My Battle with Chronic Inflammation: Insights from Ayurveda

Why Ayurveda?

After going keto/ low-carb in April, most of my brain-fog and double-vision dissolved, my energy went up, and I was finally able – or mostly able, at least – to function like a normal, productive human being again. I thought that, finally, I had things figured out!

But then summer came, I was assigned to teach a new, intensive class at UCLA that was completely outside my expertise (a.k.a., I had to make shit up), I started working 12-14 hour days to prepare, I stopped exercising regularly, and I started sleeping less than the 8-9 hours a night I know I need. Then, right after the class was over, I flew overseas to visit my family in Greece. The time change and jet lag, on top of the exhaustion from overwork, took a huge toll on my body. 

The brain-fog came back with a vengeance, I started having digestive issues (mainly constipation and bloating at this point), severe double vision from MG, and my mood went down the drain. I was on vacation, technically, but I couldn’t have felt worse.

I’d delayed my monthly IVIG infusions in order to fly to Greece earlier, and I thought that was the root cause of my flare-up. I felt confident that once I got back to LA and got my infusions, things would get back to “normal”. And, partly, they did. My main MG symptoms (muscle weakness and double vision) resolved after the treatment, but my brain-fog and digestive issues remained. In fact, they got worse, and kept getting worse, until I reached a point were I couldn’t eat a single thing without bloating up like a balloon, and my brain-fog was so severe, I couldn’t get out of bed.

On top of that, my liver got inflamed, which made my chronic insomnia even more intolerable. My acupuncturist, who is spot on usually, suggested that I watch my fats, but that didn’t quite make sense to me. If you’re following me on Instagram, you know that I don’t eat “traditional keto”, I eat mostly dairy-free and I rarely touch processed meats. I also don’t slather butter and coconut oil on everything, and I make a habit of eating anti-inflammatory foods like organic berries, wild-caught fish and bitter greens.

I knew I needed to see someone, in particular someone who could approach my health issues in a holistic manner – you know, see the bigger picture. I think most people in my position would have been inclined to seek out a functional medicine doctor (FMD), but they don’t come cheap in LA and I hadn’t gotten anywhere with my last one. I also didn’t want to see a nutritional therapist because, as I said, I wanted that bigger picture. The answer? Ayurveda. 

I’ve been interested in Ayurveda – India’s ancient, holistic medical system – for several years, but somehow I’d never made it a priority. After my MG symptoms started, I focused on doing what everyone else in the AIP-community seemed to be doing: reading all the books about autoimmunity, following the “right” bloggers and podcasters, and finding a good functional medicine doctor. Unfortunately, these things didn’t get me very far.

Sarah Wilson (whom I love) brought Ayurveda back on my radar, and so I started looking for practitioners within the LA area. Perhaps a little surprisingly, there aren’t that many ayurvedic doctors in LA, at least not compared to other types of alternative, or holistic practitioners. I visited two in the last month, and the difference between them was profound. But before I dive into their diagnoses and suggestions, I want to say a few words about Ayurveda, so that those less familiar can follow along.

What is Ayurveda and how does it work?

Ayurveda, which has been practiced for over 5000 years, is based on the premise that the universe is made up of five great elements: ether, air, fire, water and earth. These elements are represented in humans by a combination of three “doshas”, or energies, called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. While one dosha predominates in most individuals, a second dosha typically has a strong influence. (e.g., Kapha-Pitta, Vata-Pitta and Pitta-Vata) Some people are even Vata-Pitta-Kapha types, which means that all three doshas are strong forces in your constitution.

Vata is air and movement, and when out of balance is prone to dryness, restlessness, nervousness and an inability to stay focused on one thing. Vata types (i.e., types that are dominated by Vata energy) are generally tall and slender, have lively personalities, sharp minds and a tendency to talk and walk very fast. Pitta is water and fire, and its energy controls the body’s metabolic system. Pitta types are focused, competitive, intellectual and very good problem solvers. They are generally of medium built, often with sharp features, and they are able to lose weight moderately easily. When out of balance, Pitta types can become overheated, which often results in digestive issues (particularly ulcers and diarrhea), liver inflammation, and skin rashes. Emotionally, they can become judgmental, resentful and angry. Kapha, finally, is water and earth and is all about stability and endurance. Kapha types have slow metabolisms, and are faithful, easygoing and compassionate. They are strong and tend to handle stress better than the other constitutions. However, they are prone to depression, sluggishness and procrastination.

