How Ayurveda Understands Autoimmune Disease

The prevalence and incidence of autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, celiac disease, and type 1 diabetes, is on the rise. While biomedicine continues to focus on the development of new pharmaceuticals, there is much already known within other holistic sciences about the body’s adaptive mechanisms. By focusing only on biochemical solutions and symptom management, it’s too easy to overlook the connections between digestion, metabolism, emotional resilience, societal habits, community resources, and the manifestation of disease.

In autoimmune conditions per Ayurveda, the body is responding to, and attempting to digest, an over-accumulated burden in the tissues. Ayurveda would term this cellular burden as ama, or microscopic undigested food particles that have not been broken down properly in the early stages of digestion and have begun expressing symptoms signaling their movement into one or more of the body’s deeper tissues. Add to this a disturbance in the levels of doshas, or bioenergetic forces and humours, circulating in the body and disease will manifest.

Digestion is More than Diet

While this pathology implies that the origin of autoimmune disease is gut-related, it does not mean the root cause of the problem is — and can be fixed by — diet alone. While food plays a prominent role, body full of accumulated toxins, or undigested material, can be proof of circulating thoughts, habits, emotions and beliefs that have hampered the body’s ability to digest whatever is put into it. We can throw pharmaceuticals at the problem to reduce symptoms, but to fully uproot autoimmune disease nothing short of a re-evaluation of one’s way of being in the world will suffice.

Lifestyle Disease is not a Stigma

The newly termed “lifestyle disease” runs parallel to the formerly socially stigmatic term “psychosomatic illness”. A combination of a solely mechanical view of the body and a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude of fierce individualism lends itself to discounting the many factors that support or deteriorate health, including the internal and external habits and resources that make healthy living an uphill battle.

Immunity and Metabolism are Interconnected with Mental Health

The oversimplified definition of autoimmune disease is that the body is attacking itself. In fact, the body is fighting against its own relationship to the world and its inability to metabolize all that living as a human being in the world entails. This is hardly pseudoscience: our stress response, environment, and diet all play a role in our metabolism and immunity and therefore the overall functioning of the body. Autoimmune disease cannot be properly addressed without also evaluating the sensory, mental, emotional experience of being embodied and how perception affects function.

In order to balance the equation — to decrease the factors affecting digestion and increase the capacity of the body to break down and efficiently utilize food — the whole human experience must be taken into account. After all, the mind is the most rapidly activated agent affecting the digestive capacity of the body. Adding the surrounding culture and environment, the lifestyle and habits of our ancestors, and our perception and reaction to the world around us, offers a more complete picture of the essential components in creating and sustaining health.

Individual Health is Public Health

Our ability to address autoimmune disease on a larger scale is inextricably linked to our societal ability to address the insecurities and demands of modern life, for both the individual and the collective. Access to internal resources in the form of tools for managing stress, building relationships, and opportunities for connection need to be offered in tandem with food, income, and physical security on a universal scale.

In creating an internal environment for optimal health, it is myopic to believe the external environment plays no role. To maintain an internal ecosystem capable of efficiently sustaining healthy humans requires an understanding and acceptance of the role of healthy digestion; to develop healthy digestion requires an evaluation of all factors affecting mental,physical, and emotional health. Ultimately, it requires us to reconsider how we live our individual lives as well as how we support each other.