintain health and still be active in the world. Moreover, since some people are born without such health resources, they need to be doubly sensible. It ought to be recognized that the body is slow to adapt to anything new, including certain hybrid foods, antibiotics in meat, preservatives, radiation, etc. However, since we live in a time in which such foods are the norm rather than the exception, we ought to be certain that our bodies are equipped to deal with food stresses. It may therefore be necessary to devote time to preparing special foods which are particularly essential to your specific constitution. For some people, herbal foods may be used as supplements, especially when going through stressful episodes. For others, periodic eliminatory or tonification programs may be recommended. For example, every now and then, it may be useful to detoxify the liver and blood stream as a precaution against future trouble; or, it may be wise to develop more adrenal power to deal with stress. Some of the therapies that are organ specific will be covered later, but general balance is the issue for now, and everything discussed here can be applied with relative safety by simply employing a good measure of common sense and care to your well being.


Huge Selection of Ayurvedic Herbs and Formulas

 

Based on the Ayurvedic tenet that taste is a clue to the pharmacology of food, Ingrid relates the six tastes: sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, salty, and astringent to the elements and constitutional balance. The system is so logical and clearly presented that anyone hearing these tapes can immediately begin applying the ideas so as to enhance physical harmony. The relationship of physical and psychological health is also developed to a considerable extent.

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Introduction to Ayurveda

Digestion, Ayurvedic Concept of Digestive Fire || Parasites

Chyawanprash || Hinga Shtak, Digestive Formula || Kicharee Recipe

Kapha Dosha || Vata Dosha || Churnas

Taste and the Elements || Smell || Ayurvedic Toothpastes

Ingrid's First Exposure to Ayurveda

Dosha Balance

 

 


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*The material provided on this site is for informational purposes only. The author is not a medical doctor. The statements made represent the author's personal opinions and are not intended to replace the services of health care professionals. The content and products discussed have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The information on this page and the products available on this site are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.