The Twelve Ancient Medicinal Diets

ayurvedic diet

These days we encounter a new fad diet that becomes a craze for a few weeks or months, featured in health blogs and magazine covers with celebrities raving its positive benefits, and soon after the same blogs cover the detrimental ramifications that have been discovered as the trend dies down.

The master teacher acharya Sushruta was a talented surgeon who authored the classic ayurvedic compendium Sushrutha Samhita somewhere around 6000 BCE, according to accurate astronomy calendar-based calculations. In his discussions about factors that affect disease in a patient, he instructed guidelines for the correct path of living and lifestyle, known as pathya.

In these instructions, he detailed the themes of 12 basic types of diet, recommended for specific conditions and highlighting the concept of ‘purusham purusham vikshya’ – the individualistic approach to diet. These dozen diet types were used as prototypes for individualized meal planning combined with lifestyle and emphasized altering the external and internal environment around, which diseases fluorished. These diet themes mostly occur in pairs of complementary extremes of effect based on heat production inside the body, moisture-imparting foods, fluid-filled foods, number of meals a day, medicinal food-rich diets, or dosha-pacifying diets.

अत ऊर्ध्वं द्वादशाशनप्रविचारान् वक्ष्यामः |

तत्र शीतोष्णस्निग्धरूक्षद्रवशुष्कैककालिकद्विकालिकौषधयुक्तमात्राहीनदोषप्रशमनवृत्त्यर्थाः ||५६||

Source: Sushruta Samhita, UttaraTantra, chapter 64, sloka 56

Transliteration - ata ūrdhvaṃ dvādaśāśanapravicārān vakṣyāmaḥ |

tatra śītoṣṇa snigdharūkṣa dravaśuṣka ikakālikadvikālika uṣadhayuktamātrāhīna doṣapraśamana vṛttyarthāḥ ||56||

Translation - Hereafter is told the twelve factors to be considered in relation to food. These are cooling-heating, unctuous-dry, liquid-drying, once a day-twice a day, mixed with drug, deficient in quantity, those pacifying dosha, and maintenance of body.

Diets based on the Production of Heat inside the Body - sheetashana (cooling diet) & ushnashana (heating diet)


Cooling-focus diets focus on foods with sheeta-virya, those which induce cooling in the body as well as those foods that do not require processing through cooking. These include foods such as fennel, coriander, rock sugar, coconut water, many fruits, and many but not all sweet, bitter, and astringent foods. Sheetashana diets are indicated for people with conditions that afflict with thirst, create heat in the body, intoxication, poisonings, burning sensation, bleeding disorders, fainting & wasting conditions. The diet is notably focused on cooling pitta.


The opposite end of the sheetashana diet is the usnashana diet, which focuses on inducing heat in the body. Heating diets are suggested for kapha & vata type conditions in which the overcooling nature creates excess mucous or contracts the tissues. It is also used during panchakarma therapeutic procedures such as virechana, purgation therapy and in snehapana, oleation therapy because both require the body to be supple, flowing, relaxed, open and uncontracted at the tissue level. Heating foods include hing, ajwain, turmeric, cumin, dill, garlic, most fresh meats, pineapples, mango, papaya, most seeds especially chia and bean sprouts.

Diets based on the Moisture Promotion in the Body - snigdhashana (oily diet) & rookshashana (roughage diet)

dietThe focus on moisture in the body is important when people are either unknowingly depleted or over-moist. Dryness in the body occurs in vata-dominant individuals as well as people exhausted from too much exercise or sex, or those with chronic lack of healthy oils in their diet. Symptoms include dry lips, dry elbows and knees, and a feeling of tightness in the body. It occurs also when people chronically take hot baths or showers that deplete their skin oils without oiling up first, known as abhyanga. For them a balanced oily diet is recommended including ghee, sesame oil, mustard oil, coconut oil, or a locally-grown oil right for the season and the individual. Vegetables with oily nature are also useful such as olives, soybeans, corn, avocado, many nuts such as cashew, walnut, peanut and coconut. It must be delivered with foods that will carry the oils into the bloodstream and into the tissues. Simply eating oily foods does not relieve chronic dryness in the tissues of the body.

The rookshashana diet is required for people who have excess moisture trapped in the body. Chronic itching is a clear symptom of excess kapha holding unneeded moisture stuck in the tissues. Phlegm and excess secretions trouble the body. A diet with drying foods such as astringent, bitter, and pungent vegetables, spices such as turmeric, and lettuce helps to pull out the moisture and relieve the excess kapha. This is recommended in some cases of obesity and diabetes, and after oleation/snehapana courses of therapy.

People indulging in the keto high fat diet must first assess whether they have excess dryness or excess moisture. If they have excess moisture trapped in pockets that cannot get out, a rooksha diet may not help; if they have excess dryness already throughout their body due to chronic deprivation of healthy fat that has left them with pockets of fat enveloped by dryness, then the keto diet will only work if a strong exercise and repair routine is integrated with the keto diet. Vyayama, therapeutic exercise is the key to success of rookshashana diets. The inseparable relation between fat and exercise can be appreciated in high fat diets like the keto, which doesn’t work without exercise, as fats burn much quicker than carbs during exercise.

