You say sesame seeds, and I say my nana (maternal grandfather) and his blazer pocket. The three are forever synonymous in my mind. They go together like sesame seeds melded together with honey— remember the little rectangular “candies” wrapped in rice paper and twisted in clear plastic. They were always stashed in my Nana’s navy blazer. Each one slightly tacky and perfectly gooey from traveling on his day-long adventures.
Even into my adult years, out came the little one bite wonders from his navy blazer. The treat never grew old. Just gooier and gooier between my teeth. When I formally started studying Ayurveda, sesame seeds took on a whole new light. What was once associated with “Nana candy”, was now seen as nourishing and detoxifying food for the body and mind. In class, if we weren’t talking about how to cook with them we were talking about using their oil in treatments for the skin, mouth, throat, nose, and ears.
I quickly learned how revered these tiny seeds were in Ayurveda. Touted for their not only for their minerals but also their guna. An energetic vibration or what today’s physics would consider as the phenomena of matter, according to Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom by Acharya Shunya. A food’s guna is one the integral nutrients an Ayurveda counselor, practitioner or doctor considers when making dietary recommendations. Similar to how a dietitian would assess the calorie and fat count of food.
Out of the three gunas: sattva, rajas, and tamas, sesame seeds are inherently sattva. Sattva represents balance, a stabilizing force that evokes contentment, bliss, lightness and does not overstimulate the body or mind. In the context of dietary choices, sattva foods are said to foster mental clarity, love, compassion, patience, and bring internal peace. They are considered to be rich in prana—life force, easily digestible, sharpen the intellect and have a calming, purifying effect on the mind.
“PURITY OF MIND DEPENDS ON THE PURITY OF FOOD.” – SWAMI SIVANANDA
Yoga philosophy and Ayurveda speak to the effect the diet, (what we take in through our sense of taste), has on the attitude, thoughts, emotions, and intellect. As Swami Sivananda says, “purity of the mind depends on the purity of food”. Based on the mind-body connection, sattva foods like sesame seeds are revered. In quantities appropriate for the season or individual dosha (imbalance/constitution). Diets primarily consisting of sattva foods are the preferred choice for yogis, rishis, and strict followers of Ayurveda. Who tend to refrain from foods that are overstimulating to the mind and body—tamasic and rajasic foods like meat, onions, and garlic, for example.
In addition to the sattva, rajas, and tamas, Ayurveda also looks at the food’s primary elements through its taste, qualities, post-digestive effect and if the food is cooling or warming. These key factors along with the guna also inform how the food will engage with the body and mind.
In taste, sesame seeds are considered to be primarily sweet, as well as pungent, astringent and bitter. The latter tastes become more prominent with roasted sesame seeds and oil. The primarily sweet taste makes them rich in the earth and water elements. Giving them a heavy and oily quality with a heating energy.
In seed form, sesame may feel light, but their oil is dense. Compared to coconut oil, which is considered lighter and cooling. The thick, heavy and heating factors, are why this food is recommended to be eaten, used in abhyanga and self-massage, and used in other sensory-based treatments in the fall and early winter seasons. As well as for individuals whose primary constitution is vata, elders who are in the vata season of life, vata imbalances, and young children who are in the kapha season of life—growing and building strength.
Sesame seeds and oil (non-roasted) are earthy with heavy and oily kapha qualities. Providing lubrication, helping to strengthen, creating internal warm and help ground energy. Aiding in stress management, nourishing the muscles, bones, skin, and hair, supporting joint movement and promoting peaceful sleep. The qualities counterbalance vata dosha qualities, which tend to be dry, mobile and light. When in excess, these qualities can show as nervous energy, anxiety, and restlessness. Or constipation, aches, and stiff joints.
Vasant Lad, BAM &, MASC, one of the first doctors from India to establish Ayurveda in the United States, has mentioned in several of his lectures, that consuming a tablespoon of sesame seeds provides the calcium and magnesium we need each day. Minerals that aide in supporting many vata imbalances and the nourishment received from kapha qualities.
Recently, I also learned from Floracopea’s aromatherapy course, that sesame oil has a long shelf life due to the oil’s anti-oxidants. In being resistant to oxidation, it is considered to be great carrier oil for treatments. One rich in vitamins A and E, minerals, proteins, and amino acids.
According to this course, sesame oil also has:
Lecithin: an important component of cellular membranes particularly for brain, nerves. And helps remove fat and cholesterol from the blood
Linoleic acid: an essential fatty acid that helps to build membranes that surround skill cell. Strengthen the protective lipid barrier that lies beneath the skin and guards against moisture loss. Nourishing the skin, collagen fibers that help with wound healing and hair growth.
Oleic acid: a monounsaturated fatty acid. Resistant to damaging effects of the heat and light.
In learning about these little seeds over the years, I continue to be in awe of their medicinal properties. What I associated once as a “candy” that filled my Nana’s pockets (and my friends’ Nanas’ pockets too), is actually an immunity-boosting, mineral-rich anti-oxidant. Probably, the candy of my Nana’s generation. When also considering how early these seeds date back—1600 B.C., and the many cultures across the globe enjoying them in their daily diets, it’s not surprising why these tiny seeds are so highly revered.
*When toasted, sesame seeds/oil lean toward being slightly astringent and bitter. The oil is less heavy and tends to be more drying. Often why roasted/toasted sesame oil is used to finish a dish rather than cook in it. In high ama individuals or in individuals with excess heat, sesame seeds/oil is not recommended for treatments.