The World Health Organization states that, "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." [i]This definition is based on the Ayurvedic definition of health, which gives importance to the health of the mind and spirit as well as the body and senses. Depression is a common aliment that affects 1 out of 6 US adults sometime in their life.[ii] Know in Ayurveda as, Mano Avāsada or Viśada, depression affects a person’s thoughts, feeling, behavior and physical health.
The Ayurvedic View on Depression
Ayurveda does not separate physical disorders from mental disorders. Ayus, or life, consists of the mind, body, soul and senses. Therefore, we look to all these aspects as factors involved with the occurrence of depression.
In depression, the predominant doṣa of the mind is tamas. Tamas is heavy and dull. I often tell my clients that tamas is sloth-like. If someone has a lot of tamas they will feel unmotivated, tired and will be inactive. A tamasic mind is also heavy and dull so the person will have difficulty thinking and processing clearly. Some people’s minds become tamasic after having a rajasic mind. Rajas, is the opposite of tamas. It is kinetic energy, constant movement. People with overactive minds will first get anxious and then fall into depression from sheer exhaustion from constant anxiety. This is why some people can cycle between anxiety and depression.
Another aspect of the mind is sattva bala or mental strength. A person with a high sensitivity level can have a propensity for depression. They can be set off easily by triggers. A person with strong mental strength is more resilient to life’s ups and downs and tends to bounce back easily. Ayurveda encourages people to practice resilience by developing patience and courage.
Although it is associated with kapha disorders, depression can also be due to aggravated vata. Depression is a good example of vata being blocked by kapha, called avaranavata. Symptoms of both aggravated vata and depression are decreased energy, irregular appetite, poor concentration, anxiety leading to depression, difficulty sleeping and general pain. Aggravated vata can lead to depletion of ojas. Ojas is our body’s vitality, immunity, resilience and stability. We see kapha present in the symptoms of apathy, sluggishness, excessive sleep and weight gain often found in depression.
Balanced agni or digestive fire is necessary for all aspects of good health. 95% of serotonins are produced by friendly bacteria in the gut.[iii] Serotonins modulate mood and create feelings of reward. Stress kills microbes in the gut. This can become a vicious cycle, where one negative aspect feeds another. Evidence of this is that there are many GI disorders that have depression as a secondary disorder.
“You are what you eat.” This Ayurvedic perspective would include what we take in through our sensory organs. Essentially, we “eat” what we see, hear, taste and touch. Our sensory organs are our connection to the world. They determine how we see, experience and react to what is happening around us. Over, under, and misuse of the senses can lead to depression. For example, we live in a time of sensory overload: lots of screen time, social media, news, and needing to be reachable at all times via text or email. The sense organs become overloaded and the mind has to process non-stop information. This can lead to the mind becoming hyperactive. The mind and senses become exhausted and cannot see and process clearly. Thus, a person’s perception and thought process is distorted. This is one example of many. Similarly, physical trauma or excessive physical activity can affect the mind-body connection.
Types of Depression
There are two types of depression: A purely vata type and a vata-kapha type. Regardless of which type, all depression is due to a predominance of tamas and vata.
In treatment, it is necessary to know which type of depression is present as there are separate treatments for each type.
The signs and symptoms of vata type depression are insomnia, weight loss, loss of appetite, overactive mind, difficulty focusing, general aches and pain. Vataja type will cycle between anxiety and depression.
Here the signs and symptoms are lack of motivation or interest in activities, excessive sleep or fatigue, loss of appetite, weight gain, feeling helpless or hopeless, stomach cramps or nausea and isolation.
Ayurvedic Treatment of Mano Avāsada
Ayurvedic treatment, known as cikitsa has three facets which address the mind, body, soul and senses.
Diet for Depression
Foods need to be warm and easy to digest, pacify vata and kapha, and encourage easy elimination (anulomana). If the digestive fire is low or there is a lot of kapha, start off with dīpana pāchana, herbs to stimulate digestion and rekindle agni.
Eat: A vegetarian diet of soup and stews. If there is lots of vata aggravation with depletion the classic texts advise adding bone broth or goat meat. Prefer vegetables such as carrots, green beans, celery, zucchini, summer squash, pumpkin, eggplant, sweet potatoes and ash gourd. Eat grains such as, oats, basmati rice, red rice, wheat flatbreads, fresh sourdough bread and barley. Flavor well-cooked foods with warming spices. Drink warm, boiled milk with spices and use ghee in cooking.
Avoid: All brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, etc.), limit intake of leafy greens, raw apples, processed, frozen or leftover foods. Avoid sticky foods, such as yogurt, cheese, nut butters and chocolate. Be careful with food combining. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and recreational drugs.
Lifestyle for Depression
Kottakkal Products for Depression
[i] The World Health Organization, Definition of Health, 1948
[ii] Center for Disease Control, 2005
[iii] Banskota, Ghia & Khan. Serotonin in the Gut. Biochimie: 2019 Jun; 161:56-64.
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