Feeding Your Organs

What Are Food Cravings, Really?

“Please pass the salt. My kidneys need it.”

“Just what my intestines wanted, asparagus.”

“My thyroid can’t wait for some sweet potato!”

Does anyone say these things? When we think about food, it’s usually in terms of desire – an attempt to gratify the mind. In actuality, cravings indicate what our organs need. They are a product of the mind communicating with the gut. While modern medicine is just recognizing the brain-gut connection, Ayurveda has understood this (in less complicated terms) for thousands of years.

Simply put: when a person is in good health, cravings match their bodily needs and aim to satisfy certain organs. Yet, early in the disease process cravings can begin to steer in the wrong direction. As the gut senses something is awry, it becomes panicked and no longer communicates clearly with the brain. This leads to inappropriate food choices, anxiety, and other emotional changes, which only contribute to a further decline in health – mentally and physically.

“The difficulty is discerning which cravings are healthy and which are not… The simplest and most effective way to keep our cravings in check is to satisfy all organs of the body by eating a balanced diet.”

The difficulty is discerning which cravings are healthy and which are not. While understanding the difference between want and need can get deeply philosophical, we’ll keep it above water here. The simplest and most effective way to keep our cravings in check is to satisfy all organs of the body by eating a balanced diet.

Eating a balanced diet:

According to Ayurveda eating a balanced diet means a bit more than ingesting all food groups on a daily basis. It’s focused on the individual’s body-type (or Dosha) and uses proportions to meet their specific needs. It’s not complicated. Recommendations include “less of this” and “more of that.” For example some types should be eating more carbohydrates, while others should consume less dairy. The suggestion to eliminate certain foods is rare, except in severe cases (e.g., gluten intolerance). This is because elimination of food groups in the long-term is considered just as unhealthy as eating things in excess.

“It’s not complicated. Recommendations include ‘less of this’ and ‘more of that.’ The suggestion to eliminate certain foods is rare, except for in severe cases (e.g., gluten intolerance). This is because elimination in the long-term is considered just as unhealthy as eating things in excess.”

For instance, too much sugar creates a thriving environment for unhealthy bacteria, fungi, and parasites. This overworks the immune system, reducing an individual’s capacity to heal, which promotes the likelihood of disease. On the flip-side, not eating enough sugar (from healthy sources such as complex carbohydrates, root vegetables, and fruit) promotes the breakdown of all bodily tissues. This includes fat tissue, but can also lead to the degradation of muscle, nerve, bone, and vascular tissue. While loosing weight may be the desired effect, if done aggressively, it can lead to acid-reflux, dry mouth, anxiety, insomnia, malnourishment, osteoporosis, and impaired memory.

While it may be a buzz-kill to read this perspective on low carbohydrate diets, Ayurveda does recommend Kapha types limit their intake of sugar. Pitta and Vata types, however, easily process carbohydrates and tend to suffer consequences when attempting to eliminate them. For example, Pitta types may overheat leading to excess production of oil and sweat, causing acne and other skin issues. Vata types may notice an increase in anxiety, sleeping difficulties, and/or irritable bowels.

The Six Tastes:

Rather than having food groups, Ayurveda divides food into six tastes. Each taste creates a different physiological (and emotional) reaction within the body. While all organs of the digestive system work together, each taste affects a primary organ, or group of organs. For example, ingesting something salty stimulates the kidneys, while spicy foods stimulate the heart and stomach.

Eating too little or too much of a particular taste can weaken or harm the associated organ(s), causing dysfunction of the system as a whole. Keep in mind: each Dosha is biologically prone to having issues with certain organs, leading to cravings for the associated tastes when imbalanced. These desires are not healthy and should be satisfied less, while other tastes should be enjoyed more.

Below is a summary of each taste, its physiological and emotional effects, and related Dosha and organ(s):

  • Aggravates Pitta energy
  • Balances Vata energy
  • Associated organs: kidneys

Salt is essential to the body. Our muscles, heart, blood vessels, and nerves need sodium to function properly. Salt, in the right quantity, is hydrating to the digestive organs and all bodily tissues; it helps to balance electrolytes, particularly for those sweating all day in the heat, or pushing themselves athletically. It’s a mild antispasmodic, which helps to relieve gas and abdominal cramping. Salt can also be used as a laxative when needed.

Too little salt in the diet may lead to nausea, low blood pressure, weakened muscles, constipation, and/or mental dullness. Salt enhances the flavor of food, along with our creativity, interest, and spirit. Without enough salt, the mind becomes depressed and our bodies feel lethargic.

Sodium attracts water and, if eaten in excess, can cause edema and swelling. As this causes the vascular and lymphatic systems to work harder, blood pressure can increase leading to hypertension and other heart issues. Too much salt can lead to hyperacidity causing acid reflux and stomach ulcers. The kidneys become especially overworked when filtering excess salt from the body, which may lead to kidney stones, but also contributes to osteoporosis.

  • Aggravates Pitta energy
  • Balances Kapha energy
  • Associated organs: stomach and heart

Pungent foods are spicy, heating, and intense in flavor. The pungent taste is found in onions, spicy peppers (chilis, cayenne, etc.), ginger, black pepper, mustard, horseradish, and garlic. When eaten in moderation these foods promote metabolism and digestion, increase blood circulation, and help to clear the nose, ears, and throat.

Overuse of the pungent flavor may result in diarrhea, heartburn, and aggravation of the stomach and intestinal lining. The heating effect can increase sweat production and inflammation, which further exacerbates skin issues such as heat rash and acne. Aggression, hostility, and irritability can brew in the mind with an overconsumption of this taste.

