What role does good fat play in the body? Our lipid layer protects, comforts and nourishes our whole body. Here we delve into deep Ayurvedic thoughts on the role of fat.
Written by Sebastian Pole
We need to have a good supply of good quality (sara dhatu) fat tissue (medodhatu) to be healthy.
Our fat, or ‘lipid layer’ protects us, comforts us as well as helps to carry fat-soluble nutrition into our body and brain. According to Ayurveda our fat tissue is made from a combination of the Water and Earth elements that bring protection to our organs, bones and tissues. However, if we have too much or too little or poor quality fat tissue then health can become imbalanced. Too little fat tissue then we can be too thin with cracking joints, joint weakness, tired and brittle hair, bones, nails and teeth. Too much and there can be obesity, excess fat tissue around the breasts, abdomen and buttocks, sexual debility, asthma, poor mobility, fear, hypertension and diabetes. If the fat is of poor quality and the doshas (Ayurvedic constitutions) invade it then there can be multiple symptoms from hard and small lumps, excessive sweating, kidney infections, diabetes, fibroids and other growths dependant on the causative factors.
Ayurveda can help people to balance their fat tissue and regulate the lipid layer. If the digestive fire (metabolism) in the lipid tissue (medas-dhatu-agni) is low then fatty tissue accumulates in the body, especially around the abdomen. This is often due to excessive intake of sweet, poorly digested, low quality fatty foods that block the vata dosha (the bodily humour responsible for all movement in the body). This causes vata to accumulate in the stomach which - because vata’s predominant element is air - fans the digestive fire leading to a hyperactive digestive system. Any food ingested thereafter “cooks” too quickly causing excessive hunger and the patient to continually over-eat. This causes a vicious circle of increased hunger but reduced metabolism. Eventually all three doshas become imbalanced and improper nourishment of the tissues leads to a chronic depletion of the body’s natural immunity and an increase in weight. It is worth noting that obesity is described in the Charaka Samhita as one of the “eight despicable diseases” as it is so hard to treat because the enduring willpower of the client is essential for any management plan to be effective.
Modern science has determined that one of the main causes of weight imbalance and hence imbalanced medodhatu, is insulin resistance. The term "insulin resistance" means that your body is more resistant to the action of insulin than normal. Insulin is the hormone that keeps your blood sugar within "normal" limits. It helps to open the keyhole for the glucose to lock onto so that it can be metabolised in the liver and muscle ready to be used as energy. ‘Insulin resistance’ makes you less sensitive to insulin and less able to absorb glucose and this results in higher blood sugar levels. It is a complex process involving, amongst other things, thyroid function, oestrogen levels, leptin resistance and glycosylation.
When there is excess sugar in the blood stream it gets deposited as stored energy, otherwise known as fat. The body’s genetic wisdom is ‘to make hay whilst the sun shines’ and it stores that potential energy for a time when it really needs it. If this cycle of high blood sugar being converted to fat stores continues, it leads to weight increase, obesity and the associated health implications of high blood sugar levels including weakened immunity, repetitive infections, inflammation and blood clots. The high blood glucose levels cause the red blood cells to become coated in excess sugar that damages the protein leading to something known as ‘glycosylated heamoglobin’. This causes the formation of Advanced Glycation End products- known as AGE- damaged molecules that literally cause ageing.
Glycosylation is a natural process where sugar molecules bind with another molecule through a process known as cross-linking, and impair its function. It’s more common in diabetics and people with insulin resistance but happens to us all as we age. When crystalline proteins in the eye are ‘glycosylated’ it leads to cataracts; when collagen and elastin are ‘glycosylated’, and sugar molecules attach to these extra cellular matrix proteins, it can disrupt the integrity of the connective tissue which can harden and become less flexible; in the arteries this causes arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries and in the skin it causes wrinkles. Even insulin can become glycosylated, leading to more deep-set insulin resistance.
Looking at treatments from a purely plant chemistry perspective, flavonoids are the remedy par excellence for addressing glycosylation. Its why foods, such as colourful berries (think blueberries, amla and acerola), with the highest levels of sweetness in foods, often have high levels of protective flavonoids, as nature has an in-built protective mechanism to help offset any of the potential damage of exposure to excess natural sugars. Other vibrant and colourful spices, such as Turmeric, are also excellent and reducing glycosylated cross-linking and just half a teaspoon a day (1-2g) is protective.
When continually exposed to sugars, the high insulin levels trying to manage the high blood sugar levels also leads to excessive tissue growth, particularly due to something called Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), which is implicated in some forms of cancer. IGF-1 also leads to a high release of free radicals that cause more tissue oxidation, which disrupts the integrity of the dhatus. In fact, it is this high insulin level causing oxidation of LDL cholesterol that is now associated as one of the causes of the high levels of heart disease that we have in many industrialised countries. Conversely, high levels of free radicals have also been implicated in causing insulin resistance. This eventually leads to pancreatic burn-out. After years of over-activity, the insulin producing pancreas eventually tires of all the extra insulin it has had to produce to ‘force’ the glucose into the cells and it ‘packs up’ and diabetes develops. Insulin resistance is also associated with depression, cognitive decline and some forms of cancer (notably, breast and colon).
It is thought that 35% of the population have some form of insulin resistance, otherwise known as dysglycaemia. More than 50% of women with Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) have insulin resistance. Evidence points to an inherited abnormal form of insulin that is inefficient at regulating blood sugar levels. There also appears to be a problem with the insulin receptor not allowing insulin to facilitate the entrance of glucose into the cell. Mixed with poor eating habits, low exercise and plenty of stress you have a dangerous cocktail.
