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What the Indian state known as ‘God’s own country’ can teach us about eating to our health

Dr. Sanjay Gupta
 

As an Indian kid growing up in the States, my parents did everything they could to create a little feeling of their ancestral land in our small Midwestern town. There was always classical Indian music, full of sitars and harmoniums, blaring on the weekends. My father often changed into a traditional kurta shirt in the evenings, after work. Our home always carried the strong fragrances of the spices and herbs of my parents’ favorite dishes, which seemed to permanently embed themselves into our furniture fabrics, clothes and even our skin.

And, although neither of my parents was a doctor, they often treated me and my little brother with home remedies passed down to them over many generations. For example, to get us to calm down, my mom taught us an alternate nostril breathing technique. It’s called Nadi Shodhana, and my mom, who is an engineer, had a very precise way of demonstrating it.

Sitting cross-legged with a super straight spine, she would bring her right hand in front of her face and gently lay her index and middle fingers on her forehead. Then, with her thumb on her right nostril and ring finger on the other nostril, she would close one nostril at a time and deep breathe alternately for a few minutes, encouraging us to do the same. I still do it today and have taught it to my kids, who mainly use the technique to help go to sleep.

Another was the regular use of a tongue scraper, which was as common in our childhood home as a toothbrush and is something I still use today. Twice a day, we would gently scrape our tongues, with my mom unscientifically explaining that this not only removed harmful bacteria from our mouths, it invigorated our taste buds, making food taste better.

One of the most common home remedies we used was mustard oil. There is a famous scene in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” in which the dad uses Windex to cure everything from poison ivy to psoriasis. Mustard oil is my mother’s Windex, holding the same Pollyannaish quality for her. The mustard oil wasn’t consumed, it was massaged liberally onto anything that bothered us: sore knees, elbows and even our scalps for a headache, leaving our hair an oily mess.

Truth is, all of my mom’s remedies worked for us. I certainly felt more relaxed after the deep breathing techniques. And who doesn’t enjoy a head massage?

Still, as I progressed through my own medical training in neurosurgery, I wondered how much scientific evidence really existed for these ancient home remedies. So last summer, while filming “Chasing Life,” I traveled to the birthplace of many of these techniques and practices, a place known to locals and visitors as “God’s own country”: the state of Kerala.

As soon as I landed, I was reminded of the remarkable diversity of India. Four world religions originated there: Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. There are over 22 languages and hundreds more dialects spoken in India, and the culture is wildly different in the north vs. the south, east vs. west. Kerala is a part of India, but it very much feels like a completely different country, with lush green tropics filled with backwater brackish lagoons running in parallel to the Arabian Sea, near 100% literacy rates and a focus on health that has become the envy of the world.

Thousands of years ago, in this tiny coastal state, began what some believe is the oldest medicine practice in the world. It is called Ayurveda, which means the science of life. All those home remedies my mom imported into our home on the other side of the world probably had their origins in Kerala. The region is believed to have given us breathing practices, meditation, tongue scrapers, massage and, perhaps most important, the Ayurvedic diet.

I learned more about the diet while sharing a meal with one of Kerala’s most famous chefs, Das Sreedharan, at his culinary retreat, Rasa Gurukul.

When you think of fueling your body with calories, you probably focus on what you should eat. With the Ayurvedic diet, it is not just what you eat but when you eat it. And you factor in your individual body type, or dosha, which guides the type, timing and even the temperatures of foods.

Every morsel of food you put in your body is designed to serve a particular function, Sreedharan told me. Visiting the kitchen of Rasa Gurukul felt like a trip to an old-school medicine cabinet, with thousands of herbs in jars, labeled by name and utility. It was the best example I have ever seen of food being thought of as medicine. Not that it should be surprising — after all, herbal medicine is the direct ancestor to modern pharmacology.

They serve ginger for arthritis and digestion, cinnamon to boost circulation and lower blood sugar, and fenugreek to fight infection. At each meal, Sreedharan told me, you are certain to have six different tastes or rasas — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent — and they should be eaten in that order. Doing so, he added, will make you feel more satisfied and less likely to overeat.

Although I came to India in search of scientific evidence bolstering the claims of the Ayurvedic diet, there is hardly any to be found. Chefs like Sreedharan and practitioners in the large Ayurvedic hospitals are starting to gather more data, but they mostly rely on hundreds of years of anecdotal evidence and experience.

As I immersed myself in the Ayurvedic lifestyle, I realized that much of the impact may just come from the thought that goes into creating your meals and the practice of eating foods that serve a particular purpose. Or the effectiveness may be tied to the mindfulness that accompanies the diet, the slow pace at which the food is eaten and the fact that fewer calories are consumed overall. And there is probably a lot to be said for the lack of any processed foods or added sugars.

Or the diet’s success could have something to do with finding the foods that best suit you and creating a more personalized way of eating, something that has been happening in Kerala for thousands of years. As I told my mom when I returned, that kind of awareness could benefit everyone, regardless of where they live.

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