Two people walk into a health clinic; one is an elderly man of 72. He is a tall and thin man with naturally fair skin, his hands and feet are often cold, at night his mind races and he suffers insomnia, he tends to have dry skin and his hair has always been thin and fine, his digestion is typically very sensitive. He’s at the Doctors office today for a skin outbreak that is itchy and red.
The other individual is in her early forties; she has what might be called a medium or athletic build, tends to have oilier skin, a strong appetite, a quick temper, and is hungry often. She is also at the doctor today for a rash that is red and itchy.
In a modern Western medical clinic and the doctor diagnoses both patients with eczema and prescribes both patients with the same steroid cream- a solution that does not address cause but causes the rash to go away, at least temporarily.
Stories like this are familiar to those of us in the west or, indeed, the westernized and modern world in general. But could there be more to the stories of these patients and why their symptoms may manifest as such?
In the ancient Indian system of healing and health, Ayurveda, the cases of these two patients would have been viewed with a level of attention, detail, and complexity not familiar to the the medical school of thought seen in the Western world.
Ayurveda heavily focused on the unique energetic, and constitutional states of patients, which holds a deep and ordered understanding of the stages of disease. How imbalance begins, progresses, as well as how and why these processes are uniquely shaped through the constitution of the individual, rather than in a generic one-size-fits-all way. Knowledge in Ayurveda is the key. This system has served entire communities of people and is still helping people today in the quest to understand and redirect the disease process.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at how:
The Core of Ayurvedic Medicine
The word Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit, meaning ‘The Science of Life.” It is one of the oldest healing systems of the world, having originated more than 5,000 years ago. The focus in this system is on maintaining the balance of one’s body through observing energies that allow health to blossom and be maintained. Also providing pathways for regaining that balance and internal grace when the systems are off-kilter. Health is achieved through suggestive methods such as diet, exercise, lifestyle routines, cleanses, herbs, emotional health, and other natural therapies such as massage.
To touch the heart of Ayurveda, we explore the concept of Doshas. In this system, all individuals can discover their dosha or dosha combination: a unique constitutional factor determined by the particular combination of the five elements naturally present in that person. The five elements recognized are air, earth, water, fire, and ether. A distinct combination of two adjacent elements creates each of the three major Doshas: Vatta, Pitta, and Kapha.
Vata combines air and ether with energies presenting as dry, light, clear, mobile, and cold.
Pitta combines fire and water, presenting its nature as oily, hot, spreading, and liquid.
Kapha combines earth and water and is expressed as heavy, slow, dense, and solid.
Each individual, through various methods of inquiry, can discover their dosha, which may be one of these but is often a combination of two. These doshas are also primary defining energy states existing in nature and all things. From the ayurvedic perspective, these three doshas animate processes of wellness, as well as disease and how diseases manifest and progress.
The 6 Ayurvedic Stages of Disease
The identification of ‘symptoms’ is very fine-tuned and sensitive. Mood disturbances, patterns of digestion, changes in diet and lifestyle, etc., are all taken into account as contributing factors that can disrupt homeostasis and open one’s body up to the disease process.
Ayurveda recognizes six stages of disease which flow one into the other when early signs are not met with proper attention and care. These stages are accumulation, provocation, spread, localization, manifestation, and differentiation or destruction.
Understanding each could not only tell us why the elderly gentleman we discussed previously and the younger female patient, though presenting with similar symptoms, may be experiencing a completely different disease process and may provide insight into our healthcare by honing in on the critical details.
Stage one: Accumulation (Sanchaya)
In stage one, one of the dosha energies becomes imbalanced, and this may or may not be the constitutional dosha of the individual. Toxins, bacteria, parasites, or other destructive elements begin to
accumulate in the body.
All dosha imbalances start in the digestive tracts. Vata imbalances begin in the colon, pitta in the small intestine, and Kapha in the stomach. In this stage, symptoms are mild and
Vata can experience signs such as gas, bloating, cold spells, constipation, or anxiety, and insomnia.
Pitta imbalance may translate to an excess of stomach acid, overheating, irritability, a bitter taste in the
mouth or loose, bad-smelling stools.
In Kapha imbalance, such signs can be seen as sluggish digestion,
lethargy, paleness, and a feeling of heaviness in the limbs or the head.
Stage two: Provocation (Prakopa)
If mild symptoms are ignored and left unaddressed (as many of us are apt to do!), the problem becomes aggravated and secondary, more severe symptoms may begin to appear- though still in the gastrointestinal tract. At this point, symptoms are still relatively easy to resolve.
Here Vata symptoms appear as body stiffness, tingling in the hands or feet, facial tension, sound sensitivity, cold food intolerance, and muscle pain that comes and goes.
Pitta symptoms now appear as a sour taste in the mouth, increased thirst, anger, burning during urination, and cravings of alcohol.
Increased Kapha symptoms include appetite loss, sticky skin, mental fog, oversleeping, white coating on the tongue, and feeling heavy.
Once a process of imbalance is reaching this stage, it is wise to take action as a movement to the third stage will require more effort and possibly the advice from a health professional.
Stage 3: Spread (Prasara)
Once symptoms are ignored or unsuccessfully addressed up to this point, the disease process can begin to spread. While it is still possible to redirect the process at this stage, it is now starting to spread outside the gastrointestinal tract. Food cravings and food reactions can change at this stage.
Vata symptoms tend to spread out to the skin, bones, ears, air passages, thighs, and pelvic region.
Pitta symptoms can go into the eyes, liver, brain, plasma, blood, heart, and spleen.
Kapha symptoms can spread to the lungs, joints, sinuses, pancreas, and tongue.
Stage Four: Localization (Sthana Smshraya)
In progressing from the third to the fourth stage of disease, all dosha imbalances react similarly to the disease process or imbalance seeks out a weak spot in the body and localizes therein. This weak spot is referred to as Khavaigunya or “defective space.” Once localized, the disease will begin disrupting cellular function, creating more serious issues. If the cells are healthy enough not to be influenced, the condition will turn back and go to the GI tract again. If the cells function is impaired, the localized disease will become evident.
Stage Five: Manifestation (Vyakti)
At the stage of manifestation, the localized spot is overwhelmed and often requires prompt medical attention. A Western diagnosis is typically given at this stage and generally not before. The disease can now also begin affecting other organs.
Stage Six: Differentiation or destruction (Bheda)
Unless the disease has been treated in some effective manner, it will now begin to destroy tissue and can start doing serious harm. Once in this stage, a disease is most challenging to treat.
Awareness, Sensitivity, Wellness
True practitioners of ayurvedic medicine may spend a lifetime mastering the finer details of diagnosis, treatment, and protocols in this complex yet intuitive system of medicine, and while working with a practitioner is always recommended. Merely exploring the concepts of this “Science of Life” or learning our dosha can give us enough insight into our natural constitution to open the inner dialogue.
Remaining well or regaining wellness when we become temporarily imbalanced could be as simple as acknowledging what doesn’t feel quite right or in what areas we aren’t ourselves. As with the story of the two patients that we looked at earlier, each of us is a unique combination of elements and energies, and though it can be easy to place a generic diagnosis on any condition, Ayurveda with its sensitive and in-depth exploration of the process of disease can provide a nuanced, individualized approach to living in a state of wellness.