Written by John Immel,
How exactly does the food you eat nourish your entire body? Ayurveda offers a unique understanding of this process. From the moment you eat a meal, the process of Ayurvedic nutrition takes a full 35 days to complete. At each step in the process a new tissue is nourished. At the end of the 35 days, food nourishes your general health and wellness as ojas is produced. Ojas means strength or vigor. It is the final and most refined by-product of digestion & nutrition, and it supports and maintains your overall heartiness.
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There are two conclusions you can draw from this process: One, that it takes 35 days before food increases your general strength and resilience. Two, it means that the food you ate one month ago is still affecting your body today. Given these facts, it's especially important you know the right foods to nourish your tissues down the road.
In Ayurvedic anatomy, there are seven layers of tissues in the body, collectively called the dhatus. The food you eat nourishes each of these tissues one after the other in succession, from the lymph to the reproductive tissues. Nourishing each dhatu takes five days.
All of the dhatus, and ojas itself, are nourished by rich, oily or sweet foods like ghee, milk, almonds and dates. Among these, milk and seeds contain all the nutrients for life, as they support the the offspring of their species. However, there are dhatu specific foods and herbs that have an affinity for a certain tissue layer only. In addition to your dietary choices, the metabolism and strength of each tissue (called dhatu agni) contributes to your ability to nourish that tissue.
Here are the specific foods that nourish each of the seven dhatus.
Tissue #1 - Lymph (Rasa dhatu)The first tissue is called rasa dhatu and is translated as lymph. Its main function is to provide nutrition and immunity. Rasa is the prime tissue that hydrates and nourishes all the rest of the body's tissues. Rasa's nature is oily, heavy, stable and cool - therefore foods, herbs and practices that have these qualities build rasa. Foods with sweet and salty taste are ideal for improving the quality of rasa as both are building and hydrating it. Foods that build earth and water elements also nourish rasa. Therefore anything that is either building (increases weight gain) or juicy is going to benefit rasa.
Good quality fats like ghee, avocado and coconut oil nourish rasa's oiliness. Rich dairy products such as milk and yogurt also feed the oily quality of rasa dhatu. Satiating carbohydrates like root veggies and grains build rasa's sweetness. Demulcent sticky foods like tapioca pudding are especially nourishing, as are demulcent herbs like licorice and marshmallow roots. Dense proteins such as meat and nuts are earthy, building and heavy, therefore they build rasa's earth element. Juicy and sweet fresh fruits, seaweed, salt, and coconut all build water element in rasa. Dehydration is especially depleting to rasa.
Shatavari and chyavanprash are ideal picks to build rasa. Rasa also thrives when there is stability in the form of good rest, self oil massage (abhyanga) and gentle exercise like walking. Feel free to bask in the moon's cooling light to show your lymph some love. Moonlight has a nourishing effect on rasa.
Tissue #2 - Blood (Rakta dhatu)The second tissue is called rakta dhatu and is translated as blood. It specifically refers to the red blood cells. Rakta gives the body life because it carries oxygen to all of the tissues in the body. It's also responsible for your enthusiasm - it puts the kick in being 'alive and kickin'.
Rakta is nourished by iron rich foods since iron is an essential element for blood production. About 70 percent of your body's iron is found in the red blood cells. Foods such as red meat, beets, red cabbage, raisins, currant and cranberry juice provide iron rich sustenance to rakta. The renowned Ayurvedic herbal formula chyavanprash is also rich in iron.
Rakta is hot, sharp and pungent in nature. People with depleted rakta may be anemic and are often pale, cold and lacking in enthusiasm. Fire element predominates in a person with good healthy rakta. Hot, sharp pungents improve the circulation of rakta as well as the delivery of oxygen. They also stimulate the liver's fire (ranjaka) which is closely involved in blood production. Some ways to get your dose of hot, sharp and pungent include soaking up sunshine and including spices such as black pepper and the herbal formula trikatu (which literally means three pungents).
