Ayurvedic Approaches to the Treatment of Abdominal Fat
Last year, I wrote a Research Paper on the Ayurvedic Approaches to the Treatment of Abdominal Fat for my school the California College of Ayurveda. As it is an individualized treatment which happens within the context of a one-to-one working relationship, I have to be careful with what I share with the public. So below are recommendations that are general. But still when it comes to herbs proceed with caution. Meaning, try on a small area or for a short amount of time and notice any side effects.
From a western medical point of view, abdominal or visceral fat is a type of body fat that exists in the abdomen and surrounds internal organs. It’s a form of intra-abdominal fat or adipose tissue wrapped around major organs, including the liver, pancreas and kidneys.
Visceral fat accumulates over time due to mainly diet and a sedentary lifestyle. Aging seems also to play a role. The loss of muscle mass decreases the rate at which our body uses calories, which can make it more challenging to maintain a healthy weight and the more weight we gain, the more the risk of intra-abdominal fat accumulation.
Many women, in particular, also notice an increase in belly fat as they get older, likely due to a decreasing level of estrogen, especially during and post menopause. Furthermore, estrogen seems to influence where fat is distributed in their bodies, mainly around the abdomen hence the appearance of what is called the “muffin top.”
On the other hand, estrogen dominance, which occurs when there is too much estrogen in relation to other sex hormones, may also cause belly fat to accumulate. Estrogen levels can increase due to hormones disruptors like BPA in plastics and antibiotics in conventionally raised meats and dairy products. This can contribute to inflammation leading to weight gain and visceral fat.
Research has also linked abdominal fat to over-functioning adrenal glands releasing an excess of cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) in the blood, this leads to elevated blood sugar levels which is then stored as fat around the abdominal organs.
Finally, there may be a genetic component as well.
Weight loss is the main means of treatment. It is recommended to aim for a slow and steady weight loss, up to 2 lbs or 1 kg a week.
From a western medical point of view, this weight loss is achieved with:
Getting more fiber, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts and beans are recommended for keeping away the belly fat
Limiting saturated fat that’s found in animal foods, coconut and palm oils and full-fat dairy such as cheese and butter and choosing moderate amounts of mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats found in fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel that are rich in omega -3s and certain vegetable oils.
Limiting sugar intake in the form of simple carbohydrates found in pastries and breads and replacing sugary beverages with water
Keeping portion sizes in check. At home, slimming down the portion sizes. In restaurants, sharing meals or eating half of the meal and taking the rest home.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends moderate aerobic exercise such as walking for at least 2.5 hours a week or vigorous aerobic exercise such as jogging for at least 75minutes a week. In addition to aerobic exercise, it also recommends strength-training exercises at least twice a week. According to Webmd, “in one study, healthy middle-aged men who did 20 minutes of daily weight training gained less abdominal fat than men who spent time doing aerobic exercises.”
A six-month study on the effects of Weight Loss (WL) and Aerobic Exercise and Weight Loss (AEX + WL) in post-menopausal women, demonstrated that both AEX + WL is a more efficient approach.
However, research also shows that quick bursts of high-intensity exercise for a brief period of time such as sprinting may be more effective for many people.
Getting enough sleep. Too much daytime sleep has also been associated with obesity.
Taking up meditation to release stress. Stress can trigger cravings for salty, and sweet foods as well as fat and unleash the hormone cortisol, which can boost abdominal fat.
Decreasing alcohol intake. A recent study shows that, “Presently it can be said that alcohol calories count more in moderate nondaily consumers than in daily (heavy) consumers. Further they count more in combination with a high fat diet and in overweight and obese subjects. [..] Experimental evidence from several metabolic studies showed a suppression of lipid oxidation by alcohol and thus the enhancement of a positive fat balance. The nonoxidized fat is preferably deposited in the abdominal area.”
Reducing or stopping smoking. Smoking makes a person more likely to store fat in the abdomen rather than the hips and thighs. “A study in the March 2011 issue of "Obesity" showed that quitting smoking reduced the chance of developing metabolic syndrome, a condition characterized by excess belly fat as well as abnormal blood sugar and blood pressure levels, by between 35 and 55 percent. The researchers attributed the increased risk of metabolic syndrome partly to the higher visceral, or belly, fat accumulation found in smokers.”
From an Ayurvedic point of view, the root cause of abdominal fat is a build-up of impurities or ama in the abdominal region, due to improper food regimens with an excess of sugary, fatty foods and congestion of the lymphatic system, which leads to faulty digestion and improper digestion of fats.
