Are your ‘drinks’ making you sick?
From traditional cooking to beautiful presentations and ‘satvik’ menus, you see food everywhere. Going by the volume of food-related content available, especially on social media, and the way it is being ogled at, it is not wrong to say that we are living in times of ‘food porn’. On one hand, it is almost assuming ‘addictive’ status. On the other, it has inspired people who care about ‘wellness and health’ to become more conscious of what they eat.To a naturopath, ‘food is medicine’. Given that Naturopathy is a completely drugless system of treatment, one of its key differentiations from Ayurveda, understanding the principles of food is essential. But this article is not about food. It is about drinks.
For the sake of this article, a drink is everything except plain water.
Question: Do you know the variety and cups/glasses of drinks you have on an average in each day? Most common answers were 1-3 varieties and an average of 2-4 cups/glasses. Tea, coffee, green/herbal teas, soda drinks, buttermilk/lassi and alcohol (yup, many people drink alcohol many times during the week) were the most common answers, followed by fresh vegetable or fruit juices.
Why do drinks matter?
Because they are food! Let us take the very definition of food: Anything that the human body can convert into energy is food. For this, your digestive system needs to act. Right from the saliva in your mouth to the enzymes in your stomach, the digestive machinery must be activated. While drinks bypass the process of mastication (though, in naturopathy, there is a great focus on sipping drinks), they do activate our digestive system and need to get absorbed and assimilated. This is why the only real definition of fasting in naturopathy is ‘water-only fast’. It is only then that the digestive machinery is fully rested. When we take other drinks, like juices, we do use our digestive machinery, though to a lighter degree, giving it some rest by decreasing its workload. So, if you drink 3-4 drinks in a day, like I do, it will have a bearing on your health, just like the solid food you are eating.
So, are we drinking our way to health or to disease?
The usual suspects: Tea and coffee
‘One will burn the stomach and eyes, the other, the nervous system and create anxiety.’ Guess which is tea and which coffee? This statement may seem extreme and even far-fetched, specially to many of us who are habitual drinkers of tea and coffee.
In 2018, an ayurvedic doctor told me to leave tea. She said it had burned the lining of my stomach and small intestine and all my deficiencies (anaemia, low Vitamin B12 and low B vitamins) were a result of severe malabsorption. I tried, not very hard then, to give up my 4-5 cups of daily tea that I had developed a long-standing habit of. My day started and, sometimes, ended with tea. ’Gives me a kick, makes me think better’, I would often say. So, the more the stress or bigger the problems to solve, the more the tea. I was proud of how well I knew my tea never realising what it was doing to my insides. The more I drank, the more I needed it. Stronger, more brewed, less milk. Classic signs of an addict.
What tea was to me, coffee is to others. Most habitual coffee folks cherish it; almost have a ritual around how it should be made, so that the perfect taste, texture, consistency can be obtained.Coffee is the same except that it hits the neurological system more than the digestive system. The use or abuse of coffee can go completely unnoticed. You may have never noticed the jitters in your nerves that coffee withdrawal causes or how badly it messes with your sleep cycles. Someone once gave me the example of a horse pulling a large load. The horse is tired, fatigued and needs rest. Instead, it keeps getting whipped to continue moving. The horse is our nervous system, which needs its daily rest and sleep. In the absence of these it can develop chronic fatigue. Coffee is the whip you are using to keep it going. It can continue like this for years. The horse getting more and more tired and the whip getting more and more strong, till one day the horse will collapse, and no whip will be effective!
Both these drinks are acidic, something that you can notice very obviously after a 4–6-week cleanse or detox. Post a proper detox, try having a cup, preferably on an empty stomach and see the effect. Tea will hit your stomach, eyes and head; coffee the nerves. Have them after 4-5 pm, and if you are post 40 years, see how it messes with your sleep and dreams. Evening coffee now keeps me awake for 16 hours, tea for about 8.
Just like alcohol, the potency, quantity, and regularity with which you drink your tea and coffee will determine their effect on your health. If these are occasional, never on an empty stomach, in small quantities, the body tolerates them okay. But if disease reversal is your aim, and acidity and sleep disturbances are already a constant, then both these drinks need to stop.
Sometimes we crave a hot drink after a big meal. This happens when the digestive fire is not strong enough to digest the meal. Rather than tea, drink hot (not lukewarm) water or even honey + lemon + a little rock salt in hot water.
