When we speak about an Ayurvedic Diet to Prevent Colds and Flu in Winter, we are talking about helping our immune system do its job by having a diet that goes with, and not against, nature. What does it mean to have a diet that goes with nature?
Summer and Winter are like the Equator versus the North and South Pole. You eat and dress according to the local weather. Summer is hot, with maximum sunlight at the solstice, and maximum stored heat in late July and August. Winter is the exact opposite, with the maximum darkness at solstice, and maximum cold and damp in January and February.
Eating with, and not against, Nature means eating a diet that protects us from the seasonal excess. In the case of Winter, especially late Winter, the seasonal excess is cold and damp, Kapha in Ayurvedic terms. This is why we eat a Kapha pacifying diet that is is warming, and even stimulating, with herbs like cinnamon that warm the Qi and help it move. We also eat more food in early Winter that is grounding, and strengthening, when its cold, but still a bit dry, the time of Vata dosha.
In fact, our digestive fire increases naturally in winter , which is why we are designed to eat heavier, warming food like stews and casseroles in Winter.
It makes no sense at the North or South Pole or in the middle of Winter, to eat or drink cold food or beverages. It’s already cold outside, our challenge is how to stay warm. You don’t go out in the cold without a jacket, you don’t sleep without a blanket, If you are lucky you don’t sit in the house with no heat on. So why would you eat food that makes you colder?
Although colds are due to infection with a rhino virus, we call them colds and not hots, for a reason. We do, in fact, catch colds after catching a chill. I suspect that over exposure to cold and wind must weaken your immune system to make you more susceptible to a virus you are then or already have been exposed to.
Examples of Cold Foods to Avoid in Late Autumn and Winter
Cold food and beverages are those which cool you off, that make you feel cooler. Some will be obvious, like those iced drinks that people have become addicted to. (In fact these are not good on a regular basis even in summer.) Or cucumber (cool as a cucumber we say in English for a reason.) Another is watermelon.
Another is salad and raw food. Raw food is nice and cooling in summer. Salads are refreshing. But your body has to “cook” the cellulose in raw foods, so they will rob your body of heat. They are good in Late Spring and through the hot weather of late Summer.
One of my pet peeves is the way people have been brainwashed by health food industry into drinking coconut water year round. Coconut water is very very cooling. Its an intelligent hot season drink, exactly because it cools your system. This is not an issue of electrolytes. Coconut water does not cleanse. It does not rid your body of imaginary toxins. In fact, drinking or eating cold food to excess creates toxins by weakening the Agni digestive fire that burns off toxins.
Coconut water is the most cooling of foods, which is why people drink it in India in the hot season. But in the rainy season, or cold season, you can not even find young coconut in the market, and if you were found drinking it in the rainy season folk might assume your were mentally ill.
Cold Foods/Warm Foods.
Other cold foods to avoid are ice cream and yogurt. Some yogurt is fine at noon, but not at night. Follow the general Ayurvedic advice to drink liquids room temperature or warm/hot. If you drink milk, drink it hot, simmered with ginger root, cardamom, or clove. Mediterranean Sage Tea is excellent for warming up after being out in the cold. Get it at Greek, Persian, or Arab markets.
Another great tea is the classic Ayurvedic mixture of Coriander, Cumin, and Fennel. I also like plain ginger root tea made with fresh ginger, and Ayush brand Pro Vata and Pro Kapha teas, available via their website.
Eat Fruit in Season
Stick to apples, pears, and other stone fruits. Persimmons are in season in Autumn. Dried fruits like dates are good year round, and other dried fruits are especially good in winter cooked or baked in stews or cookies. Stewed fruits like cranberry sauce and apple sauce are good. Bake fruit also. Again, try using spices. Cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Cardamom pair very well with cooked fruit. Avoid bananas and too much citrus, as these are quite cooling, especially if you have allergies or asthma or a cold. Get your Vitamin C from cabbage or other sources.
Eat Mostly Cooked Vegetables.
Avoid cold veggies like cucumber, raw tomato, salads. These are “cold” foods that dampen Agni. In Summer they are fine, because Agni is naturally strong then. There are regional exceptions. A long hike in the desert sun in San Diego might lead to a small amount of cucumber with lunch, for example.
Favor warming veggies like baked hard squash, root veggies like daikon and parsnip, and as always, green leafy veggies, lightly cooked. Drink lots of soup! Soups are easy to digest and moisten and lubricate the mucosa in the nose and throat, making it harder for Rhino viruses to penetrate. This is a good time for warming fish or meat soups with veggies in them like bouillabaisse made with salmon, or chicken soup with garlic and onion and dill.
Keep your insides warm with thermogenic spices. Cumin is an excellent burner of Ama. So are ginger, black pepper, coriander, oregano, thyme, sage, fenugreek, fennel. If you drink milk, drink it hot simmered with ginger, cardamom, clove, cinnamon. Add tea and you have Masala Chai!
Turmeric is an excellent spice that builds immunity and reduces Ama. So is fresh ginger. Use them in lentils, beans, meats and veggies. Any Indian cookbook or cook website will have great recipes. But substitute black pepper for chili pepper unless you are very Kapha dominant.
Sweet foods, which have the nature of water and earth, naturally dampen and bury our Agni, the fire that is the basis of our metabolism and digestion. Have them in moderation, especially in early Winter, but take them separate from a meal, in small amounts at the end of a meal, and have them with something that stimulates the digestive fire, such as green or black tea, or herb tea made from ginger, fennel, or chai spices. Make your homemade cookies and cakes with less sugar and with spices like cardamom or cinnamon. Stewed fruits are a better choice than cakes. Stew with cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, or clove. No ice cream or frozen yogurt in Winter, please.
Honey is the most warming and least Ama-building sweetener so it is a good choice in tea and beverages with colds; also it acts as a mild expectorant. But don’t cook with it, or add it to beverages just off the boil. Let them cool to the temp you will drink it at. Ayurveda is against cooking or heating honey and believes it transforms this wonderful medicine into a poison.
Dr. Wickeramasinghe’s Tea
And if you do get a cold or flu-In Ayurveda we ramp up the body’s internal fire, called Agni, to deal with colds and flu, while pushing fluids and rest. This is a formula I learned about in Sri Lanka, that works really well, especially when in fever, as it makes you sweat if drunk in large amounts, and helps to “burn off” the virus. Also helps with gut symptoms.From the Ayurvedic perspective it strongly reduces the Kapha and Ama that are elevated when there is a cold. Dr. Wickeramasinghe’s Cold and Flu Tea
Copyright Eyton J. Shalom, M.S., L.Ac. 2013, San Diego, CA All Rights Reserved, Use With Permission Ayurveda, Acupuncture, and Chinese Medicine in San Diego https://www.bodymindwellnesscenter.com