Ayurveda uses the elements as its basis for understanding human physiology. Ailments and diseases are understood as imbalances in our basic elemental constitution. Ayurvedic doctors will first try to discover your basic constitution (Sanskrit: prakruti) and then diagnose its disease condition (vikruti) http://ayurveda.iloveindia.com/prakruti-vikruti/index.html
Because Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India, Tibet, Nepal and Sri Lanka, it uses the Buddhist and Hindu elemental structure, i.e. wind, fire, earth and water. It groups the elements together to produce the three principal physiological types (Tri-Dosha):
- Vata (wind)
- Pitta (fire)
- Kapha (water and earth)
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso refers to the four elements and the Ayurvedic disease aetiology in his book ‘Heart of Wisdom’ when he says: “Internal hindrances arise from causes within our body and mind. Like the external environment our body can be considered as composed of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and wind, which, broadly, have the nature of solidity, liquidity, heat, and movement, respectively. If these four internal elements are in a state of harmonious equilibrium our body is healthy. When they are out of balance our body experiences a variety of problems and diseases. It has been said that our body is like a basket containing four poisonous snakes that constantly wrestle with each other. In that situation, if one snake becomes stronger than the rest it will overcome and kill the others. In a similar way, the very delicate balance between the four internal elements that is necessary for our body to be healthy can easily be disturbed by one element becoming dominant. Because of this the internal elements of our body are a source of recurring hindrances in the form of ill health, disease, and pain.” (from the chapter ‘A Method To Overcome Hindrances’).
Ayurveda uses a variety of remedies to rebalance the elements. Many of them work via the sense of taste, because taste is method for absorbing elements from the external world. Ayurveda divides tastes into six categories: sweet, sour, salty, pungent (hot), bitter, astringent. These tastes are produced by combinations of the elements in our food (e.g. pungent = fire + air, astringent = air + earth). The full set is listed here http://www.sanatansociety.org/indian_vegetarian_recipes/ayurveda_six_tastes.htm
Geshe-la mentions the construction of tastes in ‘Great Treasury of Merit’ when he comments on the line from ‘Lama Chopa’:
Nutritious food and drink endowed with a hundred flavours
And delicacies of gods and men heaped as high as a mountain;
“The text says that we offer food ‘with a hundred flavours’, which literally means a hundred and eight flavours. There are six principal flavours: sweet, sour, bitter, astringent, hot, and salty; and each of these can be produced in combinations such as sweet-sweet and sweet-sour, making a total of thirty-six flavours. Each of these flavours can be strong, middling, or weak — making a total of a hundred and eight different flavours.”
The Food Guidelines on ayurveda.com provide a breakdown of which foods offer a balanced diet for each physiological type. For example, the foods recommended for Pitta types emphasise bitter, astringent and sweet tastes, i.e. those tastes which do not include the fire element.