And the Nobel Prize Goes to… Ayurveda

From the benefits of autophagy to the relationship between stress and aging, these six Nobel Prizes in physiology and medicine over the last 20+ years align with Ayurvedic recommendations for living a long and healthy life.

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6 Nobel Prize Wins Tied to Ayurvedic Principles

Since 1901 the Nobel Prize has been the epitome of scientific achievement. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, bequeathed his fortune to honoring scientists who were contributing to the health and well-being of humanity. The Nobel Prize is offered in chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.

In this article, I’ll discuss seven Nobel Prize achievements over the last 23 years, in the category of physiology or medicine that have a strong connection to Ayurvedic principles.

1. Gene Regulation for Oxygen Availability

In 2019: William Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter Ratcliffe, and Gregg Semenza were awarded a Nobel Prize for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability through gene regulation.

Their research paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anemia, cancer, and many other diseases.   

Oxygen-sensing cells that line the carotid arteries determine how much oxygen is in our blood and relay that information to the brain and respiratory system. (The discovery of these cells won the Noble Prize in 1938.)

When oxygen levels in the blood drop (called hypoxia), a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO) is released that increases the production of oxygen-carrying-red blood cells. This is the same hormone Lance Armstrong was busted for injecting that helped him win and eventually stripped of his seven Tour de France victories.

See also New Science on Breath and Aging + a Breathing Exercise for Longevity

Related Ayurvedic Principle: The Value of Breath Retention

Maintaining the correct amount of oxygen in your blood is critical for optimal health, but sometimes it’s hard to get the right amount. Shallow breathing, mouth breathing, over breathing, and a sedentary lifestyle can all cause something called tissue hypoxia, which is when the mitochondria in your cells can’t get enough oxygen to produce ATP (Adenosine triphosphate), or energy.

Tissue hypoxia has been linked to a host of health concerns, including blood sugar levels, cardiovascular health, respiratory health, and obesity, along with the increased production of mutagenic stems cells that affect healthy cell-division.

Overbreathing—often the result of shallow mouth breathing—creates high levels of oxygen with low levels of CO2 in the blood, which tightens the bond between hemoglobin and oxygen in red blood cells and inhibits oxygen from moving into tissues.

Over time, overbreathing causes oxygen-sensing cells on your carotid artery to become overly sensitive to even the smallest amount of CO2, which tells the brain to breath even faster. It’s a vicious cycle.

See also Are You an Overbreather? Balance CO2 + O2 for Mood Support

To ensure a healthy level of CO2 tolerance and healthy tissues, Ayurveda recommends a series of breathing exercises, or pranayama, that both lengthen and slow down breathing rates, as well as use breath retention, or kumbhaka.

See also How Does Pranayama Work? The Science of Breath Retention (Kumbhaka)

The mechanisms for delivering oxygen to blood and tissues are both complex and quite natural. Ayurveda understood how important it was to continually train the diaphragm, the body’s respiratory system, to be resilient and elastic—which is what kumbhaka does.

2. Identifying Cancer

In 2018 the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to James Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their discovery of a protein that acts as an immune-system brake and protects cancer cells from being identified as outsiders.

These brakes allow cancer cells to continue their rogue behavior unaffected by the body’s natural immune response. The researchers created effective therapies to release the immune system brake and allow the immune system to recognize the cancer cells as foreign.

Related Ayurvedic Principle: Cellular Communication

From the Ayurvedic perspective, cancer is due to the lack of memory, or smirti, within cells. It’s when cells forget that they are part of a bigger system and begin to act independently that they, and cancer, can lurk in the shadows, undetected by your immune system.

The Ayurvedic approach is to restore proper functioning to the rogue cells by improving the cellular communication to and from that cell and other cells. Cells that are unable to meet their nutritional needs or cannot remove their waste or that build up toxicity quickly may be unable to function and divide according to the code or original program—thus losing the memory of proper function.

Improving cellular communication is traditionally done with pranayama and digestive strengthening techniques that mitigate issues related to tissue hypoxia and support healthier waste removal channels, including your lymphatic system, respiratory system, and digestive system..

See more Podcast Episode 79: Learning From Cancer Cells with Zach Bush, MD

3. Circadian Rhythms and Our Biological Clocks

In 2017 the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash, and MichaelYoung for their discoveries related to the link between nature’s circadian rhythms and the cellular biological clocks in plants, animals, and humans.

