Chronic stress is a prevalent health concern in our modern lives. Modern medicine has linked stress to the development and exacerbation of many serious diseases such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, accelerated aging and many more. The idea that stress contributes to disease is not new at all. Ancient texts of Chinese Medicine frequently address the health risks of a high-stress, urban lifestyle. This idea is present in ancient Tibetan Medicine as well. For example, the famous 8th Century Buddhist scholar Vimalamitra developed a special herbal prescription, stating that it was intended for use by future generations, who will live increasingly stressful lifestyles and have many health challenges as a result.
Can we work with our diet to help reduce the harmful effects of chronic stress?
In recent years this question has received increased attention from modern medical researchers. We have a lot of exciting modern research regarding nutrition and health. Once again, this idea is well represented in the rich ancient medical traditions of our world. In this article we will present insight from Traditional Tibetan Medicine on how to relieve stress naturally using dietary principles.
Dietary treatments in Tibetan Medicine
In Tibetan Medicine we have four main methods of treatment.
- Herbal medicines
- External therapies
These four methods are how we approach treatment of any disease or health condition. In Tibetan Medicine practice, dietary changes are always the first recourse for treating and preventing disease. This is because dietary therapy is often very effective, with minimal risk of side effects, and also minimal expense for the patient. We have a saying in Tibetan Medicine, “Improper diet and lifestyle is the root of all disease”. So before we resort to strong interventions such as invasive therapies or potent herbal medicines, we try to manage the situation by correcting the diet.
To apply this method of treatment, we develop a personalized dietary regimen for each patient. We consider factors such as their elemental constitution, their signs and symptoms, their medical history, their age, the season and geographic location. Applying a personalized dietary plan can result in rapid improvement of many health conditions, prevention of diseases, and improvement in health overall. This is why the dietary treatment method is so useful and prominent in Traditional Tibetan Medicine. It is easily applicable, minimally invasive, and highly effective.
What causes stress, according to Tibetan Medicine theory?
In Traditional Tibetan Medicine, the physical, emotional and mental manifestations of stress are linked to imbalance of our air/wind element, known in Tibetan as loong. Loong governs many of our crucial life functions such as respiration, cardiac function, circulation, neurological activity, movement, sense perception and mental faculties. Stressful events and activities disturb our loong, causing imbalance. It is this imbalance of the loong that creates many harmful stress effects and symptoms.
The nature of air or loong is light, rough, cool and mobile. If you imagine the natural qualities of air, it is highly mobile, unstable, stimulating, reactive and easily agitated. The air moves as wind which either pushes, spreading things out, or it can pull and constrict things together.
Stressful activities tend to have similar effects on our physical, emotional, and mental state. For example, stress can “push us to our wits end” causing mental agitation and fatigue, or it can cause our muscles to constrict, “tying them in knots”. These are good examples of how the effects of stress directly mimic the natural qualities of the air element.
The classical texts of Tibetan Medicine list specific activities that directly contribute to loong imbalance
- bitter, light and rough diet and behavior in general
- intense/prolonged mental activity (especially on an empty stomach)
- intense/prolonged speech activity (especially on an empty stomach)
- intense/prolonged crying and grieving
- lack of food
- lack of sleep
- exposure to cold winds
- relying on non-nutritious foods
- loss of blood
- severe diarrhea
- severe vomiting
- sexual exhaustion
- blocking or forcing bodily functions
We can clearly see that many of these loong-disturbing behaviors are all too common facets of our modern lifestyle. The results are many of the common stress effects we suffer.
What are the signs and symptoms of disturbed loong?
The classical texts of Tibetan Medicine explain the typical manifestations of disturbed loong energy. Once again, the list of effects will be all too familiar to many of us.
Typical signs and symptoms of loong imbalance include:
- Feeling lightheaded, dizzy or “spaced-out”
- Frequent sighing
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Feeling lethargic
- Feeling irritable
- Desiring to move, fidgeting
- Stiffness of muscles and joints
- Desiring to stretch frequently
- Pain and tension in the head, temples, jaw and eyes
- Shifting pains in the lower back, hips, waist, joints and bones
- Stiffness and pain with movement
- Goosebumps, chills and shivering
- Painful pressure points which are sore to the touch
- Abdominal bloating and rumbling
- Nausea or dry heaving
- Symptoms are worse in the early evening or early morning
- Symptoms tend to feel better after a good meal
Managing stress through diet
So what dietary guidelines should we observe, to balance the loong and naturally mitigate stress effects? In the following sections we will present some important factors regarding stress and diet, as well as the pertinent dietary advice from the classical texts of Traditional Tibetan Medicine.