“Excess weight concentrated in the stomach may imply congestion of the lymphatic system in the gut and poor fat digestion. This condition occurs when stress or other factors cause vasoconstriction of blood vessels in the area, which stop the body from burning fats and stores them instead. The belly is 4x more likely to store fat from rich, Kapha-aggravating foods. The reason is because fat from excessively rich foods congests the lymphatic system in this area.”
The Ayurvedic treatment is twofold: improve digestion and strengthen digestive organs including the liver which helps to digest fat via the formation of bile, and the pancreas which releases enzymes to break down carbohydrates, fats and proteins as well as strengthening the physiological systems like the lymphatic system, which removes waste and fatty acids. To do that an Ayurvedic treatment will address diet, herbs and lifestyle changes.
(You are already familiar with the broad guidelines of the diet and lifestyle approach.)
Herbs that improve congestion in the channels called lekhanas are the most adept at supporting the clearing of the lymphatic system and fat deposits in the abdominal area. These herbs are traditionally bitters like guggul and kutki.
Also herbs that improve digestion such as the digestive spices or dipanas: cumin, coriander and fennel are renowned for their fat-busting effect.
Finally Herbs that improve proper elimination like the formula triphala is also recommended. As well, herbs that improve circulation like ginger and black pepper and Trikatu formula can be beneficial for a short term remedy.
Commiphora or balsamodendron mukul is the most important resin used medicinally in Ayurveda. It is a known lekhana and “reduces fat, toxins, tumors and necrotic tissue.”
“When taken internally it acts as a bitter, stomachic and carminative, stimulating the appetite and improving digestion.” “Its action to reduce cholesterol includes activity on lipid metabolism obesity and artherosclerosis.”
“Guggulu boosts the detoxification power of the liver by increasing the quantity of cytochrome P450 enzymes in the liver and by upregulating the secretion of bile salts that specifically help remove fat from the liver. “
Guggulu’s energetics are VK- and P+ in excess, therefore, this herb would be appropriate for Kapha and Vata and when combined with other herbs that decrease the heat it can be used for Pitta as well.
Kutki or katuka
Picrorrhiza kurroa, kutki “is a good tonic for the liver, spleen, small intestine. Along with other bitter tonics like gentian or barberry, katuka is excellent for improving digestion and stimulating the flow of hydrochloric acid in the stomach.”
Kutki pacifies Kapha and Pitta and balances Vata, therefore, it can be used with all doshas safely.
I don't recommend that you use both together.
You can find them at banyanbotanicals.com
For dosage, follow the recommendations on the packages. For greater effect, take them with your CCF tea at each meal.
These herbs can be used in a powdered formula for the reduction of fat localized on the belly. A dry massage on the belly can then be performed for 10 to 15 minutes. A deeper massage for Kapha patients and a light massage with some oil almond for Vata and some milk for Pitta can be done regularly.
Dr. Mrunalini Patel with the California College of Ayurveda creates a mixture of mung dal powder with recommended herbs added in there according to the doshic vitiation and uses a few drops of dipana essential oils to increase the absorption of the herbs locally. She has had good feedback so far.
Garshana, dry-brushing is also a very effective practice.
Exercise and yoga are also important to stimulate digestion and lymphatic movement.
Yoga asanas that stimulate the organs in the abdominal cavity are very useful. The Pawanmuktasana 2, also known as the digestive/abdominal group of asanas in the asana practice at the Bihar School of Yoga is relevant. Poses like padotthanasana and pada sanchalanasana are said to “strengthen the abdominal muscles, massage the organs and strengthen the digestive system.” Padachakrasana is said to “be good for hip joints, obesity, toning of the abdominal and spinal muscles.”
In the videos below, I demonstrate Pada Sanchalanasana and Elbow to knee abdominal poses.
Other practices like Agnisara kriya and Nauli are also very effective in eliminating Ama and fat from the abdomen by tonifying the abdomen and the abdominal organs, stimulating the vayus as well as purifying Swadhistana and Manipura chakras.
Agnisara kriya “massages the abdomen, strengthens the abdominal muscles and encourages optimum health of the abdominal organs. Agnisara kriya stimulates the five pranas, especially samana and raises the energy levels markedly.”
However, I only teach these advance poses individually.
In her book, The Prime, Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary recommends rebounding as a form of exercise that gets the lymph moving as well as lymphatic massage.