Theses cellular clocks regulate critical functions, including behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature, and metabolism.

Related Ayurvedic Principle: Go with the Flow of Nature’s Rhythms

According to Ayurveda, a lifestyle out of sync with nature’s daily and seasonal rhythms is one that threatens health and longevity. When and what we should eat, and when we should wake up and go to sleep were all laid out thousands of years ago in the Ayurvedic texts.

See also Shape your Day the Ayurvedic Circadian Way

4. Autophagy

In 2016 Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize for his research on how cells recycle and renew their content, a process called autophagy, or self-eating.

Fasting has been shown to activate autophagy, which helps slow down the aging process and has a positive impact on cellular renewal.

Just reducing the number of daily calories in the typical American diet by  20 to30 percent can elicit, according to numerous studies, powerful changes in cardiovascular and metabolic health that affect weight, cholesterol, blood sugar, and more.

See also Spring Diet Tips: Ayurvedic Calorie Restriction

Related Ayurvedic Principle: One Meal a Day for a Yogi

As a result of these studies, forms of time-restricted eating and intermittent fasting are in vogue.

Eating less food and less frequently has been a mainstay in Ayurveda for thousands of years. One classic Ayurveda quote says, “Eat one meal a day for a yogi, two meals a day for a bhogi (laborer-who needs a high-calorie diet), and three meals a day for a rhogi—or someone convalescing.”

In modern times, Ayurvedic intermittent fasting includes a healthy breakfast and lunch followed by gradually eating supper earlier and reducing its size until you skip it altogether. Skipping supper (while staying hydrated) is a comfortable practice.

See also Intermittent Fasting, Autophagy + Ayurveda

A woman sits on a bench in mediation watching the sunset
Photo by Sage-Friedman on Unsplash

5. Telomeres and Aging

In 2009 the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak for discovering that a shortening of telomeres is linked to accelerated aging.

Related Ayurvedic Principle: Establish Being Through Meditation, Then Perform Action

Blackburn went on to publish studies on how reducing stress can lengthen telomeres and delay the pace at which the body ages.

Other studies have found that stress can shorten telomeres and accelerate the aging process by almost a decade and reduce the risk of dying from a heart issue by three-fold. In one of her most well-known studies, Blackburn found that the practice of meditation—a well-researched stress-reduction technique—was able to protect the telomeres from shortening. In studies that measured the effects of meditation, the practice slowed the shortening of the telomeres by 30 to 43 percent.

See also Can Meditation Stop the Shortening of Telomeres?

6. The Power of Nitric Oxide

The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for 1998 was awarded to Robert Furchgott, Louis Ignarro, and Ferid Murad for their discoveries concerning nitric oxide (NO) as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system.

Nitric oxide is sometimes called the “panacea” of molecules because of its many health functions. It’s a gas that is produced by cells that line our nasal cavities, arteries, heart, lungs, immune system, and more. NO regulates blood pressure, cellular blood flow, and the health of the endothelial lining of the arteries.

Related Ayurvedic Principle: You Should Breathe Through Your Nose

My first book, Body Mind and Sport, introduced research we did on comparing the effects of nose breathing and mouth breathing while exercising.

A significant amount of NO is produced when you breathe through your nose, while none is produced while breathing through the mouth. Nose breathing provides a significant amount of immune protection.

While there are numerous benefits to nose breathing, especially during sleeping, the production of NO in the paranasal sinuses that washes the respiratory tracts with this powerfully anti-viral and anti-bacterial gas is one of the evolutionary traits designs to protect us from infection.

You can also get a similar effect with a pranayama breathing practice called brahmari pranayama (a humming practice), which has been shown to increase NO by 15-times.

See also Change Your Life Overnight with Mouth Tape: 20 Reasons to Nose Breathe While You Sleep

4 thoughts on “And the Nobel Prize Goes to… Ayurveda”

  1. Dr Douillard, Thank you for this fascinating recap linking Ayurveda to Nobel prize winning studies. I enjoyed it enjoyed reading it much and plan to share. 🙏🏼

    Reply
  2. Thanks a lot: a lot of clear information in a nutshell.
    When I was in kindergarten one off the nuns made us hum almost every day… sometimes more than once. It helped to calm down “adhd” kids:).

    Reply
  3. As usual, Dr. Douillard, you are able to translate complex information into simple concepts that I can relate to and use in my daily life. I’ll be passing this article on. Thanks!

    Reply

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