KEYS TO PROPER DIGESTION:
There are main considerations with regards to healthy eating which are unique to Ayurveda .
In order of importance, they are:
- How do we digest our food
- How are we eating our food
- What are we eating
This section focuses on the digestive fire – known as Agni in Ayurveda,
In Ayurveda we say all disease starts in the digestive system, and modern complimentary medicine is starting to affirm these ancient concepts with emphasising the relationship between the health of the gut and microbiome and a healthy mind. indeed the gut is now refered to as the second brain regarding many areas of cognitive, mental and emotional health.
- The old adage ‘we are what we eat ‘ is replaced with the Ayurvedic concept of ‘ we are what we assimilate’. In Ayurvedic traditions, the Agni is crucial to how we digest not only our food but how we digest our life in general – mental, emotional and physical. While eating nourishing foods, it is also important to understand that if we are unable to digest, absorb and assimilate the nutrition in these foods, then it is not as important what we eat, as to how we digest. Thus, how we digest becomes of paramount importance in good nutrition.
Our agni – or digestive fire – will often have a doshic type which will be a primary influence in the doshic balance of our entire system.
Our body is a complex ecosystem, and we are a microcosm of the elements inside our body. When we balance the dosha in the agni, then the other doshas in other parts of the body will often also balance. Just as disease manifests, it can unwind : the balance in the digestive system will prevent any overflow into the rest of the body as well ‘ call back’ any dosha which has overflowed and gone into other areas of the body, thereby rebalancing the body. See ‘How disease manifests’ page.
2. How we eat is vital to our ability to digest. We all know that when we eat even a healthy, nutritious meal, but are stressed, emotionally disturbed or in a rush, we do not digest our food well. Our body needs to be in the relaxed parsympathetic mode to have proper functioning of the digestive tract and organs. When we are stressed (or have had caffeine) our sympathetic nervous system is activated, which is the flight or fright mode. Our energy is in the muscles and brain in this mode, not in our digestive system, and food taken will not recieve the attention it needs to be digested and assimilated.
Hence, making meals an active meditation by taking a few breaths to connect with each meal, and eating in a calm and relaxed manner with focused awareness on our food only, is crucial for good digestion.
3. Ayurveda suggests eating wholesome, healthy and nutritious meals that are prepared appropriate to our dosha and the season. However, it is key to remember this is often 3rd in importance to ‘how we digest’ and ‘how we eat’.
AGNI – OUR DIGESTIVE FIRE
It is important to know how our Agni is functioning.
If we have a strong appetite and feel good after eating, then we can assume that we have a balanced and healthy agni. However, if our appetite is lacking or irregular and we feel heavy or tired after eating, then we can assume that our agni is weak.
When we put food into our body, it has to be ‘cooked’ or digested by the agni. If agni is too weak to properly ‘cook’ the food into nectar which our body can readily receive, the food is improperly digested and the very food we think is feeding us becomes toxic to us. When the body doesn’t recognize the food because it is improperly digested, it sees it as a foreign invasion. Therefore the lymph and immune system get inflamed as they fight this foreign invasion, which is simply your own improperly digested food. Another issue that Ayurveda recognizes when we do not digest our food properly is that Ama is created. Ama is like a toxic glue that is created from the improperly formed matter of undigested foods and this obviously stagnates our body systems. Ama will be discussed further, later in this section.
The Agni can be thought of and visualized as a “camp fire” in the belly. Allopathically, the Agni might be termed our digestive enzymes, or hydrochloric acid, but it is far more complex than this. When eating, we want to be able to put the appropriate food in the appropriate amounts into our body so that it “cooks” properly in our digestive fire and our body can absorb its nutrients like nectar.
In order to cook and digest food effectively, our Agni has to be nourished. Ayurveda has a whole host of guidelines to balance the agni which are given in details further in the article. In modern day life we can ignite the fire using herbal digestives, such as DIGEST AID, and recipes including Ginger Zinger and Crunchy Digestive. All the regular cooking herbs and spices are digestives and one can easily concoct ones own favourite digestive aid recipe . See the individial dosha sections for more guidance.