Balance in Ayurveda is achieved through food programs, herbology, massage, aromatherapy, color and sound therapies, yoga, meditation, breathing exercises (pranayama), and other lifestyle adjustments. The idea, is “healing through opposites”. For example, if one is overheated, therapies may be cooling in nature. Excessive dryness may need to be moistened, etc. If life is fast-paced, it may need to slow down. If digestion is sluggish, it may need to be stimulated. 

So the first step to creating balance in your life is understanding your constitution, and identifing the factors creating imbalance. There are several online tests you can take to figure out your constitution, but for me they all came out with different results. Interesting, almost all of them showed a dual constitution, whether that was Kapha-Pitta, Pitta-Kapha or Vata-Kapha (first one is the dominant one). Personally, I found it hard to self-diagnose, because I recognized myself in all three doshas. Because of my proneness to depression and procrastination, as well as brain-fog and fatigue, I felt there was a good chance I was Kapha dominant and severely out of balance.

My dosha constitution: Kapha-Pitta

The first Ayurvedic doctor that I saw, identified me as a Pitta. Admittedly, there are things about me, especially emotionally I think, that are very Pitta. I am prone to angry outbursts and “bitchiness”, and I can be very judgmental. I am also intellectually-curious and fairly ambitious (duh, doing a PhD), and I can be very focused on one task, at least when my brain is not inflamed AF. Physically, I am prone to liver disease and I have trouble staying asleep at night, which is the typical Pitta-type insomnia.

But, I am also – and perhaps more so – prone to depression and sluggishness, which is typical, as I mentioned, of Kapha types. I also don’t remember the last time I felt energetic, or lively. Even anger, takes energy and I don’t have much of that in store. What’s more, I have a very hard time losing weight, and I was mildly overweight for most of my life. But, that doctor, I think, was focused too much on the obvious. I’m doing a PhD, so I’m an intellectual! I’m not overweight right now, so my metabolism must be at least fairly good! etc.

Finding a practitioner I trust

Overall, I didn’t feel that she “got” me 100%, and I think that her young age and lack of experience might be partly to blame for that. She also didn’t make that many recommendations for things to take or change, and suggested that we get to know each other better, and move slowly. She urged me to cut out raw and iced drinks, which made (and still makes) sense to me. If you’re struggling with digestion, that’s one of the standard recommendations, since cooked foods are already partly broken down, and warm drinks are easier on the stomach’s digestive enzymes. She also recommended that I massage my feet with warm oil before bed to help me relax before I doze off. 

I took her suggestions to heart and started implementing them (at least most of the time), but also had my doubts that she’d be able to give me what I needed. Then about a week later, I saw my acupuncturist, and she recommended another practitioner based in the Palisades. I love and trust my acupuncturist, and I know she wouldn’t send me to just anyone, so when she said that this Ayurvedic doctor was “amazing”, I decided to give her a try. The initial consultation was at $245 way above my budget, but I was desperate to feel better and willing to give her (Martha) a chance.

My consult with Martha

My immediate first impression was a little “iffy” – she definitely wasn’t as warm as I’d expected, but once she started taking my pulse and asking me questions about my health, I knew I was in safe hands. Whereas the other Ayurvedic doctor I’d seen had asked to fill in a massive questionnaire prior to our meeting, Martha’s diagnosis was much more experiential. She looked at my tongue and eyes, took my pulse multiple times and asked me about the constitution and color of my feces before she even looked at the brief questionnaire I filled in upon arrival.

I went in with a huge bandage wrapped around my leg (I’d just had my varicose veins removed), and one of the first things she asked me as she was taking my pulse, was if I feel pain. She looked perplexed. I said “no” and she said “right, because I don’t feel pain in your pulse”. She said she detected hair-loss (alopecia areata), skin issues (guttate psoriasis), liver problems and mild inflammation in the gut (she feels certain it is candida). Then she asked me if I had issues with my eyes (double vision from MG). She also asked me about my thyroid and insisted that something is wrong with it. My mom and sister have Hashimoto’s, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if I had it too, but my TSH tests always come back normal. So that’s one thing I’ll have to dig a little bit deeper into for sure.

