How An Ayurvedic Diet Helped Heal My Gut & Balance My Hormones
In 2012, I sat in the humble waiting room of an ayurvedic doctor waiting to be seen for the chronic digestive issues that have plagued me for the last few years. The doctor welcomed me with a deep Namaste and brought me to her back office. Upon reviewing my health-intake form, she began telling me the story of my life. "Oh a LOT of vata, I see. You must have trouble sleeping. Staying up at night thinking. You think too much," she said. She told me my joints were always cracking and my agni, or digestive fire, was very low.
My period had been gone for over a year now, which I didn't pay too much attention to at first, but intuitively I knew something was wrong, despite numerous doctors just telling me to get back on the pill.
"No period is very serious," the doctor told me. "You have all vata (air energy) imbalances: cold body temperature, dry skin, bloating, gas, constipation, no period, weak muscles, cracking joints, insomnia, anxiety, worrying too much. If you continue like this, later in life you can get osteoporosis, Alzheimer's, and, worst of all, no baby."
I knew I had some digestive and hormonal issues, but osteoporosis, Alzheimer's, and struggles with fertility? The words had never even crossed my mind, especially as a holistic health coach whose life is dedicated to wellness.
"So what do I eat?" I asked her, and her response included foods I had given up years ago when I was overweight: dairy, rice, bread, jaggery (cane sugar). I figured that if I were to ever follow an ayurvedic diet, I'd gain 50 pounds along the way and my digestion would become even worse. I walked out of that office, deciding ayurveda was not for me.
Why I decided to adopt an ayurvedic diet.
That year I tried every diet under the sun: keto, low-FODMAP, gluten-free, and everything in between. I had affairs with the Candida diet, SIBO diet, GAPS diet, and every other acronym you can imagine. Yet I still couldn't find the answer to my issues. I was told by a gastroenterologist that I had IBS, irritable bowel syndrome (the blanket term for, "You have digestive issues that we can't figure out") and was told by an endocrinologist that I had hypothalamic amenorrhea (this loosely translates to, "You aren't getting your period, and we're not sure why...seems like it's all in your head"). They told me it really wasn't that big of a deal that my body was essentially shutting down and prescribed me IBS medication and birth control to mask the symptoms.
I didn't want a quick fix or a Band-Aid solution. I wanted to get down to the root cause of the problem. Why wasn't my body functioning properly despite my healthy diet and young age, at only 21 years old? Finally, as a last resort, I came back to ayurveda, the ancient Indian health system.
How I customized the diet to work for me.
Ayurveda teaches you how to customize your recipes for your unique mind-body type, your dosha, so you can make the right food choices for what you need, when you need it. The ayurvedic diet is supposed to address not only physical imbalances but also common mental ones we may experience on a daily basis: anxiety and insomnia, which are related to excess vata; impatience and irritability, which are related to excess pitta; and loneliness and depression, which are related to excess kapha.
I loved the ayurvedic diet's intuitive and customizable nature, but I longed to make it friendlier for my alkaline, plant-based, and low-glycemic lifestyle. Since my agni, digestive fire, had become so low from eating an entirely raw, cold, and dry diet, I needed to switch it up with hot teas, warming foods, and stimulating spices if I wanted to stop feeling bloating and constipated.
During my time on the diet, I was continuously developing ways to adapt its recipes for the modern healthy kitchen. I used my vata imaginative energy and got creative, crafting recipes that followed ayurvedic guidelines with a refreshing plant-based approach. Instead of wheat-based bread, I'd use vitamin-rich almond flour. In place of rice, I'd use protein-packed quinoa. Instead of ghee, I'd use nourishing plant-based sesame oil. As a substitute for cane sugar, I'd flavor with sugar-free pure monk fruit sweetener. In lieu of dairy milk, I'd pour hormone-balancing flax milk. Instead of heavy cream, I'd use skin-loving coconut. Rather than cheese, I'd use nutritional yeast or make my own nut-based versions. Instead of heavily cooking my food, I'd lightly sauté it to preserve its nutritional benefits.
When I started nourishing myself with warming and nutrient-dense foods, my digestion could finally do its job again.
The results of the diet.
After one year of following my modern ayurvedic diet, I woke up one morning to find that my period was back! My blood tests showed that my progesterone levels had increased enough for me to actually ovulate, something I had missed out on for years. My estrogen levels, which were once close to zero, were in a normal range, and my flattened breasts finally felt more full. Not only were my menstrual juices flowing again, but I felt full of life. I desired lust, passion, romance—things that my vata imbalance had dried me out from (physically and emotionally). I could taste and experience the sweetness of life and eat foods I had once felt guilty about, like too many carbs from sweet potatoes.
On top of that, I could finally digest food without taking four hydrochloric acids and a digestive enzyme plus still needing to lie down on the couch after. I couldn't even remember the last time I could just eat a meal and move on. That was the true definition of food freedom for me—not having to worry about every crumb I put into my mouth or evaluating how many calories or macronutrients it had. Just eating for taste and energy and living my life.
What I learned from practicing ayurvedic eating.
I now know that ayurveda is not a diet but rather a system that offers a deeper introspection on food and life. It is a living science, one that has adapted across the centuries to fit the needs of the people it serves. This flexibility is what has made ayurveda the world's oldest health system that is still practiced today. I believe the time has come for ayurveda to spread its wings and open its doors so people across the world can benefit from its age-old wisdom.
The holistic view of ayurveda is more vital now than ever before. So many people, like me, have grown tired of jumping from diet to diet, looking for the answer to health when it already exists inside of us. All it takes is tuning in and listening.
Sahara Rose is an author currently living in Los Angeles, California. She authored two books on ayurveda Eat Feel Fresh: A Plant-Based Ayurvedic Cookbook and Idiot's Guide to Ayurveda, both with foreword by Dr. Deepak Chopra. She has been featured in Vogue, Forbes, Yoga Journal, Huffington Post, and NBC News. She was also the featured nutrition speaker at Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! event at Harvard Medical School.