As we move into full-fledged winter in America, I'm once again intrigued by the inherent beauty of nature's rhythms. Everything in nature is subject to the rhythms of both day and night and the seasons, including our bodies. In fact, our health and sense of well-being depend on these delicate cycles that often escape our attention in day-to-day life.
What is the fundamental cause of physical, mental, emotional, psychological, or spiritual discord or illness? One could say it is lack of balance. When we study the biology of our cells or our minds, we see that the one thing that binds us all together regardless of our differences in race, gender, and political or religious affiliations is that we are all seeking balance. Homeostasis or equilibrium is the driving force for our body-minds, and when this is disturbed, we fall ill or simply don't feel well, vibrant, or joyful.
What is chronobiology?
Chronobiology is a recently emerging science that examines the effects of our natural rhythms on our health and well-being. Our brain has a sophisticated internal clock, managed by a group of cells known as the suprachiasmatic nuclei or the SCN. The SCN is the master clock, which is trained by a number of external factors, such as light, seasons, diet, and sleep. The SCN responds to these factors and in turn controls the nerve and hormonal pathways of the body. For example, the SCN detects light at dawn and through a complex cellular genetic pathway, turns off the melatonin that keeps us asleep, and turns on cortisol to wake us up.
What's the point of this elaborate setup? By isolating day and night cycles, our body optimizes its metabolic pathways. During the day, our metabolism is geared toward energy expenditure (catabolism) and at night, toward detoxification and tissue building (anabolism). This way, it is easier for the body to maintain equilibrium, which in turn favors health and well-being.
When we chronically tax our systems by switching up our day-and-night or seasonal cycles, we become subject to loss of balance in our systems, which can lead to disease and discord. Recent research has shown the deleterious effects of long-term shift working that creates such an imbalance leading to heart disease and certain cancers. While chronobiology is a relatively new field in modern science, the importance of respecting the cycles of nature was well-known in ancient medical sciences such as Ayurveda.
How Ayurveda and biology interact to create a rebalancing system
Translated as "the science of life," Ayurveda takes into account every aspect of who we are when it comes to health and disease, aiming for balance in lifestyle, mental, psychological, and spiritual balance and harmony with all of creation.
In Ayurveda, we look at creation as the interaction between three principles called doshas: movement (vata), transformation (pitta), and structure (kapha). This study evaluates how the doshas function biologically. Dosha translates to "fault" because they arise from consciousness, which is indivisible. The apparent splitting of creation into these forces makes them always seek balance and return to wholeness.
These three principles form the basis for everything in existence. They not only form our mind-body constitutions but also make up the driving forces of nature. They are specific combinations of the five great elements—space, air, fire, water, and earth.
What are the doshas?
Vata is a combination of air and space—air is light and is characterized by movement and lightness, and it is quick, dry, and cold while space is subtle and expansive. Vata is elementally fall and early winter (cool and dry).
Pitta is a combination of fire and water, giving it the properties of heat, oiliness, and quickness. Pitta is summer (warm and moist).
Kapha, which is the combination of water and earth is heavy, unctuous, and cold. Kapha is late winter and spring (cool and moist).
How each dosha affects your biological cycles
Vata is responsible for all movement-related functions of the body, including the breath and heartbeat, the flow of blood in our blood vessels and food in the gut, the countless nerve signals that keep all of our cells and organs functioning, and the communication between cells and organs. It is also the driving for the movement of day into night and vice versa, from one season to another and that of time.
Pitta is the force of transformation—of food to its basic nutrients and waste and metabolism and change of one substance to another. While vata moves us from day to night or through seasons, pitta changes the flavor of one to the other. It is the force of aging, of the way we change our minds and behavior, how we process our experiences, how we grow and decay.
Kapha gives structure to everything in creation. It forms the cell membranes and the fluids in our bodies that keep our structures intact for vata and pitta to do their work. In nature, kapha forms structure of the cycles. It maintains the quality of day, night, or season.
Which dosha life cycle are you in?
Our life cycles are also determined by predominant doshas at certain times in our development:
Kapha is the dosha of childhood marked by growth, grounding, and nourishment.
Pitta is the dosha of adulthood, where we are driven to work, love, and serve.
Vata is the dosha of old age, characterized by dryness of joints and tissues, illness, and deterioration.
Of course, this doesn't mean that the other two doshas aren't playing a role when one is predominant. As we have seen above, all three are required for every stage. It is just that one is more active than the other two.
What time is your dosha?
Our internal clocks are driven by the doshas that are active at certain times of the day.
Vata: 2 to 6 a.m. and 2 to 6 p.m.
Vata drives the release or withdrawal of the hormones and chemicals that begin the cycles of metabolism. For example, the production and release of adrenaline and cortisol begin in the morning vata time, which among other things, help release glucose from the liver cells to give us energy. By the end of the evening, vata slows down metabolism as the body begins to prepare for rest.
Pitta: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Spurred into action by vata, pitta causes a steady increase in body temperature and metabolism, peaking by midday. Hunger is initiated by the action of pitta on the liver and digestive organs that are primed to release their enzymes with meal intake. At night, pitta helps mop up wastes of cellular metabolism.
Kapha: 6 to 10 a.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.
Called to action by vata, kapha responds by initiating production of insulin and glucagon to maintain balance. Kapha times are characterized by bringing into balance the breaking down and building up of structures.
How to use doshic intelligence to hack your biorhythms.
Now that we know what the doshas do, we can start applying this knowledge to our daily life to aid the naturally intelligent processes of the body.
Maintain regular timing.
Vata is known as the king dosha because it drives the other two. Because it is light, subtle, and pervasive, it is also the first dosha to go out of balance. The first thing to do to bring vata into balance (regardless of your unique dosha type) is to maintain regularity. Wake up in the morning vata time before 6 a.m. and go to bed before 10 p.m., the evening pitta time. This allows the regulation of the pathways of the body.
Avoid cold, dry foods.
Remember that vata is cold and dry. If we want to bring our bodies back to balance, we need to counter its effects, particularly in the fall and winter. Favor warm and moist foods, and warm or room-temperature drinks.
Make lunch the biggest meal of the day.
Since pitta peaks at noon, our bodies are most capable of digesting big meals at lunch. Avoid eating heavy foods after 7 p.m., when the body naturally starts winding down. Making this change alone can do wonders for our digestive and overall health.
Build in quiet time.
Meditation helps regulate our pathways, calming vata and bringing our doshas in balance. The best time to meditate is in the morning vata time. Vata has the greatest influence on our minds and enables us to go deeper in meditation.
Exercise can greatly help regulate our rhythms by improving digestion, sleep, and mental well-being and balancing of the doshas. Walking, swimming, and yoga are all good and are most helpful in the morning kapha time when the body feels heavy and craves movement. Avoid vigorous exercise in the evenings as this disturbs the body's natural inclination toward rest and rejuvenation starting in the evening kapha time.
The key to wellness and balance is to avoid forcing ourselves to take up yet another lifestyle or diet and instead learn to honor its inherent and abundant beauty. Ayurveda helps us to gently realign with the wisdom of our own body-minds, bringing us closer to the state of equilibrium. When we fall into the natural rhythms of the day, season, and our life cycles, we open up to an ability for great self-love.