Kapha dosha is made of water and earth. Characteristics include darkness, stillness, cold and damp – in other words our winter! Whilst it is necessary to have a season where things are given time to incubate, a Kapha imbalance can lead to feelings of heaviness, apathy, dullness and even depression. A golden rule of Ayurveda is that like increases like so, whilst it’s tempting to go for foods that are sweet (like the water element) or heavy (like the earth element), they will only increase the Kapha dosha imbalance.
The first step to address this is to become more aware of the messages that the body is giving us, alerting us to this imbalance. Listening to our second brain, otherwise known as the digestive system, can tell us a lot. The gut is home not just to the microbiome but also to the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is a complex system of about 100 million nerves found in the gut lining. This “second brain” arises from the same tissues as our central nervous system (CNS) during foetal development. Therefore, it has many structural and chemical parallels to the brain. Via neurotransmitters such as serotonin, and electrical impulses, both of our brains communicate back and forth about the state of the body and mind.
The information super-highway of this brain/body axis is the Vagus nerve – the longest cranial nerve in the body. Vagus translates from the Latin as ‘wandering’, and this nerve certainly does! Originating in the Medulla Oblongata in the brain, it makes its way down the neck towards the ear and the heart, then back up the neck to connect with the oesophagus and palate. It finally makes its way back down the torso to the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and the whole length of the digestive tract, amongst other organs. This creates nerve hubs or centres such as the solar plexus along its course.
This is a truly remarkable communication system, with 90% of impulses being transmitted from the gut to the brain. The Vagus nerve gives you that ‘gut instinct’, or ‘knot in your stomach’, and is the connection to your sensations and emotions. The management and processing of our emotions happens via the Vagus nerve between the heart, brain and gut, which is why we have a strong gut reaction to intense mental and emotional states. So, if Kapha imbalance starts to bring you down, information from the Vagus nerve, or your ‘gut instinct’, can lead you to make choices that will better support you.
This is a very Ayurvedic approach – listening to what the body wants, rather than using the mind to try to work out which foods or activities are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. By taking this awareness approach we can begin to trust our intuition to lead us to what is best for our constitution at any time. We begin by asking ‘what would make me feel good, better, easier, more relieved, in this situation’?
Activation of the Vagus nerve keeps the immune system in check, and releases an assortment of hormones and enzymes, reducing inflammation, improving memory and feelings of relaxation, via the parasympathetic nervous system.
Therefore, the tone or health of the Vagus nerve, just like keeping muscle tone, is important for your overall wellbeing. Stimulating the Vagus nerve to increase its tone will help you tune in more accurately to your ‘gut instinct’, and help you to choose foods and activities likely to balance any Kapha imbalance. All yoga, but particularly restorative yoga with its emphasis on triggering the parasympathetic or rest and digest nervous system, is a great addition to your wellbeing routines during Winter.