Wholesome Use of Grains

Millet Plant

Can grain drain the brain?

The risk of gluten sensitivity and other complications from engineered grains pose a serious issue with the use of grains. Much is being said about the relationship between grains and neurological disorders. The results of studies on gluten sensitivities are compelling. A gluten-free diet has become a necessity. Engineered wheat is falling out of favour. Compared to heirloom varieties of einkorn wheat and emmer wheat, the additional glue and chromosomal aberrations have made the commercially available hybrid wheat provoke a massive health crisis. Interest has surged in the whole paradigm of co-evolution based on heirloom selection in harmony with microclimates. It is obvious that our genetic evolution is not able to keep up with the reengineering speed of these foods laced with gluten like the commercially available wheat. Ayurvedic nutritionists are valuing the heirloom strains and looking closer into the ancient wisdom of using millets to balance a meal which has the legume soup as the centrepiece. This is also because, once gluten sensitivity has been triggered, even low-gluten grains are being found to trigger this intolerance.

The intestines are unable to cope with gluten, causing an immune response and inflammation, which travels through the blood to other parts of the body. The brain is especially vulnerable. From the perspectives of Ayurveda and Yoga philosophy, a leaky gut implies also that the blood-brain barrier has been compromised. The small intestine and the brain are correlated in yoga practices as being similar and related evolutes. The small intestine are able to spread and float easily while the brain is restrained! The agni is seated in the small intestine and by various yoga and breathing techniques, this energy is transferred to the brain for more power and higher functional associative memory (smriti). This forms the core of the practices that raise the samāna-prāna from the solar plexus region to the brain via the sushumnā-nādi of the spinal cord using breath-hold techniques such as vāyu-bhaxana. The purpose of the well-known breath-hold practice of agnisāra-dhauti is to fine-tune the function of the jatharāgni or the digestive fire related to the small intestine.

Once gluten sensitivity and the attendant inflammation (excess of positive ions) have crossed a threshold, which varies from person to person, cognitive degradation and the onset of dementia can be triggered. Neurological case studies are now verifying the Ayurvedic wisdom warning about such excesses. Even though a direct causal relationship between memory loss and gluten is yet to be fully established, the correlation between memory recovery and abstinence from grains is enough to make us re-examine our dietary patterns. The crucial question is whether the gluten-free grains of today also provoke dementia, and this remains a question for further investigation.

However, Ayurveda is clear in its approach. Ayurveda deems the small intestine as the seat of agni and attaches great importance to the digestive fire jatharāgni. Ayurveda supports an alkaline diet and looks carefully into the post-digestive effect (vipāka) of edibles because it seeks to contain inflammation. Ayurveda has had a long history of delineating how the immune response (which brings about inflammation) can affect the brain. It recognizes inflammation (excess positive ions or agni tattwa) as the start of degenerative processes, and hence strongly recommends balancing the diet with soma-rich alkaline foods. If the small intestine as the seat of agni (fire principle) are properly maintained, the fogging of the brain can be avoided; such is the clarity of Ayurveda!

Balancing blood sugar levels

Check the carbs! We keep hearing about carbohydrates that readily break down into sugar and affect insulin sensitivity. We need to better understand the Ayurvedic emphasis on plant-based starch when addressing the concerns about sugar derived from carbohydrates. All starches are carbohydrates whereas not all carbohydrates are starches. Carbohydrates are usually classified into sugar, starch and cellulose, based on how many sugar molecules (saccharides) are bonded together. Starch is a polysaccharide typically comprised of a few hundred to a thousand glucose molecules. In contrast, simple sugars are monosaccharides or disaccharides. For example, honey belongs to the sugar group but is not a starch. As per this classification, milk also belongs to the sugar group (due to its lactose content). Most fruits belong to this sugar category of carbohydrates. The third category, cellulose, contains a chain of well over 1,000 glucose units and is the main source of indigestible carbohydrates in our diet. Ayurveda recommends plant-based cellulose as the primary source of high quality fibre for our regular diet. The soluble fibre is meant to assist the fermentation of our food. The insoluble part is meant to increase the bulk of the stool, maintain consistency and thus assist in continence. Yes, fibre plays an important role in balancing our gut feelings! Fibre helps reduce inflammation.

Ayurvedic plant-based meal planning has another dimension which is connected with the blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity. Let us consider the fact that wheat, maize, millet, rice and legumes (pulses) are full of starch. Both grains and legumes form an essential component of an Ayurvedic meal plan. In general, vegetables are low in starch. They are eaten fresh or lightly cooked to retain their vitamins and minerals in a high prānic state. The starch is broken down into glucose units by enzymes at a slower rate maintaining the bacteria in a balanced state during the digestive and post-digestive process. Ayurvedic meal planning prefers the starchy grains and legumes but also takes into account their fats and proteins. Starchy food has a low fat content but fats are typically supplemented by small amounts of ghee and coconut oil. The protein content of starchy food is also supplemented by the use of legumes. The fat and protein become somewhat balanced when grains and legumes are combined.

