Caffeine and Your Ayurveda Practice
by Alakananda Devi (Alakananda Ma), M.B., B.S. (Lond.)
Caffeine is a socially acceptable addiction with an array of health hazards. How we relate to caffeine in Ayurvedic practice ultimately depends upon the kind of success we want to experience. If we want to succeed in terms of building a large practice and being popular, we would do well to turn a blind eye to caffeine usage. However, if we want to succeed in terms of rapid and full recovery on the part of our clients, we will have to address the caffeine issue.
A stimulant, astringent and euphoriant, coffee provokes all three doshas. Highly addictive, it is a digestive irritant and adrenal stimulant. Coffee is implicated in the etiology of gastric ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation, adrenal exhaustion, chronic fatigue, insomnia, panic disorder and fibrocystic breast disease. In chronic constipation, coffee acts by over stimulating the gastro-colic reflex. Once over-stimulated, the reflex loses its normal ability to be initiated by a morning glass of water and the individual becomes dependent upon coffee to pass stool.
As the above list of conditions implies, coffee is a potent factor in provoking vata. Vata or vata-pitta individuals run on adrenal energy, a tendency coffee serves to exacerbate. Carefully explain to such clients that getting energy from coffee is exactly like getting money from a credit card. Coffee pulls on the reserve energy of the kidneys and adrenals, putting the body deeper into biological debt. The more exhausted the client becomes, the more desperately they turn to coffee as a stimulant. The first step with a vata coffee addict is to help them understand that rest is the best medicine for exhaustion.
Brahmi tea is the best coffee substitute for vata, calming anxiety, panic disorder and insomnia as well as helping to heal incipient peptic ulcer. Adrenally exhausted vatas can take Stress Ease or a custom formula containing Ashwagandha and Vidari. A glass of Triphala tea upon awakening in the morning may help to restore the integrity of the gastro-colic reflex, tone the colon and overcome chronic constipation.
Pitta coffee drinkers become increasingly driven and irritable, with a tendency to hypertension, peptic ulcers and excess tejas. One pitta-provoked engineer described his job as a supervisor as “Being the guy who wanders around with a coffee mug poking his nose into things.” As a result, he was suffering with peptic ulcers. We suggested filling the coffee mug with Brahmi tea; a strategy that helped heal his ulcers. As Dr. Lad often says, the American diet is deficient in the bitter taste. The bitterness of coffee is part of its lure for pitta. A good morning coffee substitute for pitta is “coriander coffee”. Coriander seeds are roasted, ground and made into a beverage. The roasting provides a coffee-like bitterness while the coriander seeds are pitta-calming, digestant and soothing to the urinary system.
Kapha’s sluggishness makes her or him an easy target for coffee addiction. A cup of coffee and a sugary donut is a typical way for kapha to seek morning energy. Coffee affects kapha with depression, lethargy, obesity and increased tendency to fibrocystic breast disease. Ginger tea, made from organic ginger root powder is the best morning beverage alternative for kapha, providing a natural stimulation to the system. Exercise, such as sun salutations or a morning walk, will stimulate the circulation more effectively and safely than coffee. Bitter herbs such as Mahasudarshan will meet kapha’s need for something bitter in the morning.
Coffee is a physically addictive substance that should not be stopped cold turkey. Water or decaffeinated coffee can be used to dilute the normal quota of coffee. If one quarter part decaffeinated coffee is added during the first week, one half during the second week and three quarter parts during the third week, coffee can be safely withdrawn within a month.
Black and Green Tea
Although considerably less dangerous than coffee, black and green teas are still a significant source of caffeine, with similar impacts in terms of insomnia, panic disorder, peptic ulcers and chronic constipation. In general, your client will heal less quickly when consuming something that is doshically provoking at the same time that you are giving herbs to calm their doshas. Whereas coffee is a perverted source of the bitter taste, tea offers the astringent taste and must preferably be replaced with another astringent beverage. Tulsi tea is an ideal beverage for Vata and kapha, suitable for pitta from September through May or June. Tulsi provides the needed astringent taste and is an excellent adaptogen, helping reduce stress levels. Brahmi, a good source of the bitter and astringent tastes, is another excellent beverage that can be used year-round. pitta’s summer ice teas can be replaced with hibiscus sun tea for a cooling astringent drink that helps overcome summer pitta imbalances such as menorrhagia and cystitis.
