This is part 6 of a 7 part series on the Misconceptions of Ayurveda and Yoga.
To view the Introduction, click here
Garlic and onions are members of the Lily family – the Alliums – and are equally banned from the yogic diet. There are over 120 species of edible Alliums, including chives, green onions, shallots, and leeks.
When eaten, both garlic and onions create a strong odor in bodily secretions that is often described as unpleasant. Garlic breath, anyone?
Yogis are advised to stay away from onions and garlic, if for any reason than just to be respectful to their yoga teacher. Most texts on yoga, as well as some schools of Buddhism, recommend avoiding all members of the allium family. Devotees of Vishnu and his avatars (including Rama and Krishna) reject the bulbs on the claim that they are unsuitable to be given as offerings to God.
But while yogis may try to avoid the stink-bombs, they will have a hard time doing so in India. India is the second largest producer of onions, after China, growing more than 13,900,000 metric tons in 2009 alone. Indian cuisine includes liberal use of onions, and even Ayurveda condones daily onion consumption to stimulate appetite and increase digestive fire.
The fact is that while Yogis, Buddhists and Hare Krishnas may eschew the alliums, the rest of the world loves them. Currently, onions are important in the cuisine of almost every nation in the world.. Pickled or sautéed, in soups or curries, cooked or raw, onions provide the flavor in almost every ethnic’s cuisine. From China to Costa Rica, onions are a staple
Just where onions come from is a bit of a mystery, but they appear to have originated somewhere in Central Asia. The only uncultivated, wild onion species are found in Iran. Onions were a big hit wherever they went. The Egyptians revered onions to the point of crafting golden onion statues to be left in their tombs. The mummy of King Ramses IV had small onions placed in his eye sockets. The Athenians ate vast amounts of onions before athletic events to “make the blood lighter”, and the Roman gladiators rubbed onion juice on their skin to make their muscles firmer. The Romans brought onions to Europe, where they were so popular that they could be used to pay the rent. Onions arrived in Central and South America with the Spaniards, and are now a pivotal ingredient in salsas, refried beans, Spanish rice, and pretty much any other dish imaginable.
If the other planets could talk, they might complain that Earth reeks of onions.
Throughout the world, the onion is used for medicinal purposes. The Maltese place half a baked onion on sea urchin stings to draw out the poison and reduce inflammation. Onions were used throughout Europe and North America in poultices for colds and coughs. Indians rub onion juice on discolored skin and on creaky joints.
In recent years, onions have been touted as anti-cancer superfoods. Researchers at Cornell University found that certain varieties of onions were more effective against liver cancer cells, based on the levels of flavonoids and phenolics found in those varieties. Flavonoids and phenolics are phytochemicals that help plants protect themselves against bacteria and viruses. Other researchers claim that the sulfides in onions and garlic reduce tumor growth.
In Ayurvedic medicine, onions are used in myriad of ways. In the diet, onions are thought to increast kapha and pitta energies, and are used to normalize vatta-dominance. They increase appetite and strengthen digestion. They are used for arthritis and joint pain, itching and skin disorders, jaundice, and respiratory diseases. Onions are also used to help in erectile dysfunction and to increase libido.
So why not eat onions?
The goal of yoga is to “calm the thought-waves of the mind.” Ayurveda acknowledges that onions increase appetite and stimulate sexual desire, and so uses onions to cure related ailments. But neither of these characteristics is considered helpful to the practice of yoga. Onions in the diet may cause a person to overeat, and in becoming fat or food-obsessed, lose physical health and mental focus. Many of the ancient yogis practiced celibacy, and so an increased libido was not the goal. Gandhi, in his quest for perfect Brahmacharya, encouraged all his followers to give up onions and garlic.
On the non-spiritual level, onions are known to cause some adverse physical affects. The Athenians might have been on to something with their notion that onions “make the blood lighter”. Recent media exposure has educated pet owners not to feed their dogs onions or garlic, as the bulbs cause anemia in dogs and cats. As little as ¼ cup can make 20 pound dog sick. Onion toxicity also occurs in horses, monkeys, and humans. Articles in research magazine articles warn researchers not to feed their lab monkeys onions.
Onion toxicity is known as Heinz Body Anemia. Anemia is when the red blood cell count is low, decreasing oxygen flow to the muscles and other tissue. Onions cause red blood cells to form clumps, called Heinz Bodies, which decrease their ability to transport oxygen and also cause the cells to rupture prematurely. When too many Heinz bodies form over a long period of time, the body isn’t able to adequately regenerate red blood cells and the blood becomes anemic.
Cats are especially susceptible to Heinz Body Anemia, probably because of their low body weight. For humans, a 140 pound adult would need to eat 12 ounces of onions, daily, in order to be obviously affected. This is about 1 large onion a day, raw or cooked. Onion powder is even more potent.
Other substances also known to cause Heinz Bodies are Acetominophen (Tylenol), and anything containing benzocaine. When taken in tandem with a diet rich in onions, or with blood thinning medication, the body is unable to regenerate blood cells fast enough and anemia will likely occur.
In addition to anemia, many people complain that onions give them intestinal gas and cramping. Onions are a known intestinal irritant – one reason they are so great for constipation! – and can cause discomfort. This would be another reason the ancient yogis might have recommended avoiding onions in the diet. Onions don’t only smell bad coming out of your mouth!
So here’s the rundown on onions:
Onions may provide protection against cancer and viruses. Like any plant food, they are rich in anti-oxidants and phytochemicals. Eaten in moderation, they may be beneficial.
But only if:
- · You can digest them without discomfort
- · You don’t have intestinal issues such as Crohn’s or IBS
- · You don’t struggle with iron deficiency anemia
- · You don’t take blood thinners
- · You keep them away from your pets
- · Your smell doesn’t bother your yoga teacher