Because the liver is so intimately connected with blood production in the Ayurvedic model, liver tonics like beets, chicken liver, guduchi and amalaki will help to ensure strong blood. Bitters and sours cleanse the liver and spleen which can improve processing of hemoglobin and bile, indirectly contributing to nourishment of rakta. Leafy green vegetables are a great source of bitter taste - particularly dandelion greens. Sour's cleansing action can be found in citrus fruits like lemon, lime and grapefruit as well as fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kim chi, beet kvass and kombucha.
Alteratives are another class of herbs that support rakta. Their exact mode of action on the body is not completely understood in terms of pharmacology.t It is, however, widely recognized that they have an affinity for cleansing and purifying the blood, supporting its proper function and overall vitality. Manjistha is Ayurveda's top alterative pick for supporting rakta.
Tissue #3 - Muscle (Mamsa dhatu)The third tissue is called mamsa dhatu and is translated as muscle. Your muscle tissue plasters your body together to grant physical strength and coordinated mobility. Mamsa is composed of earth and fire elements. It is heavy, stable and dense. The sweet and salty tastes nourish mamsa because they are similar in quality.
As with each of the dhatus, the previous layer plays a key role in nourishment of the current one. High quality blood (rakta) energizes the muscle, providing the warmth and fire for muscle growth. A high protein diet is the best way to build mamsa. Red meat, which contains some rakta in it, is ideal for nourishing mamsa (and rakta). Eggs are also perfect for nourishing mamsa. They not only contain protein and fats, they are also warming in nature. Sesame seeds, almonds, and nuts in general, especially the ones with a warming nature, are particularly good for building muscle tissue.
Sweet, heavy, dense and stable foods like dairy, sugar, and wheat also build mamsa. But, these foods lack the warmth of sesame. They are cold. Sweet, cold foods build fat tissue, whereas sweet, warm foods encourage muscle growth. Adding hot spices to the cold, sweet foods above will build muscle instead of fat tissue. Try adding the hot aromatic herb rosemary, for example, to breads.
Aromatic herbs such as rosemary, mint, cloves, and thyme have an affinity for mamsa , as they increase circulation of blood and oxygen to the muscles. That's why so many muscle pain relieving formulas have an aromatic, minty smell.
An important way to improve blood flow to the muscles is through regular exercise. Appropriate exercise is crucial for a healthy mamsa dhatu. Not necessarily vigorous exercise - which can actually strain the muscles - but rather a daily moderate exercise routine builds muscle mass. Your workout should be enough so that you just begin to break a sweat on your forehead and armpits, but should not progress to the point of profuse sweating. Know and respect your body's limits and rest weary, sore muscles. Walking, biking, yoga, gentle weight lifting and dancing are all great ways to build muscle. Avoid hard physical labor and intense exercise - especially when you're worn out. You can easily overdo it and injure your muscles if you're not careful.
A healthy electrolyte balance is essential for coordinated muscle function. Muscle contraction requires a healthy balance of magnesium and calcium, two electrolytes. Many Americans are depleted in magnesium due to depleted soils. Sesame, mentioned above, is an ideal source of magnesium. Almond milk with Sesame is a great way to nourish mamsa.
Bala is an earthy, fire building herb particularly known for being a muscle tonic. It can be added to massage oils to support muscle health and comfort. Bala is a key ingredient found in Ayurveda's classic blend for strengthening weak muscles, ashwagandha bala oil. Ashwagandha also has both heaviness and warmth, making it an ideal choice for both internal and external consumption to strengthen the muscles. Vidari is another noteworthy building herb in terms of muscles, but unlike Ashwagandha and Bala, it is cold. To nourish muscle it needs to be combined with warming herbs like pippali or turmeric in a formula. And the all nourishing chyavanprash is also a good choice here (you will notice it builds all the dhatus, hence its notoriety).
The practice of self oil massage (abhyanga) is especially important for the muscles. It not only stimulates and soothes muscles, but also prevents lactic acid buildup and alleviates tension while bringing awareness to your tender spots.