If you are healthy and it is only preventive health you are seeking, then some amount of coffee and tea—in small quantities, never on an empty stomach—is okay. In some cases, black is preferred over a milky drink, but this is not a general rule. You can never convince any naturopath that black tea or black coffee is always good. I am one such naturopath. What it is, is habit forming and addictive. So yes, our bodies feel better when we consume the substance of our addiction. It does not mean the substance is good. The other thing to always remember about tea, coffee and alcohol is that all 3 are dehydrating. Just because these are in liquid form does not mean they hydrate. In fact, a lot of headaches are experienced after consuming these drinks.
My guide, who is currently 93 years old, loves to tell me that alcohol was originally invented for medicinal purposes. I don’t know if this is the truth, but my mind does hold memories from childhood when, occasionally, especially in very cold temperatures, we would be given a small teaspoon of brandy to help with runny noses and colds. It made me feel warm and fuzzy. Now as a naturopath I look at alcohol with a different lens. The lens of Ph or acidic-alkaline balance. No matter what your alcoholic beverage, wine, beer, rum, all are made by the process of fermentation to achieve the desired drink. The process of fermentation is by nature an acidic process, which is why if you taste any fermented food, minus additions, they are slightly sour. So, consumption of alcohol, like tea and coffee increases the acidity in your body. I am not here to tell you how much or which alcohol is okay, in what quantity or regularity, but only that from a naturopathy lens, diseases originate and thrive in an acidic medium. So, if the aim or desire is to get rid of disease, then alcohol consumption in any quantity or regularity is a NO. The other issue with alcohol is that it gets directly absorbed through the stomach, which is why too much alcohol can ruin the natural processes of the stomach (the term metabolic disease comes to mind) and damage the liver (the stomach’s friendly neighbour).
A recent article titled, “What Happens To Your Body When You Stop Drinking During The Week (bustle.com)”, is worth reading. To quote:
“Even for those who don’t get hungover or feel any lasting side effects, there’s still a recovery period the body has to go through. And it’s worth knowing about it. Taking a break from alcohol can help decrease inflammation, normalise electrolyte balance, and give your body a chance to regenerate, from the damage of drinking.”Bustle.com
I have spent considerable time over the last 2 years listening to female clients with menstrual difficulties and peri-menopausal issues. Everyone had a history of drinking alcohol and many agreed that their level of alcohol consumption, whether during the week or weekend (weekend and party binges were more common), had increased alongside their reproductive health symptoms. The deadliest of combination: hot-flashes and alcohol. These just don’t go together. Alcohol heats up the stomach. Just because it is taken cold or with ice does not mean it has a cooling effect once ingested. For those with hot flashes, try stopping alcohol for 3 months and notice the difference.
Kombucha and Kanji are two popular fermented drinks that a lot of folks now love to have. “The only place where fermentation should happen is inside the body”, an old naturopath who practices in Delhi would say. I am still getting my head around this one, given how many regional dishes in India are based on fermented foods. But here is what I have understood. The process of fermentation is acidic, hence fermented drinks and foods are slightly higher on the acidic than the alkaline scale. In the initial period of disease reversal, where a lot more alkalinity is desired, fermented food is not good, either as solids or liquids. In naturopathy, we don’t use either of the above-mentioned fermented drinks while detoxifying or cleansing the body. Also, in chronic bone issues, the sourness of fermented foods is not good.
The thing to consider in fermented foods and drinks is the process and duration of fermentation. Lightly fermented, which means that fermentation occurs within a few hours and without adding an agent, is better than those fermented over days, months or even years. Now use your grey cells and think how yogurt, kanji, kombucha and wine are made, and you will know which ones are easier on the body. The whole probiotic argument needs deeper understanding. So far, my understanding is that we need it in fairly small quantities (except in very chronic issues of the intestines) and it is best had in the winter season.
The other usual suspects: Dairy-based and soda drinks
North India loves bringing up their children on dairy-based foods and drinks. So, the love for dairy drinks, milk-based, and yogurt-based, develops early. Dairy is heavy, nourishing, so if you have a very active lifestyle and need to build a solid body or are a growing child, dairy serves a purpose. But let us admit that most of us reading this article today are sedentary, brain workers. It is not that naturopaths don’t recommend milk. We have a whole line of treatment called ‘milk kalp’ or ‘dugd kalp’ where we rebuild all body tissues only through milk. But this milk needs to be raw, unprocessed, and not cruelly extracted from an animal who has been subjected to hormones and antibiotic. The ‘hormonisation’ of milk is one of the chief reasons naturopathy has had to move away from dairy and now recommends seed-based or nut-based milks.