Stress has effects on our appetite and digestion
People often respond to stress by either losing their appetite or by “stress-eating”. Either of these stress responses can throw off our balanced diet and impact our health. Also, stress can inhibit our digestion causing various symptoms such as constipation or loose stool. How can we correct these stress effects? Tibetan Medicine offers us some helpful insight and advice.
When stress and anxiety disturb our loong, we may experience loss of appetite, “butterflies”, stomachaches, nausea or even vomiting. These symptoms, along with our busy schedules, make it difficult to properly nourish ourselves. This is especially concerning because, as we learned, over-working on an empty stomach is a cause for loong imbalance. Skipping meals is sure to add to our symptoms and exacerbate stress effects.
To settle our nervous stomach and stimulate our appetite, the first choice is to sip warm boiled water throughout the day. Ginger tea, or a pinch of Himalayan crystal salt in hot water is also recommended. A small serving of warm rice wine can be very helpful. Thin rice soup, known as congee, is very gentle on the stomach and can stimulate the appetite. One may prepare this with a little fresh butter or sesame oil, and a dash or two of cardamom, cumin, Himalayan salt and black pepper.
Do you crave rich, sweet foods when you are stressed out? If so, you are exhibiting a perfectly healthy stress response. It is our natural instinct to seek nutrient-dense calories when faced with daunting challenges. What is unhealthy is when this instinct prompts us to reach for refined sugars, processed food-products and other “junk foods”. We must make sure our “comfort foods” are nutritious, whole foods, to properly nourish us for our high-stress endeavors. So let us satisfy and reward ourselves with rich soups, root vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, nuts, grass-fed meats and organic dairy products.
It is common for stress to cause indigestion. When disturbed loong attacks the stomach, spleen, and intestines, we might suffer abdominal bloating, cramping, bouts of loose stools, or constipation. In the case of loose stool, one should rely on thin rice soup prepared with a little ginger and sea salt. Go light on the oil, and eat small portions to let the digestive tract rest a bit. One may sip ginger tea or boiled water. For constipation, rely on warm oily soups such as bone broth or meat soup. Apply a hot compress on the abdomen, while you relax and do your de-stress meditation. Good spices to soothe constipation include black pepper, black salt, ginger and cumin. It is also indicated to supplement with a little clarified butter, ¼ teaspoon, taken before or with meals.
Which foods are best to avoid in times of high stress?
According to the principles of Tibetan Medicine, there are certain types of food that are best to avoid during times of high stress. We established that stress tends to disturb the loong. Therefore any foods that increase or antagonize the loong should be avoided.
How can foods disturb our air element loong, and antagonize our harmful stress effects?
The air element has its qualities of light, rough and cool. Foods that share these same elemental qualities will increase the effects of imbalanced air element. So, any food that is light, rough and cool in nature will not help us soothe our loong, but will instead cause disturbance.
These types of foods that may contribute to loong imbalance and antagonize stress effects include:
- Foods that are light, rough, and cool, in general
- Foods that are less nutritious and hearty, in general
- Bitter tasting foods
- Raw or undercooked foods
- Burned foods
- Cold or frozen foods
- Fasting or under eating, in general
Which foods are ideal natural treatments for stress?
How do we choose foods to harmonize our loong and help relieve stress? To answer this question we must examine the elemental taste and nature of our foods. The nature of the loong is light, rough and cool. To balance these qualities we should rely on foods that are heavy, soft and warm. These air element-balancing foods have earth and water elemental qualities. They are heavy and oily in nature, sweet, sour and salty in taste. This simple dietary theory is based on balancing the elemental natures. It is remarkably effective, and forms the basis for our dietary advice for balancing the loong and naturally managing stress.
The traditional Tibetan Medicine texts list some specific foods that are fantastic for soothing the symptoms of disturbed loong. They all have in common the elemental tastes and natures as outlined above. These choices are believed to promote deep sleep, to nourish and restore the body, to help calm the emotions and clarify the mind.
The best foods to help balance the loong energy include:
- nettle tea
- bone broth
- fresh warm breads or noodles
- aged butter
- nut butters or seed oils
- aged meats
- fresh milk
In stressful times it is best to rely on nourishing, hearty foods. Avoid fasting or skipping meals. It is not the time for a cleanse, an all-salad or smoothie diet! Choose foods that are heavy, soft and warm. Rely on the elemental tastes of sweet, sour and salty. In stressful, hardworking times, please reward yourself with “comfort food”. But remember to rely on nourishing, healthy choices and avoid “junk foods” such as refined sugar and processed food products. By nourishing our body well, we can help balance our loong, and reduce the harmful effects of stress. With these Tibetan Medicine dietary principles in mind, let us reduce our stress naturally, and enjoy a rich serving of productivity and happiness!