Tissue #4 - Fat (Meda dhatu)The fourth tissue is called meda dhatu and is translated as fat. Its main function is to lubricate and insulate the body. You have to be careful not to over nourish meda. For most people, their bodies have evolved to build fat tissue easily, as it provides a hearty resilience for survival in areas where famine is common. Fat brings comfort, it makes you feel grounded and a little generally goes a long way. In the language of Ayurveda (Sanskrit) the word for fat and the word for love are the same - sneha. Excess fat has many health risks associated with it. Toxins like to adhere to fat, therefore excess fat can invite toxicity.
Meda is heavy, oily and dense - very similar to Kapha dosha. And just like Kapha, it is fed by the sweet taste in particular. Balanced intake of the sweet taste and heavy foods such as wheat, dairy, sugar, meat and nuts is essential to ensure healthy levels of fat. High quality, good fats are especially important to nourish meda. Favor oily fishes such as salmon and sardine, or nuts such as almonds. Ghee, coconut oil and olive oil also contain healthy fats to build meda. Avoid fried foods and cheap oils like canola and vegetable.
Meda has a close relationship with the adrenals, so stress depletes meda in particular. Avoid caffeine and stimulants which generally tax the nervous system. Adaptogens like ashwagandha, shatavari and licorice, aid stress management while feeding meda's growth. As with building mamsa, you should avoid excessive physical activity when trying to nourish meda. Gentle exercise is supportive, but overexertion is depleting. Proper hydration is another especially necessary component for healthy fat tissue as fat is composed of earth and water elements.
Your liver plays a key role in fat metabolism via bile. The release of bile emulsifies fat and detoxes the liver. Therefore, supporting liver health supports healthy fat metabolism, which burns up any excess fat and helps improve the quality of fat. Bitter and sour tastes are cholagogues meaning they cleanse the liver by encouraging the release of bile. As mentioned above, foods like raw beets, dandelion greens, lemon, lime, grapefruit and vinegar stimulate the release of bile and support healthy liver function. Bitter herbs such as bhumyamalaki, guduchi and aloe vera gel also act as cholagogues. Twisting yoga poses help to wring toxins out of the liver (and digestive organs in general) and to ensure your fat is top quality.
Tissue #5 - Bones (Asthi dhatu)The fifth tissue is called asthi dhatu and is translated as bone. Asthi serves to support the body and protect the organs. For example, your spine supports your erect posture and your skull protects your brain. Asthi is heavy, stable, gross and dense. It is mainly composed of the earth element and is nourished by the salty taste. Mineral rich foods and herbs build asthi because the integrity of your bones depends on their mineral density. Your bones are in fact your body's storehouse of minerals like calcium, phosphorous and magnesium. 99% of the body's calcium is in the bones. Calcium is needed for important functions like nerve signaling, blood clotting and muscle contractions. When blood levels of these essential nutrients are low, the body dips into the bones' storage.
Salty seaweeds are rich in bone nourishing potassium, iron, calcium, iodine and magnesium as these minerals are concentrated in seawater. Your bones love seafood in general, but oysters have an especially high calcium content. Praval panchamrit is an herb particularly known for its high calcium content and capacity to strengthen the bones. Harvested from pearls deep beneath the salty sea, this herb is a testament to the affinity that salt has for the bones. Bone broth is an especially powerful way to nourish bone tissue.
Calcium rich foods like gold milk, dairy in general, sesame, soy, and dark leafy greens all feed the bones. In fact, calcium is quite common in nature so you get plenty of it if you eat a varied diet of whole foods. Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, macadamias and Brazil nuts are all rich in minerals which nourish the bones.
Root veggies are another great source of minerals as their time underground allows them to absorb these bone building nutrients from the earth. Ashwagandha's roots pull bone sustaining minerals from the soil to support bone health.
Bone health has an intimate relationship with colon health, as mineral absorption primarily takes place in the colon. Gas and bloating deplete bone tissue because they lead to acidity in the blood. Therefore, when nourishing bone tissue be careful to reduce foods that cause gas. Be sure to alleviate constipation with gentle laxatives like triphala and Joyful Belly's specially formulated motil-colon stimulant laxative and gentle laxative tea. Ayurveda recommends periodic colon cleansing with a medicated enema to ensure optimal colon health and function.