Martha also said that she’s feeling something in my head, and asked me if I get migrains (I used to). Then she asked me about brain-fog (yes!!). She said my brain was severely inflamed, and then she started asking me about my diet. That was the first time she looked at my questionnaire. To my surprise, she was supportive of my low-carb diet and encouraged me to consume high-quality red meat for energy. [She said I was so exhausted I barely have a pulse.] I think many people – incl. myself for a long time – associate Ayurveda with vegetarianism, but as it turns out that is a complete misconception. Another surprise, was that she was also supportive of me drinking coffee (bulletproof too!), as long as it’s one cup and only in the morning. [I did explain, however, that I gave up coffee for almost two years after being diagnosed with MG, and didn’t feel any better.]

She also made a host of other dietary suggestions that you can see listed below. Admittedly, many of the recommended foods I am already eating but, as it turns out, I have to cut out nightshades and sea-critters, because – according to Ayurveda (and a host of other schools of thought) – they are highly inflammatory. Eliminating tomatoes and all peppers was a real challenge while I was doing the AIP diet, so I’m not looking forward to that! Martha suggested that I cut out nightshades for at least a year to see improvement with inflammation. She also recommended that I take out most foods that are high in FODMAPs for a month or so, until my digestion settles.  

In addition, Martha recommended a morning and evening routine to help manage my anxiety and improve my sleep, which you can see below. Honestly, the self massage is going to be a struggle, because I feel it is so time-consuming, and it’s a big change from how I currently choose to unwind (Netflix). It will also force me to shower/ bath every night, which I don’t currently do (or have ever done). But the rest of her recommendations, I think, will be fairly easy to integrate into my routine.

Our next consultation is in a month – I will for sure keep you posted about how things go!

Note: An important thing to keep in mind about Ayurveda is that treatments are highly individualized and holistic. Just because something was recommended to me, to treat my insomnia, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for your insomnia too. Having said that, good Ayurvedic practitioners are hard to find and expensive, and I know that many folks don’t have access to them. If you recognize yourself in my story, or if you know you have the same constitution as me, there’s a lot of info here that I think (or at least hope!) might be useful on your health journey.

Martha’s recommendations

Foods to include:

  • grass-fed red meat, at least a few times a week (for energy)
  • wild-caught fish (for omega-3s and anti-inflammatory properties)
  • bone broth, preferably beef (energy)
  • super probiotic coconut yogurt by Earth Superfoods (1-2 tbsp therapeutically in between meals)
  • yellow mung beans (I’m still skeptical about this one, as it’s carb-loaded, but apparently great for digestion)
  • bitter greens (dandelions, endives, arugula, etc.)
  • greens in general
  • healthy fats, especially olive oil, ghee and coconut oil
  • turmeric
  • selenium-rich foods like halibut, sardines and beef-liver (for thyroid)

Foods to eliminate (inflammatory):

  • nightshades (except ashwagandha)
  • FODMAPs, particularly cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower 
  • sea critters like shrimp, lobster and crab, and fish that live at the bottom of the ocean, like tilapia (because they are bottom-feeders, which is where all toxins accumulate in the ocean)
  • fish high in mercury, like swordfish and tuna
  • sugar, artificial and natural, incl. fruit
  • walnuts 
  • canned foods
  • kombucha (feeds the candida)

Foods to limit:

  • sauerkraut (bloating)
  • sour foods in general like vinegar, grapefruit and cheese (Kapha-agravating) 
  • eggs (heavy, oily energy, Kapha-agravating) 
  • pork 
  • dairy, especially cow
  • chicken (because they are too Vata)

Recommended morning routine:

  • tongue-scrapping (to stimulate the digestive system)
  • oil-pulling (to remove toxins)
  • rinse with warm water with salt and baking soda
  • drink 1 tbsp of black cumin seed oil, olive oil or melted ghee (for liver detox and adrenal support)
  • light breakfast (e.g., yogurt with soaked brazil or macadamia nuts)

Recommended evening routine:

  • no drinking after 7PM (to minimize urination during the night)
  • self-massage with warm oil (“abhyanga“)
  • magnesium
  • CBD oil

Other recommendations:

  • transcendental meditation
  • proprietary herb mix 3x a day
  • maintain regular habits, try to wake up, eat and sleep at the same time every day (Kapha likes consistency and stability)
  • no mixing dairy with berries, or dairy with meat
  • avoid eggs for breakfast (they are heavy and aggravate Kapha)

Are you using Ayurveda to heal your autoimmune or other symptoms? What have you found that works? What doesn’t? Let me know in the comments below!

[Image by Flickr user sophie and used under a Creative Commons license]

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