By Nina Zolotow
What Denzel Washington is to bad guys, spices like cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamom are to inflammation: They can stop it dead in its tracks. Good thing, too, since chronic low levels of inflammation set the stage for a host of diseases, including arthritis, cancer, and heart disease. Medical researchers haven’t completely unraveled the causes of chronic low-level inflammation, but they’ve identified a number of culprits: excess weight, smoking, and diets high in processed foods, sugar, or saturated fats.
Anti-inflammatory spices, however, help fight this system-wide fire. Turmeric, for example, contains the powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compound curcumin, which studies have shown also slows the spread of breast and colon cancer cells and alleviates irritable bowel syndrome. Meanwhile, compounds in fennel and ginger block the action of an “inflammation trigger” molecule called NFkB, while cinnamon improves blood sugar, circulation, and cholesterol levels—as demonstrated most recently by research at the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center in Maryland. In light of this accumulating evidence, many doctors encourage patients to add these anti-inflammatory spices to their diets.
If you haven’t cooked much with these spices, though, incorporating them on a regular basis presents a challenge. You can’t simply scarf them straight from the rack (well, you could, but they would taste less than delicious). Additionally, certain spices might benefit you more than others. According to ayurvedic tradition, you gain the most health perks by eating spices suited specifically for your body type or dosha.
“Your dosha defines what’s in harmony with your nature and what will cause you to move out of balance and experience sickness and disease,” says Ram Rao, PhD, an ayurvedic physician and scientist at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, California. Although all three doshas exist in each of us, the path to optimal health will vary depending on which one predominates: vata, pitta, or kapha. Because vatas tend to be thin and dry and often feel cold, they need warm and moist spices (such as fresh ginger and cardamom) to balance themselves. They also should avoid hot and dry or cooling spices, such as cayenne pepper or cooling coriander. Pittas, on the other hand, usually lead an intense life and are overly warm. They need cool spices (for instance, fennel and fresh coriander) to achieve balance, and they should avoid hot, pungent spices, like chiles and black pepper. These hot spices benefit kaphas, however, whose digestion tends to be weak and who often are cool, slow, and moist. Kaphas (lucky them) need not avoid any particular spices.
Seem complicated? Not to worry. You don’t have to cook complex Indian cuisine or prepare separate meals for everyone in the family. In India, people traditionally take their daily dose of spices by making chai (spiced tea with milk) matched to their dosha. Easy and delicious, chai also delivers the health-promoting antioxidants, like flavonoids and polyphenols, found in black tea.
To get started, figure out your predominant dosha. Although an ayurvedic practitioner can best assess your body type, you can determine your basic constitution by using the table on page 45. Next follow the simple recipe also on page 45 to brew true Indian chai, using either the spice mixture that best suits your dosha or the mixture that balances all three types.
Determining Your Dosha
Everyone embodies a mix of the three body types codified by ayurvedic medicine, but one of them usually “defines” each of us. Use the following descriptions to determine which dosha fits you best.
This type tends to have a thin stature, become cold easily, and experience dry skin, dry eyes, and a dry colon. Vatas are often talkative, enthusiastic, creative, flexible, and energetic. When out of balance, they may lose weight, become constipated, and have weakened immune and nervous systems. They may also become easily confused and overwhelmed, have difficulty focusing or making decisions, and have trouble sleeping.
Prone to feeling overly warm, this type has moderate weight, good musculature, and somewhat oily skin. Pittas often communicate well and are highly focused, with intense dispositions. When out of balance, they tend toward diarrhea, infections, skin rashes, and weakness in the liver, spleen, and blood.
This type tends to be grounded, cool, and moist, with a stocky body build, oilier skin, and a more easygoing nature. Kaphas speak and move slowly and are firmly grounded. They don’t like change and are generally conservative. When out of balance, they tend toward depression and lethargy.
Spice It Up
Along with helping tame inflammation, spices and herbs alleviate a host of other ailments as well. According to ayurvedic physician Ram Rao, PhD, you can reap the following health benefits by adding these spices to your chai blends.
- Cardamom: stimulates the mind and brings clarity; relieves gas, bloating, heartburn, and headache; and enhances digestion
- Cinnamon: helps regulate blood sugar; lowers high blood pressure; reduces pain and fevers; and alleviates nausea, indigestion, gas, and heartburn
- Cloves: invigorates and restores energy; generates heat in the body; and helps protect against colds
- Black Pepper: has cleansing and antioxidant properties; improves circulation and the flow of oxygen to the brain; enhances digestion and appetite; and promotes the health of the joints and respiratory system
- Ginger: strengthens and heals the digestive and respiratory systems; fights off colds and flu; and relieves congestion, sore throat, body aches, and nausea
- Fennel: promotes digestion; dispels gas; and enhances the digestive fire
Brewing Your Chai
Choose spices according to your dosha.
- For Vatas: Fresh ginger paste, cardamom, and cinnamon
- For Pittas: Cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, and organic rose petals
- For Kaphas: Fresh ginger paste, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper Tridoshic Blend (balancing for all doshas): Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, saffron, fennel, and freshly grated ginger (pittas, omit ginger or halve the amount)
Crush the spices listed for your dosha either by mortar and pestle or with a spice grinder. Then mix equal proportions of the crushed spices to create your chai spice blend.
For one serving of chai, combine 3/4 cup cold water with 1 to 2 teaspoons spice mix in a small saucepan. Slowly bring mixture to a boil, stirring continuously. Then add 1/2 cup milk and 1 teaspoon black tea leaves, and bring to a boil again. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let the contents sit for 15 to 30 minutes. Strain the mixture, and pour in a cup. After the tea has cooled slightly, sweeten with fresh honey (pittas, use date sugar or organic whole cane sugar).