Weight bearing exercises strengthen the bones. Walks in nature are ideal because you get the benefits of weight bearing exercise, a connection with the earth element and a healthy dose of bone nourishing vitamin D via sunshine. Good posture supports bone health. Your bones thrive when they are standing tall rather than crunched on top of each other. Correct poor posture using yoga, exercise (a strong core empowers good posture), chiropractic and/or physical therapy if needed.
Tissue #6 - Nerves (Majja dhatu)The sixth tissue is called majja dhatu and is translated as the nerves. Majja governs communication, sensory perception, memory and learning. Majja is nourished by the comfort of the sweet taste as well as a healthy electrolyte balance provided by the salty taste.
Oily foods like almonds, sweet foods like dates, and hearty foods all nourish and calm the nerves. Warm milk with ghee and garlic is especially soothing for the nervous tissue and is conducive to a good night's sleep.
Warmth calms the nervous system while cold shocks it. Bundle up in layers to ensure your body will maintain a comfortable temperature throughout the day. Dine on warming foods like soups and stews to restore calm (unless you're Pitta and fiery by nature). Walnuts are a warming nut that nourish the brain and make a great snack to keep your nerves happy.
Self oil massage (abhyanga) is especially soothing to your nervous system. Oil is like food to your majja dhatu because it nourishes the myelin sheath, while massage calms your entire nervous system. The skin and the nerves have a close relationship. The skin is the largest organ of your body and it is full of nerves, touch being one of the five senses. Abhyanga is like wrapping your body up in a warm hug that lasts all day. Brahmi oil is especially soothing to the nervous system and can be applied to the entire body or simply to the head and feet at bedtime to ensure sound sleep. Apply it daily to nourish your nerves.
Majja is subtle and easily overstimulated. It is comprised mainly of ether, air and fire elements. To protect majja's health, avoid excessive use of electronics - especially before bed. Majja is taxed by imbalanced use of your senses. This includes overuse of your senses - like watching television, talking on the phone and cooking a meal. Your attention is being pulled in too many directions and your nervous system is scrambling to make sense of it all.
Time in nature and away from electronics also rejuvenates the nervous system. The hustle and bustle of modern life provides a constant barrage of overstimulation. Taking the time to unplug and recharge in nature does a body good. Sufficient rest is particularly important for a healthy nervous system - another reason to turn off your electronics by 8pm. Sitting in front of a screen until right before bed delays sound sleep. Use the last few hours before sleep to wind down - take a bath, read a light hearted novel, pray, and reflect on your day.
Underuse of the senses can also weaken majja dhatu. Think of those days where you feel like you're operating on autopilot, somewhat removed and distracted from everything you're doing. This kind of lack of focus and attention also wears on majja. Add hot spices like ginger and black pepper to your meals if your nerves need stimulation.
Inappropriate use of the senses can be damaging as well - listening to loud, chaotic, disturbing sounds (such as music that might be coming from your teenager's room!) or viewing violent graphic images. These sorts of stimuli make it challenging for the nervous system to maintain homeostasis. Breathing exercises and contemplative practices can help restore calm after one of these chaotic experiences.
The nerves are also soothed and nurtured by following a regular daily routine and by familiar surroundings such as dinner with grandma, catching up with an old friend or a long walk with your favorite four legged companion s. Along the same vein of familiarity, avoid excess travel and moving your home frequently.
Tissue #7 - Reproductive tissue (Sukra / Artava dhatu)The seventh tissue is called sukra dhatu for men and artava dhatu for women and is translated as the reproductive tissue. The reproductive tissue in general is usually referred to as sukra. This tissue is nourished by sweet and salty tastes along with sticky, stable, heavy, warm and oily qualities. It is mainly comprised of water, earth and fire elements. Sweet and salty foods such as sesame seeds, warm milk, meat, and seafood build reproductive tissue. Almonds in particular build sperm, especially when enjoyed as milk and combined with saffron. Honey is an aphrodisiac which also directly builds ojas. The boron in honey may regulate hormones levels. Honey also contains nitric oxide which is released during arousal. Perhaps this is part of the reason "honey" has become a term of endearment and we call one of the most romantic trips in life a "honeymoon"!