When detoxifying your body, you want to activate all channels of elimination: sweat, stool, urine and breath. Even authentic Ayurveda practitioners will tell you that milk and yogurt are acidic and block channels of the body (sarotas) and hence not good if elimination is an issue, which it is in most cases of disease, especially skin disease.
‘But ‘Lassi’ and ‘Chhaas’ are good’, I can hear you say. (‘Chhaas’ or as we commonly say, buttermilk is used in some cases.) Yogurt has a seasonal value (best in winters, least useful in rains) and is good in moderation. To have it in large quantities, believing that you are adding probiotics, can be an overkill.
Urban India does not need more information on the harmful effects of soda-based drinks. The Pepsis and Cokes of the world have had a good run in urban India and now, they invade our smaller towns and rural karana stores.
The better alternatives
I have written about fresh juices multiple times, so if you have the time, please read: Everything about Juices and Juices revisited. Juices are alkaline, nourish the body, especially where vitamin and mineral deficiencies exist, and do not cause acidity. Dr Goel, a naturopath who has only eaten raw food for 38-39 years, still starts his day with a glass of vegetable juice, knowing that even a healthy body like his needs the nourishment that juices provide.
One great challenge for nutrition today is deficiency in micro-nutrients, i.e., the vitamins and minerals that our body requires in small quantities. This is a consequence of the pollution in our environment (soil included), the adulteration caused by harmful chemical sprays and the over sterilization of our drinking water. It is alarming how many people, who consider themselves healthy, take regular supplements. Are supplements not synthetic medicines?
An old Vaid/Ayurvedic Doctor, who sits in a village in Shimla and whom I would often visit in my college days, would say, “Deficiencies of vitamins and minerals are as much a disease as the others.“ Fresh juices are a great antidote to micronutrient deficiencies. With some basic guidance and some correct knowledge, juices can be used to great advantage.
Honey, lemon water
One of the most undervalued, lemon water with some honey is an excellent drink. It gives instant nourishment, is a thirst quencher when had at room temperature and a laxative when had warm. For the habitual tea drinkers, lemon tea, made by boiling water first and then adding some tealeaves (don’t boil the tealeaves), and then adding some lemon and honey towards the end, is a far better option than dairy.
However, if you have acid reflux or acute acidity, then this is not the drink for you.
I haven’t yet fully understood the world of green tea, so I will refrain from writing much about it. Antioxidants can be found in most raw fruits and vegetables, so overdoing green teas because of their anti-oxidant value is a best of a stretch for me. The only two that I understand well are peppermint and chamomile. Potency matters, so mildly flavoured drinks don’t have much value. If constant headaches, especially migraines are your issue, then having warm peppermint tea, once or twice a day is useful. You can even make it fresh: boil 300 ml water, as the water starts boiling add 25-30 fresh mint leaves. Switch off the fire, cover with a lid and let it steep for 4-5 minutes. Strain and drink. Chamomile is used best as a tranquiliser, so have it 1 hour before going to bed, or more if sleep is an issue.
And then there are the herbal mixes we boil and drink as tea. These teas are usually mixes of tulsi/holy basil, ginger, cardamom, fennel, cinnamon, pepper, mulathi, etc. These are good and better than tea/coffee provided you have some understanding of your body type. Most of these herbs can cause heat in the body and hence best taken under an Ayurved’s advice.
To conclude, I would say
- Do not substitute food with drink. If you are hungry, eat. If you are thirsty, drink water. This is especially true for the habitual tea, coffee, alcohol drinkers, who may be killing their hunger with their drinks.
- If you are not naturally very hungry in the mornings, then stay on drinks. A seasonal vegetable juice, or a citrus (orange, sweet lime, grapefruit, kinu/malta) are easy choices.
- Herbal juices like aloe vera, tulsi, neem, moringa need some knowledge, so, take these under guidance.
- Always keep a gap between raw juices and cooked food, minimum 1 hour is most recommended.
- Dairy and dairy-based drinks, as well as nut-based milks (almond, cashews, peanuts) are both nourishing and heavy. Have them if your body needs them but use some judgement. Your ability to digest them and burn them off matters.
- A balanced body does not naturally crave juices post sunset. Avoid having raw juices at that time.