There are three main types of digestive fires, as outlined below.
The three kinds of agni are:
Vata type Agni – as are the qualities of vata, this is often an unstable, variable light and weak fire. To understand this, imagine a fire requiring constant care due to winds blowing it around or that is unable to keep burning self sufficiently as it lacks any solid material to burn. Vata agnis require protection, nurturing and a lot of babying. They lack a natural appetite in the belly and tend to only feel hungry through the nervous system or a drop in blood sugar. For example, a person with Vata agni may not feel hungry all day, but when they do feel a hunger they need to eat immediately, or they don’t actually feel hungry but may instead feel light-headed and weak because they feel the need for food to ground and nourish themselves, without actually feeling a fire in the belly. Unfortunately, eating without an actual fire in the belly causes ama. Therefore, Vata agni types always need to use digestives before each meal. See our products, such as DIGEST AID, and our Recipes Section for our Ginger Zinger recipe.
Having a Vata agni requires you to modify your food and eating habits in specific ways. If one eats a salad, for example, then ingesting wet leafy greens would extinguish the agni (akin to throwing wet leaves onto a weak fire). As a result, those with Vata agni need to make sure their ingredients are spicy and with oil which ignites the fire. The paradox is that while people with a Vata agni need to eat more Kapha increasing foods, such as whole grains, oils, nuts and seeds which are heavy, they simply do not have the digestive capacity to process these types of foods. Hence, they create a spiralling effect of the Vata dosha by choosing lighter Vata increasing foods. Instead, they need to cut this cycle and focus more on using digestives prior to meals to increase their digestive agni which will allow them to assimilate the vata pacifying foods which ground and stabilise them.
Pitta Agni – This agni can be visualized as a raging fire which needs constant fuel of logs that are dense, strong and large. People who have a Pita agni often have a large appitite and can eat a large amount of food very quickly and remain quite thin in body mass, as they are burning through their fuel too quickly. If this fire is not fed regularly, then it may cause ulcers in the stomach because the power of this fire can burn itself up and chew up the stomach lining. Those with a Pitta agni need to pacify this fire by having bitter tonics, such as NEEM, LIVER-AID, or bitter teas, such as dandelion and burdock, or gentian.
Those with Pitta Agni do not tend to create as much ama because the toxins do not have a chance to form since their food is overly digested. However, they can create a Pitta dosha in the rest of the body, causing improper liver function, fast metabolism of blood which could lead to anaemia, heat conditions such as rashes, or eye-sight problems.
Kapha Agni – This is a campfire that can be likened to one big slow burning log with steady embers. It is common for this type to want to graze all day, having a small but constant appetite. It is easy for someone with a Kapha agni to ‘over-eat’ simply because the low embers rarely ignite into a stronger flame which is required to digest a large meal properly. This can often lead to fatigue after a meal. Unfortunately, those with a Kapha condition usually love to eat food (especially Kapha increasing foods such as breads and cakes) and often eat emotionally. As a result, they tend to create more ama in their bodies. This tends to accumulate in the stomach creating a gluey coating preventing digestive juices from accessing the food that it needs to digest. It is easy for those who have this agni experience the spiraling effect of poor digestion, leading to mucous build-up and weight gain. To support the Kapha agni, strong digestive herbs such as cayenne, ginger and black pepper are recommended before, during and after a meal. See our DIGEST AID product, as well as our recipes section for the Ginger Zinger.
AMA OR TOXIC GLUE:
Ama, or toxic glue, is created when we do not digest of our food properly. It can coat our tongue, line our large or small intestines, and eventually coat every cell of our body. When toxins go into the tissues of our body, for example muscle tissue, the ama coats these and blocks the receptor sites (which are like keyholes in the cells). This in turn prevents the nutrition in our body from entering the cells and activating them and therefore our cells cannot be fed. As a result, we feel tired or lethargic and not energised by our food.