Zinc is a critical mineral needed for healthy reproductive function. The richest food source of zinc is oysters. It's interesting to note that oysters are also considered an aphrodisiac. Seafood in general, meat (especially beef), eggs, pumpkin seeds, beans and nuts all provide healthy sources of zinc. Hormones are made from cholesterol, so good quality fats like ghee, coconut and olive oils ensure good quality hormones.
Healthy relationships are critical in maintaining overall health, but become especially relevant when it comes to sexual health. Sexual intimacy outside the context of lifelong commitment (marriage) creates fear and uncertainty about the future that damages the reproductive organs. The classical Ayurveda texts warn us against overuse of the sexual organs and to avoid a lifestyle of multiple sexual partners.
Stress taxes your reproductive health. The body will always prioritize survival over reproduction. If you are in a constant state of stress, your reproductive tissues suffer because your body prioritizes making the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline over sex hormones. Reproductive issues are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to stress, warning you to slow down and re-assess how your diet and lifestyle are affecting your health. You can't burn the candle at both ends without consequences, especially in the reproductive tissues.
Ashwagandha is renowned for supporting male sexual stamina. It rejuvenates sukra dhatu while increasing sperm motility and count. It helps to reduce impotence and increase sexual potency. Ashwagandha is also a tonic for the uterine muscles that can alleviate spasms and dysmenorrhea. It also relieves menstrual imbalances caused by deficiency and excess vata because of its heavy, building nature.
Shatavari is a powerful uterine tonic primarily used to restore menstrual balance in cases of dysmenorrhea, menorrhagia and irregular periods. Due to its antispasmodic properties, shatavari helps with menstrual cramping. Its sweet, nourishing, cooling, demulcent and estrogenic properties calm Pitta dosha and increase reproductive fluids, making it useful during menopause. Its cooling, nourishing properties are calming and soothing to the mind, helping women deal elegantly with the intense emotions that often accompany menstruation and menopause.
Shatavari ghee is Ayurveda's famous female reproductive tonic. Shatavari ghee addresses a wide range of issues such as infertility, pre-menstrual syndrome, low sex-drive, and increasing breast-milk production. As an estrogen precursor, shatavari addresses hormonal imbalances of estrogen deficiency. It is a known galactagogue, improving quantity and flow of breast milk for lactating mothers. Shatavari ghee can be used both internally and externally to combat symptoms such as vaginal dryness or low milk production. Use shatavari cautiously if you or anyone in your family has a history or tumors or growths.
Vidari feeds sukra and artava by increasing fertility and sperm production via its heavy and unctuous qualities. Licorice is both demulcent and an aphrodisiac. It increases semen, restores vitality and ensures sexual potency. Aloe vera gel has a particular affinity for the female reproductive system. Especially useful when there is excess bleeding or clots, aloe clears heat from the blood (rakta), rejuvenating it and supporting healthy uterine function. Its cool and unctuous properties alleviate the hot and dry symptoms of menopause.
ConclusionBy breaking down the root causes of health issues, you can identify which tissues in your body need the most support. If you are experiencing blood deficiencies such as anemia - feed rakta. Got lots of cracking and popping joints? Support asthi. Your body is an amazing coordination of many different systems. Each layer is unique and essential in experiencing optimal health. By understanding what each tissue craves, you can more effectively nourish and heal your body.
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About the AuthorJohn Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda biocharacteristics. His approach to Ayurveda is clinical, yet exudes an ease which many find enjoyable and insightful. John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda, offering professional clinical training in Ayurveda for over 15 years.
John's interest in Ayurveda and specialization in digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, as well as public service work in South Asia. John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion. John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing. In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.
John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots, and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church. Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick. That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well. Outside of work, John enjoys spending time with his wife and 6 kids, and pursuing his love of theology, philosophy, and language.
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.This is one of the best articles on the dhatus that I've ever read. Thanks, John!
Excellent article on the 7 Dhatus. I will be sharing this link with my clients.
.This is one of the best articles on the dhatus that I've ever read. Thanks, John!
Excellent article on the 7 Dhatus. I will be sharing this link with my clients.