Honoring These 4 Natural Cycles Is the Secret to a Successful Diet
Raw food. Plant food. Animal food. Liquid food. No food. Our diets are shaped in so many ways by culture, celebrities, nutrition fads, economics, and personal preference that settling on a diet that works for you can feel like nothing short of a miracle.
Ayurveda is no exception—even while its ancient roots offer centuries of proof of its efficacy, finding the right Ayurvedic diet for you also requires a bit of trial and error, and usually the help of a trained professional.
I distinctly remember the newfound joy I felt when the vata-balancing diet recommended by my first practitioner finally felt like second nature.
After years of struggling with different strategies to mitigate my chronic indigestion—including some self-concocted experiments—the focus on cooked foods, warming spices, and more grounding, unctuous foods took some time to integrate.
But once I did, I felt like I had discovered a new superpower. I could finally feed myself and expect reliable results.
That is, until a few months went by, and I found myself not at all interested in the foods and practices I had come to understand as my perfect diet. And not only was I not interested in them, but once again I wasn’t feeling so great.
Had Ayurveda failed me, like all the other diets I’d tried? Would I need to start all over again with a new system, a new language, and a new way of thinking about food?
Thankfully, the answer to that question—which I sent in a lengthy, perhaps overly emotional email to my practitioner—was a clear no. The changes I was noticing in how I felt toward food weren’t abnormal; in fact, they were just the opposite.
Having begun my new diet at the end of the summer, my vata-balancing protocols were like a wind in my sails, helping me coast through vata season. But once spring rolled around, and with it the arrival of kapha season, the things I had gotten used to were no longer as relevant for me.
I had done such a good job balancing vata, in fact, that I was ready to address the seasonal change occurring around me and start incorporating foods, herbs, and other practices that were, it turns out, mostly the opposite of the grounding, heavy, and sweet things I’d come to love.
Nature is Dynamic—Your Diet Should Be Too
Over my years studying Ayurveda, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the dynamic nature of this science when it comes to diet and lifestyle.
Unlike other trendy, even “science-based” diets that promise a one-and-done division of “good foods” and “bad foods” to adhere to for a lifetime, Ayurveda makes no such distinction.
In fact, Ayurveda tells us explicitly that all food can be medicine or poison—depending on the person eating it and when, how, and how much they’re eating.
It’s important to keep this in mind at any stage of your journey with Ayurveda. At the beginning, it sets the stage for realistic expectations so you don’t wind up like me—confused and upset when changes need to happen despite following the rules perfectly.
Over time, it becomes a natural part of our expanding self-awareness to watch ourselves change and gain familiarity with a more diverse Ayurvedic toolkit.
Still, it’s always a little alarming when you wake up one day and something you’ve been feeling great about—a food or healthy habit—no longer feels right.
Stepping back and remembering the many interconnected cycles of nature is one way of feeling reassured that your change is normal, valid, and allowed. In fact, a willingness to shift and change is necessary for your health.
4 Natural Cycles that Influence a Healthy Diet
The Earth Cycle
One of the main cycles that affect our food choices is that of the seasons and general climate—the state of the five elements around us that inevitably interact with the elements within us.
Ayurveda explains that each season of the year aligns with one of the doshas—vata in late fall and early winter, kapha in late winter and spring, and pitta in summer and early fall. Over the course of that season, the qualities of that dosha will naturally increase.
A healthy person, with their personal doshas in relative balance, will still feel the effects of the rise and fall of the doshas around them and hence need to adopt dosha-balancing diets for that season. These are the dietary guidelines we often find on Ayurvedic food lists.
These lists acknowledge the general qualities of the season’s dosha and suggest foods that balance the dosha with opposite qualities.
For example, watermelon is a natural antidote to pitta dosha, and more abundant in the summertime or warmer climates. You probably don’t have a taste for watermelon in the dead of winter and it’s likely very hard to find at the store—it also happens to be exactly the opposite of what you need to stay healthy during the winter season.
If you live in a temperate climate, you might experience the seasons and associated doshas in a somewhat predictable, rhythmic way.
But if you live in a place with a more consistent climate—where it’s always hot and humid, or always cool and rainy, for instance—your seasons might look different. In this case, adjusting your diet will need to be a little more personalized to the doshas present in the environment where you are.