In appropriate doses, pungent foods help to dilate the blood vessels and flush mucosal secretions. Provided the digestive system is healthy, they are beneficial to ingest when suffering chest colds and/or sinus infections. By increasing circulation, this taste promotes filtration of the blood, which aids the immune system response. Psychologically (as the body is equip to fight off infection) pungent foods offer us bravery, alertness, and the desire to explore.

  • Aggravates Kapha energy
  • Balances Pitta and Vata energies
  • Associated organs: thyroid and upper lungs

The sweet taste is found in foods that naturally contain sugar, such as fruit, root vegetables (particularly yams, pumpkin, and winter squashes), maple syrup, honey, and all carbohydrates (e.g., rice, quinoa, wheat, farro, amaranth, etc.) Through the digestive process, sugar is converted into glucose, which is the only immediate source of fuel for the body. The brain and nervous system thrive especially on glucose to function properly.

In excess, the sweet taste slows metabolic activity and circulation leading to weight gain, fatigue, edema, inflammation, and depression. In the blood, sugar promotes the growth of unhealthy bacteria, fungi, and parasites leading to a weakened immune system. With overconsumption of sugar in the long-term, diabetes can develop.

The sweet taste has many benefits when eaten in moderation. As an essential cellular building block, it promotes the healthy growth of all bodily tissues – including connections within the brain. Complex carbohydrates are linked to improving sleep disturbances and mood disorders. Sweet foods clear complexion, boost hair and nail growth, and aid in overall nutrient absorption. In the mind, the sweet taste makes us feel nurtured, soothed, and grounded.

  • Aggravates Kapha energy
  • Balances Vata energy
  • Associated organs: lungs

The sour taste can be found in fermented foods, such as sour kraut, yogurt, pickles, and beer. Dairy (milk and cheese) is also in this category. Ayurveda does not recommend we ingest hard, aged cheese as it’s heavy and difficult to digest with a high bacterial content. Fresh, young cheeses such as mozzarella, cheese curds, and cottage cheese contain healthier bacteria and move through the digestive tract more easily.

The sour taste generally increases secretions through out the body. In excess, it causes an overproduction of mucus and phlegm, worsening colds, coughs, and congestion. In smaller doses, sour foods have a mild laxative effect which can relieve constipation. In larger doses, this taste can lead to diarrhea. Too much sour in the body is toxic and heating to the blood (due to bacterial byproducts), which can lead to boils, psoriasis, eczema, skin rashes, and acne.

Fruits that are sour, such as lemon, have a milder effect within the body. Lemon is stimulating to the senses and increases salivation, hence its role as a common aperitif. Small doses of vitamin C (typically from sour fruits) and/or apple cider vinegar, can help clear congestion and invigorate the immune system; larger doses have the opposite effect and could be toxic to the liver. In the mind, the sour taste increases the attention span and promotes healthy discernment.

  • Aggravates Vata energy
  • Balances Kapha and Pitta energies
  • Associated organs: pancreas, liver, spleen

Bitter foods are most lacking in the American diet. Coffee, turmeric, aloe, dark chocolate or cocoa, dandelion root, endive, dark salad greens (made bitter from high calcium content), tahini, and fenugreek contain this taste. These foods are cleansing to the blood thereby taking stress off the liver and spleen. They help reduce fevers, inflammation, and blood sugar. While coffee and cocoa are the most common (and glorified!) bitters in our society – the addition of sugar and cream weakens their pharmacological effects.

Bitter foods are drying to the digestive tract and bodily tissues. In excess, this can lead to dry skin, dandruff, constipation, poor absorption, emaciation, and osteoporosis. Cooking bitter greens will improve their moisture content. According to Ayurveda this taste aids in spiritual growth.

Bitter foods should be used in moderation as they are powerful anti-inflammatories and antibiotics. Penicillin for example is extremely bitter, and although effective in clearing bacteria, can lead to a harmful imbalance of the gut microbiome. Similarly, turmeric (or curcumin) is becoming more widely accepted in medicine to reduce joint pain and inflammation. However, care should be taken to find an appropriate dose as the drying effect can be harmful to some.

  • Aggravates Vata energy
  • Balances Kapha and Pitta energies
  • Associated organ: colon

The astringent taste includes most raw vegetables, legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, and tofu), okra, starches (like arrowroot, white potatoes, and kudzu root), and some fruit (such as unripe bananas or plantains, peaches, cranberries, and pomegranate seeds). These seemingly different foods are categorized together due to their ability to dry and bind. Most of these foods are useful in correcting loose stools and removing unhealthy fats from the blood.

In excess, astringent foods can dry the mouth, throat, and intestines. The latter can lead to abdominal cramping, spasms, and severe constipation. In the mind, too much of this taste can lead to volatility, fear, rigidity, and insomnia.

Astringent foods are rich in magnesium and potassium which are vital for sleep regulation, vascular health, and nerve function. A diet deficient in these minerals is linked to neurovascular issues such as Bell’s palsy, restless leg syndrome, and stroke. As Vata types can easily become aggravated by the dry quality of these foods (but need them nutritionally), its best to eat ripe peaches and bananas, replace dry starches with sweet starches (such as yams and butternut squash), and be sure to cook vegetables rather than eating them raw.

In Conclusion:

Once again, it’s all about balance! Our culture is fixated on extremes when approaching nutrition. We believe that “more is better” or elimination of certain foods is the key to health.

In Ayurveda, all food is consumed in moderation and serves a medicinal purpose. By learning this practice, we begin to crave the food we need, rather than the food we want. This heals the brain-gut connection making health & wellness inevitable.

Learn how the changing seasons can affect your body’s needs. Then, discover your specific Dosha profile to help navigate which food choices are best for you.

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