Having ama in the body is the major cause of dis-ease. Ideally, the foods that we eat act like the keys of nutrition, which fit into the receptor sites (key holes) of our cells, thus providing us with energy, nutrition and vital nutrients. However if ama is coating our cells and the keys of our food are improperly formed (due to poor breakdown of the food), then these keys will not fit into the dirty key holes. Therefore, our cells will not receive the nutrition that they require.
This literally leaves our cells starving or creates improper cell formation, leading to tissue and organ degeneration. When the cells are ‘starving’, the brain is signaled to consume more food, which the body cannot digest due to the initial cause which is low agni. Therefore, eating more without improving the agni creates a spiraling effect of creating more and more ama and often weight gain.
How to reduce ama in the body: detox
The number 1 key is to not create more ama by following the healthy eating guidelines outlined below.
There are many ways to remove the ama that has accumulated in our body. Following an appropriate detox program suitable for your condition, level of toxins, lifestyle commitments, length of time you have to commit and your dosha type are important considerations. This can range from booking yourself into a retreat detox for a few weeks to giving yourself a simple home detox that you can incorporate into your everyday living. See our section on DETOX for more information.
KEYS TO HEALTHY EATING AND MAINTAINING YOUR AGNI:
- Use digestive herbs to stimulate the agni. Take herbs 30-40 minutes before each meal- such as our DIGEST AID formula – an effective and easy way to ignite the agni. Making your own ginger zinger or ‘asafoetida ghee’ from our recipes is another great way to get your digestive juices flowing. Always cook with herbs and spices appropriate for your dosha and when necessary, take digestives after a meal to remedy the occasional over-eating or when working with a particularly weak agni.
- Eat according to your dosha. We all need different types of foods, and it is a classic saying in Ayurveda that ‘what may be medicine to one may be poison to another’. Learn more in the section of ‘introduction to doshas’ and the individual dosha sections of vata, pitta and kapha.
- Don’t drink water around meals. If you recall the imagery of your agni being a campfire in your belly, then water serves to put out our digestive fire. Therefore, any drink before eating, especially a fruit shake or iced drink, will put out your agni, or digestive fire. Depending on your agni, refrain from having water 30-50 minutes before a meal and an hour to hour and a half after. If your food is dry, you can sip on a small amount of hot ginger tea.
- Don’t over eat. Even a few bites beyond our digestive capacity renders our whole meal potentially toxic waste matter if we do not remedy it with digestives. We need approximately one third solid, one third liquid and one third air in our stomach for proper digestive action. The liquid is our digestive juices, the air is for appropriate ovement and the solid is our food.
- Eat mindfully. We want to greet our food like we greet our lover. Smell it, breathe it and enjoy and taste each bite, connect with it emotionally, as eating is a sensual second chakra experience. Be present with your food. Remember ‘we are what we eat’, which applies to nutritional as well as emotional content. Eating slowly and chewing well allows us to notice when we have eaten sufficiently and prevents us from overeating. Presence is the key tonic to digestion, indeed for life itself!
- Eat in silence. This may seem like quite a challenging concept for some, however when we understand the subtle energetics of the sub doshas of vata, we can see that eating is a ‘downward and inward’ movement of energy, whilst talking is an ‘upward out outward’ movement – these two flows are energetically contradictive and therefore digestion cannot truly flow if talking is opposing it energetically.
- Avoid eating when stressed. In modern life, this is much easier said than done! However, as previously explained, good digestion requires the parasympathetic nervous system to be operating so that our blood is flowing to the inner organs and digestive tract. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which takes our energy away from the core systems. For this reason, caffeine is to be avoided around meals.
- Relaxing after eating. For at least ten minutes after a meal, resting and appreciating the nourishment helps you to assimilate it and allows the mind to be integrated with the physical body. A gentle stroll of 100 paces is recommended within 15 minutes of finishing a meal. Lying down is not recommended.
- Eat regular meals. Our body responds well to having a regular input of fuel, however, eating when one is not hungry will create ama. Therefore, encouraging appetitie with regular use of digestive herbs is the first step into establishing rhythmic eating patterns.