Diets based on the Fluid Quality in the Food - dravashana (liquid diet) & sushkashana (solid diet)

Rice Gruel
Rice gruel

Sometimes a high natural-liquid diet is recommended, as it contributes naturally energized fluids into the body. Fluid is not well understood in modern nutrition, but Susruta observed that people suffering from severe weight loss, thirst and weakness were often helped with watery food diets and found to have easier digestion. The best ways to achieve this are eating high water-containing foods such as gourds, melons, and celery, cucumber, spinaches, lotus/watercress, and non-astringent fruits such as grapes, strawberries and peaches. One of the best diets is watery rice gruel, known as peya. Locally grown produce that drank the same water growing as you drink are better for your health.

Susruta understood that proper hydration but not overhydration ensures that all bodily systems run smoothly. He understood water that is not good for the body vs. water that had come from nature and was integrated easily into the body's functions.

More solid-filled diets are recommended for people who have chronic problems with retention of fluids especially when it is collecting in their legs, those who are injured and have a tender water balance as they heal their wounds, and those with diabetes who are losing their muscle mass and have altered blood-organ relationships due to their inability to keep cellular sugar balance.

For a healthy individual, Sushruta suggested eating based on stomach capacity, in which the volume was to be split into four parts based on fullness. A person should consume two parts solid food, one part liquid food, and one part was left free for effortless flow of apana vata, or air that processed things downward.

Diets based on the Quantity of Meals - eka-kāla-shana (single meal diet) & dvi-kala-shana (two meal diet)

In order to digest food, we need enough digestive fire. In molecular terms, these are the enzymes in the gut. Those suffering from weak digestion but otherwise healthy are recommended to have a single large meal as their diet until their digestive fire improves, which is usually 3-4 days. Chronic lack of appetite signals other problems. If a person has good digestion, two meals a day is the healthy norm.

If you are used to three meals a day - breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it is important to remember that for many old cultures, the concept of three meals a day is very abnormal concept. Since ancient times, brunch and supper were the main meals, conducted during the daylight hours. This was easier for the chef, prevented wastage of food from overnight spoilage, and was economical for both time and resources.

But the main reason was that when the fire is high in the sky, the fire is high in the belly. Both pitta and the gut's digestive fire (agni) naturally have more power between 10:30 and 2:30pm. The fire dominates the body and should be used for the energy it takes to eat and digest. The modern diet style of intermittent fasting has unwittingly adopted this same ancient concept.

People restricted to one meal a day - ekakala bhojanam (eka-1, kāla-time, bhojana-meal) showed another effect. They would not only feel easier digestion and assimilation, with better sleep, better bowel movements, and better strength, but they also appreciated their food more and ekakala bhojanam brought out happiness.

Today, gluttony is encouraged by businessmen who make money when you eat. People engaged in regular adhyashana (adhya-half, ashana-meal), eating when the previous meal is half-digested, do not allow one meal to be completed by the machinery in the body before they engage in the next indulgence. In addition, atiyashana (ati-excess, ashana-meal), food in excess quantity, does not allow the space needed for the gut to decide whether it needs the food. It pushes food along to cope with the extra work and does not use the intelligence of the gut's digestive system with its various nuances available in a normal human body. Over time, this accumulates to decrease one’s agni. Ancient ayurvedic physicians clearly advised that low digestive capacity is the origin of most all diseases.

Diets based on mixing medicines quietly into the food - aushadhayuktashana (medicine mixed diet) & in reducing the quantity for medicinal reasons - matrahinashana (decreased quantity diet)

Aversion towards medication was a problem even in Sushrutha’s times. Disguising medication inside the food was sometimes required. Techniques were used that allowed the meal to be made more palatable. It prevented the stigma of having to take medicine. Sweets, flavorful preparations, and indulgent foods were used to mask the presence of a needed medicine.

If patients suffered from a particular disease that decreased the digestive fire, or if the patient had weaker digestion, decreasing the normal amount of food in a meal was recommended to ensure there was enough fire to fully digest the food. Leaving food in the belly undigested was a recipe for worsening of disease.

Diets focused on the pacification of specific doshas - doshaprashamanashana (dosha pacifying diet)

The tridosha vata, pitta and kapha are influenced by changes of each season. As a general dietary rule, one should change one's foods gradually as a new season enters and consume fresh produce harvested in that particular season, whether fruit, vegetable or meat.

The main aim of a dosha-specific diet is to curb the manifestation of a disease by lowering the imbalance of a particular dosha through specific foods. Examples include eating cooling foods to curb aggravated pitta, or moist oily foods to pacify the dry-roughness of chronic vata. For pacifying vata, adding healthy oils are considered best; for pacifying pitta, adding ghee daily to the diet is useful; for pacifying kapha, pure natural honey with its astringence reduces imbalanced phlegm and moisture.

Diets composed for a Healthy Person, to optimize what is needed to maintain perfect health - vritharthashana (Diet for Maintaining Optimum Health)

To support the optimal diet for a healthy person, Sushrutha stated, matravat ahara, emphasizing precise quantities of food as per individual body type and personality. Conscious intake of all 6 tastes, shadrasa ahara, in each meal was encouraged to ensure the taste buds invoked all needed digestive fires, which would in turn increase one’s own immunity. He warned that persons enjoying only a single taste weaken their body defenses, and also don’t get a holistic exposure of food.

Selection of foods for a diet is not so simple. Guidelines based on one's current health can be used however, to construct a meal plan that orients toward a medicinal input several times each day, altering the inner environment through food. Modern nutrition uses a hit-or-miss approach with no accurate guidance beyond calorie counting and theoretical molecular content. Ayurveda watched millions of people and the effects of specific meal plans before composing these 12 diet themes that help people understand their constitution and their needs. Susruta carefully considered, which elements were needed or in excess and which deserved importance when composing these 12 specific diets for specific kinds of patients.