The glycemic index (GI) is a scale that ranks carbohydrates by how much they raise blood sugar levels. This index is based on the characteristics of the carbohydrates and how fast they can be broken down. GI is widely used as an indicator for comparing different types of food but it can be somewhat misleading because it is not based on the actual size of a serving. That’s why glycemic load (GL) is a more useful indicator. Thus, a watermelon has a high GI but a low GL. The GI is based on consuming five cups of watermelon whereas the GL is based on a typical serving of one cup. Watermelon consists of large quantities of water, as the name suggests, and therefore consuming a cupful of watermelon will not dramatically boost blood sugar levels. Basing a diet largely on counting the GI or GL is a rather restrictive way to make food choices, but if one does so, the difference between GI and GL needs to be taken into account along with prānic value.

Wheat scores high on the GI scale. Whether whole-wheat bread or white bread made from refined wheat flour, these types of bread are well known to produce a surge in blood glucose. The composition of the starch consumed is a vital factor in the impact that food has on blood sugar levels. Some components of starch such as amylose are slow to be digested into sugars and this is advantageous because it reduces the risk of spikes in blood sugar levels. Most starchy foods also contain cellulose. This increased fibre allows for a lower glycemic load and thus the blood sugar level is raised relatively slowly. Millets have a low glycemic load compared to most other grains but even the popular gluten-free replacement grains such as quinoa and amaranth have some glycemic load.

If blood sugar levels are raised quickly, the pancreas compensates with higher levels of insulin to reduce blood sugar. It also ushers in higher levels of triglycerides. Rapidly increasing or frequently high levels of insulin make the cells less receptive to insulin leading to the classical symptoms of insulin resistance. Obviously, this can lead to the onset of diabetes or obesity. Nevertheless, grains remain an essential part of our diets as they have been in the past.

Ayurveda considers estrogen to be the hormone of abundance and insulin to be the hormone of longevity. Ayurveda does not stop with high quality raw ingredients; it lays down the foundation for mixing and balancing these ingredients from nature into a healthy regular diet. While insulin resistance might be linked with memory loss and dementia, Ayurveda focuses on a diet that is designed for sharper memory and tries to balance the body constitution based on a deeper understanding of what is the immune response and the resultant inflammation. It is possible to control the blood sugar by way of Ayurvedic dietary choices. Whether most grains should be omitted due to modification, especially by stripping off the fibre, remains to be seen. Engineered starchy food, such as grains devoid of fibre, is rapidly converted into glucose when consumed, promptly raising the blood sugar level. Another post-digestive complication is that extra gluten in modern wheat can lead to severe gluten intolerance. Once the body has become sensitized to gluten, it might be difficult to reverse the effects of gluten sensitivity. Despite containing natural gluten, unmodified heirloom strains of wheat (such as einkorn) may not induce gluten intolerance and can be embraced due to other beneficial qualities of wheat.

Carbs are here to stay

Ayurveda recommends eating plant-based starch rich in fibre (and cellulose) in meals that also contain proteins and fats. Grains and legumes supplemented by seasonal vegetables with high prāna, cooked on a low heat to retain colour, provide the micronutrients and supply the necessary calorific energy. Ayurveda shows how grains combined with legumes meet the majority of our energy needs. Ayurvedic combinations of steamed fermented foods are designed to honour the communication between intestinal flora and the brain, and hence the gut microbes are nurtured to maintain friendly gut bacteria.

The Ayurvedic dosha composition of sapta-dhātu (the seven root vital tissues) constituting the physical body is as follows:

  1. chyle (rasa) – lymphatic fluid that boosts immunity and cleanses blood
  2. blood (rakta) – nourishes muscle and flesh, maintains the complexion, distributes nutrition
  3. muscle (mānsa) – braces the skeletal structure, nourishes fatty tissues, facilitates movement
  4. fat (meda) – adipose tissue that greases the limbs and eyes, stabilizes by nourishing bones
  5. bone (asthi) – maintains sturdiness of bodily structure and stature, nourishes the marrow
  6. marrow (majjā) – strengthens the bones, nourishes the seminal fluid
  7. seminal fluid (shukra/artava) – assimilates prānic energy and gives the capacity to procreate

Herein five out of the seven constituents are Kapha dominant. Blood is Pitta dominant whereas bone is Vāta dominant; the rest of the vital tissues are known to be Kapha dominant. Based on this analysis, over 70% of all vital tissues are deemed kaphaja or dominated by Kapha dosha. Furthermore, the total water content of the body is about the same percentage. These figures show why madhura-varga food (capable of providing energy by breaking down into sugar) made up of grains and carbohydrates that help sustain the Kapha constituency have been part of the vegetarian diet and are here to stay. Obviously, high fibre complex carbs are preferable.