The hype around green tea, a highly successful marketing ploy, seduces many people into consuming this doshically provoking beverage in search of antioxidants. Even coffee now carries a similar health claim. The reality is that a cup of green tea contains clinically insignificant amounts of antioxidants and clinically significant amounts of caffeine. As many as ten cups of green tea a day may be needed to obtain genuine health benefits, and even then, the health claims are not proven to the satisfaction of either the FDA or the medical establishment. Those who wish to use Ayurveda to maintain health should be encouraged to utilize the anti-cancer and antioxidant effects of organic turmeric and tulsi, well documented by scientific research in India. Note that ordinary turmeric powder from the Indian grocery store will be far less effective that high quality organic turmeric.
Due to the physically addicting nature of caffeine, tea withdrawal should follow the same pattern as coffee withdrawal. Especial care is needed with clients who have migraine headaches, as the theophylline in tea may have been playing a major role in controlling their headaches.
And what of chocolate, aptly named as theobroma, the beverage of the gods? Chocolate contains far less caffeine and more theophylline and theobromine than tea or coffee. Health claims abound for chocolate— and how we wish that they were all true! Dark chocolate does contain antioxidants, phenylethylamines that counteract depression and procyanidins that reduce inflammation. At the same time, chocolate is a source of sugar and allergens as well as indigestible fats that may lead to colon cancer and macular degeneration. Chocolate’s serotonin-increasing and anti-depressant effects can of course be substituted by Brahmi or Bacopa.
Vata clients, especially those that are adrenally exhausted, may be addicted to chocolate and highly sensitive to its caffeine component. For many such individuals, it is wisest to avoid chocolate completely. Sesame Halvah Balls, a recipe described in Amadea Morningstar’s Ayurvedic Cooking for Westerners, are an alternative sweet treat that is rejuvenative and vata-soothing.
Any attempt to get pitta to give up chocolate is doomed to failure. Encourage your pitta clients to use a brand of chocolate that does not contain sugar or artificial vanillin, to take only dark chocolate—or better still, cocoa beverage with cardamom— and to brush their teeth whenever they consume sweets. Pitta people are logical and idealistic and will soon shy away from sugary supermarket chocolate once that are made aware that it is manufactured using child slave labor.
Pitta could reduce chocolate from a daily habit to a weekly or occasional one, particularly when weight or fat consumption is an issue. Around four in the afternoon, as the body’s cortisol cycle signals that it is time to rest from the day’s activities, pitta desperately searches for a sweet energizing pick-me-up so that they can continue with hours more of meetings and activities. The habit of consuming a candy bar or brownie at this time can best be replaced by a spoonful of Chyavanprash.
Kapha has the greatest difficulty with sweets and fats, yet craves chocolate for its combination of the sweet and bitter tastes as well as for its stimulant effect. A morning half teaspoon of Mahasudarshan in honey provides the needed bitter taste as well as helping to control sweet cravings. Sweet Ease can also be used to help kapha overcome addiction to chocolate and other sweets.
Coffee, tea and chocolate are deeply embedded in our culture and carry a wide range of social and environmental hazards as well as their impact on individual health. Overcoming caffeine addiction may seem to take the fun out of life, yet, when not part of a daily addictive pattern, these substances can be used wisely and appropriately. Once a client experiences the calmer and clearer state of mind that comes from a lifestyle that is not based on stimulants, they soon realize how much happier, healthier and more genuinely productive they feel. Fortunately, Ayurveda offers us beverages and treats that meet the same need for a taste of sweetness or a moment of relaxation with a cup of tea, while balancing our doshas and rejuvenating body and mind.
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Alakananda Devi (Alakananda Ma) is director of Alandi Ayurvedic Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and principal teacher of Alandi School of Ayurveda, a traditional ayurvedic school and apprenticeship program. She can be reached at 303-786-7437 or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.