The same is true if you move, or even go on vacation, to a place with a radically different climate from your home. You might find what normally works for you just doesn’t cut it.
Similarly, as the weather of the entire planet continues to shift with climate change, our neat and tidy dosha calendars are undergoing constant flux.
The Life Cycle
Continuing with the theme that we are part of nature and her cycles, our bodies have their own “seasons” that we experience as stages of life. Just like the climate and weather, different periods of our lives correspond with different doshas:
- Kapha dominates childhood.
- Pitta fires things up around puberty and lasts through middle-age.
- Vata arrives in our wisdom years and lasts through the end of life.
We can see the properties of the doshas in each stage of life—pudgy, soft babies, temperamental and rebellious teens, and frailer elderly folks.
This is especially true during adolescence, since the surge of pitta dosha often aligns with an increase in the robustness of agni, or the digestive fire. There’s truth behind the cliche of the insatiable teenager who can eat anything and everything any time of day and still be healthy!
For some with more pitta in their constitution, that strong agni might last a little longer into their adulthood. For others, though, digestive issues might arise if they try to live off college food once they get into their later twenties and thirties.
A similar shift happens when vata comes to dominate later in life. With its airy, ethereal nature, vata often results in diminished or irregular agni, and a simultaneous need for extra nourishment to buffer the depleting tendencies of vata.
Realizing that what and how you ate for decades of your life needs to change can be a jarring part of the aging process. But heeding those new needs of your body is one way of practicing the bigger act of acceptance and fluidity that provides resilience against aging overall.
As such, it’s possible to maintain the essence of a youthful glow and energy from when you were a child, a teenager, and a mature adult—which is the result of staying open-minded about what and how to eat.
The Moon Cycle
Even more micro than the seasons and life stages are the cycles in energy and hormones that can align with the phases of the moon. Throughout the roughly 28-day lunar cycle, the gravitational pull of the moon on the earth’s bodies of water also pull on the water in our bodies, resulting in changes in mood, focus, and digestion.
Generally speaking, the menstrual cycle moves through the doshas as well, which can help guide our food choices in order to maintain a state of balance:
Vata: 1–2 days before menstruation through the end of bleeding; also connected to the new moon.
Kapha: End of bleeding to ovulation; also connected to the waxing moon.
Pitta: Ovulation through start of bleeding; also connected to the full moon and waning moon.
For those who menstruate, your vikriti (present imbalances) and prakriti (constitution) will affect how much you feel the intensity of these doshas in the form of menstrual-related imbalances, such as mood swings or food cravings.
In addition to governing the monthly menstrual cycle, female reproductive hormones fluctuate for other reasons—including pregnancy and breastfeeding, menopause, and as a result of stress.
Noticing the ways the doshas show up in these contexts can also guide food choices that might be out of the norm. Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, for instance, will likely need more nutrition to meet the high energy demands of growing and feeding another life.
Those experiencing hot flashes or dryness during menopause will benefit from diets that balance pitta and vata, respectively.
For example, it’s a proven fact that more crimes take place during the full moon1—the pitta phase—so if you find yourself feeling more aggression or conflict even in small, everyday interactions, a pitta-balancing diet might help!
The Heart Cycle
Last but certainly not least, one of the most important cycles to be aware of is that of our individual nature—the cycle governed by the life-giving rhythm of our heart. The heart sustains our bodies and affords us the deepest, most authentic source of wisdom.
Moving to a new house, changing jobs, or experiencing the loss of a loved one might usher in a season of vata in your microcosm of a universe. Likewise, a period of depression or stagnation in energy might result in more kapha-based qualities in body and mind.
Or, you might simply have a change in your values and beliefs around food, overcome an illness or sensitivity that restricted your diet, or be introduced to a new cuisine that changes the qualities of the foods you tend to eat regularly.
Following the cues of these personal “seasons” will result in a change in what we eat, whether it’s for a day or for a year.
This practice ultimately helps stave off one of the causes of disease that Ayurveda describes: prajnaparadha, or crimes against wisdom, happens when we know something to be harmful to us (that ice cream after dinner gives us indigestion, or a second glass of wine gives us acid reflux) but we do it anyway.
In this way, the most important food—and medicine—we could ever consume, in any season of life, is that which feeds our heart and our ability to honor its needs: LOVE.