Fortunately nature and Ayurveda have an answer. Mixed with a kapha-reducing diet, high quality Omega-3 oils and sensible amounts of short and medium-chain-fatty-acid-easy-to-digest oils (such as flax, hemp, coconut oil and ghee), regular exercise, reduced stress and a by using certain plants that have been shown to assist with glucose and lipid metabolism, you can help to regulate your body to find your perfect balance of medodhatu.
Foods and herbs to use for balanced weight
- Cinnamon (Cinnamonum verum var zeylanicum): Regulates blood sugar, increases digestion, reduces weight and helps normalise intestinal flora by reducing pathogenic Candida. A study in 2003, gave three groups of diabetics 1, 3 or 6 grams of cinnamon per day. All responded to the cinnamon within weeks, with blood sugar levels 20 per cent lower on average than those of a control group. Some of the volunteers taking cinnamon even achieved normal blood sugar levels. Reports suggest that improvements can be seen after just 20 days. Cinnamon on its own will not remove insulin resistance but as part of a healthy diet and exercise programme it can be of great benefit due to its ability to strengthen agni (digestive fire) and regulate kapha with its warming, light and astringent qualities.
- Fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum): This pungent, bitter and astringent seed has been used in Ayurveda to improve digestion and help reduce weight for centuries. Its spicy and bitter flavour have been shown to increase digestion, reduce lipid levels and removes fats. It has a positive effect on the digestive fire in medas-dhatu helping the agni to metabolise food into useful nutrition. It also increases the efficiency of the water circulating channel (ambuvahasrotas) and the urinary channel (mutravahasrotas) helping to regulate fluid retention and proper moisture levels in the tissues.
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale):Considered to be the universal healer in Ayurveda, and known as vishvabheshaja, it has been used in food and medicine for thousands of years. It is a wonderful warming spice that is superior at assisting digestion and circulation. It specifically helps with the assimilation of nutrients, quickens circulation and warms the body. By increasing the digestive agni in all the tissues it helps to assimilate the other herbs in any formula whilst also strengthening digestion and thermogenically increasing metabolism.
- Green tea (Camellia sinensis):Though not a traditional Ayurvedic plant the Camellia plant is indigenous to India. As India is now a large producer of green tea it would also be a great addition to the Indian diet as a replacement for all that deliciously sweet masala-chai.Green tea is a potent antioxidant whose slightly stimulating nature brings a lift to your energy. Green tea is made by lightly steaming the fresh leaves to inhibit enzymes that breakdown the important polyphenol compounds, known collectively as catechins. The water soluble properties of green tea have been shown to help reduce cholesterol, regulate weight, increase metabolism, correct gene function, reduce bacterial and viral overload as well as help absorb oxidative molecules that damage cells and encourage aging. It helps to regulate the body’s detoxification mechanisms in the liver. It is slightly bitter and astringent helping to remove lipid accumulations and stimulate the agni in medas-dhatu.
- Guggul (Commiphora mukul): Guggul is a pungent and acrid oleo-gum-resin that has a very special property appropriate for regulating medas-dhatu, and more specifically as a medhogna, a herb that reduces fatty accumulations. It increases the digestive fire in the lipid tissue and through its ‘scraping’ (lekhaniya) properties clears toxic ama that coats cells, tissues and organs to reduce insulin resistance, imbalanced cholesterol levels and weight accumulation. Its effect on metabolism has been verified by its ability to help with the conversion of T4 to the more active T3 and increasing iodine uptake in the thyroid, enhancing its homeostatic regulatory function. It is usually used after being ‘purified’ in a decoction of Triphala (amla, bibhitaki, haritaki) and then used as a powder at doses from 50-500mg 2-3x/day. It is combined with other remarkableregulating plants such as Kanchanara (Bauhinia variagata) that has potent effects on lymphatic congestion, glandular swellings and growths and with Trikatu and Triphala. These combinations incorporating guggul are so important to treatments that a large range of ‘guggul’ containing products have been developed in the Ayurvedic pharmacy including kancanara guggil, kaishore guggul, punarnava guggul, triphala guggul, yogaraj guggul and gokshuradi guggul, to name just a few.
- Karavela -Bitter Melon- (Momordica chiranta): A common food in Asia this member of the cucumber family helps to regulate blood sugar, reduce insulin resistance and reduce fats. It is extremely bitter but has a pungent effect after digestion (and therefore a metabolic enhancing action that does not aggravate vata) and is very useful for helping to regulate weight. It has a specific action, known as bhedaniya, which means to remove accumulations, and in Karavella’s case, specifically from the digestive, fat and water systems.
- Seaweed-arctic fresh- (Ascophyllum nodosum):Also known as Arctic wrack and Ascophyllum nodosum, this sea vegetable is renowned for its diverse range of essential macro and micro-nutrients that provide the nutritional foundation to health. Not a traditional plant used in Ayurveda, but a crucial part of every island-faring nation’s diet, seaweeds are in fact the most nutritious form of vegetation on the entire planet. They are full of nutrients that help facilitate the absorption of vital proteins and other nutrients. This includes 14 times more calcium, 200 times more iron, 8 times more magnesium and 100 times more iodine than any land vegetable. They are also filled with detoxifying polysaccharides that can help to bind with toxic heavy metals. There is a substantial body of research showing how seaweeds can improve the thyroid function, heart health, cancer and high blood pressure. The improved thyroid function can benefit metabolism and help reduce excess weight, fat and blood sugar control. Use at least 1g per day with food, and it makes an excellent salt replacement.