Ayurveda and the digestion
Eating and digestion are daily, life-sustaining events. According to Ayurveda a healthy digestive system is
a cornerstone of well-being and that every disease is believed to arise from inefficient digestion. Food consumed will not provide good health unless it is digested properly. Even if the food is high quality and pure, it will be harmful to the body if it is not fully digested. The digestion of food is carried out in the stomach (jathar) which is referred metaphorically as “fire” (agni). The agnis/fires are descriptive categories for the action of various types of enzymes and metabolic processes. You want a balanced agni that is neither too weak nor too excessive. The quality of agni varies depending upon one’s dosha: vata, pitta, or kapha. In vata and kapha types, agni tends to be weak and the digestive system “cold,” sluggish, or irregular, which can result in malabsorption disorders, chronic constipation, loose stools, and gas. In pittas, the fires of agni can become excessive and cause heartburn, acid reflux, colitis, and other burning sensations.
The Digestive Process
-Mouth: In the mouth, food is tasted with the tongue and chewed with the teeth. Salivary glands provide moisture and help break down the food. These actions are all enabled by the action of prana vata.
-stomach: When the food reaches the stomach, it is kneaded into a dough-like consistency by kledaka kapha, and then exposed to jatharagni, the digestive fire. The jatharagni (gastric acid) heats the food and, with the assistance of pachaka pitta, forms the nutrient fluid or ahara rasa. Pitta is a vital part of the entire digestive process, as it is responsible for heat, energy, acidic actions (such as gastric activity) and all conversion functions, such as those undertaken in the stomach and liver.
The nutrient plasma nourishes and forms the seven tissues or dhatus. This nutrient plasma or ahara rasa is carried to the dhatus by samana vata. The portion of food with no nutritive value is termed mala or waste material.
-The waste or mala is transported by apana vata to the colon and rectum to be eliminated.
We can compare the digestive process to the cooking of food externally. It requires a stove, a pot, fuel, air, fire, water, food and someone to utilize it all. Internally the pot is the stomach, the stove the small intestine, the fuel is the previously digested food that triggers the enzymes, the air is your peristaltic movement, the water the gastric mucosal secretions, the organizer is your prana (life force) while the fire is your jathara agni or acids and enzymes.
The Importance of jatharagni or digestive fire
Food is responsible for providing nutrition to the dhatus. Food is required for the formation of ojas (vital fluid), immunity, maintenance of body and giving luster to the skin. It provides energy to prana and is responsible for developing willpower, determination and enthusiasm. Although these qualities are provided by food, it is the jatharagni (Gastric acid) that enables the food to be transformed into nutrients useful for the body. It is vital to maintain the balanced functioning of jatharagni, as all other agnis depend on this, as well as all the dhatus, in order to receive proper nourishment. If jatharagni is weak or defective, it is not able to digest food adequately. The ahara rasa produced will be poor in quality or quantity, or both. Therefore, the dhatus and ojas will not receive proper nourishment and will inevitably become unbalanced.
The four states of Agni
Ayurveda classifies four different states of agni that point to certain constitutional tendencies. We each have digestive tendencies that can be regulated with appropriate diet and herbs.
1. Visham agni: Visamagni
This is an erratic and unstable agni state, arising due the influence of vata. The functioning of agni is variable - the jatharagni sometimes digests food normally, and at other times slowly. This type of agni is often found in people with a vata dosha or when vata is aggravated. The people with this type of Agni are prone to have an irregular appetite and digestive system with signs of variable hunger Symptoms constipation, distension or swelling of the abdomen, dysentery, colic type pain and wind, gas or gurgling sounds in the intestines.
2. Tikshna agni: The function of agni becomes too fast or strong in this state, which is due to an aggravation of pitta. It is often seen in people with a predominantly pitta constitution, or when pitta is disturbed. The jatharagni becomes hyperactive in the tikshagni state, and can digest even large quantities of food in a very short amount of time, leaving the person feeling constantly hungry. Symptoms of this state of agni include a dry mouth and palate, a burning sensation in the stomach and excessive thirst Tikshna agni: Intense hunger but with poor digestion is a pitta sign. Also thirst, parched mouth, dry throat, loose stool, low blood sugar levels and a burning sensation in intestines. This is common in pitta body types who can be intense and irritable.
Tikshna agni: The function of agni becomes too fast or strong in this state, which is due to an aggravation of pitta. It is often seen in people with a predominantly pitta constitution, or when pitta is disturbed. The jatharagni becomes hyperactive in the tikshagni state, and can digest even large quantities of food in a very short amount of time, leaving the person feeling constantly hungry. Symptoms of this state of agni include a dry mouth and palate, a burning sensation in the stomach and excessive thirst Tikshna agni: Intense hunger but with poor digestion is a pitta sign. Also thirst, parched mouth, dry throat, loose stool, low blood sugar levels and a burning sensation in intestines. This is common in pitta body types who can be intense and irritable.
3. Mandagni: Mandagni
The agni begins to function at a minimal rate in this condition, which is often found in people with kapha aggravation or constitution. The jatharagni cannot digest even a small quantity of food. Symptoms including nausea, vomiting, heaviness in the stomach, laziness, coughing, coating of the tongue and excessive salivation may be experienced when agni is in this condition. This means slow digestion and is commonly a kapha sign. Also weak hunger, heaviness after a meal, tiredness after eating, sluggish bowels, bulky stool, feeling cold, sweet craving, stimulant craving. Use pungent and bitter flavours.
4. Samagni: The functioning of agni is normal and stable in this state, indicative of the balanced state of the three doshas in the body. Jatharagni can easily digest the normal diet and extract proper nourishment. All the tissues or dhatus, cells and organs receive sufficient nutrition, and good health is maintained balanced hunger and digestion; food is digested within 4 hours with no excess craving or lack of interest in food.
Effects of low digestive fire
All forms of imbalanced agni create ama. This is undigested food that forms toxins that act as poisons to the body. In chronic conditions ama can manifest as high cholesterol, blood disorders, fatigue syndromes, tumours, cysts, skin conditions. Ama causes the doshas to accumulate at their site; kapha in stomach, pitta in the abdomen, vata in the colon. If left untreated the accumulated doshas can become aggravated and start to overflow.
- Kapha can become mucus, coughs, asthma, diabetes, obesity. - Pitta can become skin problems, heart problems, and inflammatory problems. Vata can become bone problems, nervous conditions, and degenerative conditions.
Signs of Ama (Toxins)In the body:
· Bad breath and coating on the tongue.
· Lack of appetite and craving for junk food.
· Sluggish or irritable elimination.
· Feeling tired and lethargic.
· Abdominal gas and bloating, especially after eating, and slow metabolism.
· Feeling heavy and congested.
· Dull and persistent aches and pains.
Signs of healthy digestion and ojas
· Feeling rested and energies upon waking up in the morning.
· Tongue is clear and pink
· Body feels light regardless of the number on the scale.
· Digestion is strong and no sign of bloating or gas.
· Skin has a healthy glow.
· Resistance to sickness, cold and flu.
Ayurvedic detox and its importance in our health
Cleansing and detoxifying the body helps build the natural fire within (agni), which naturally burns ama and aids in digestion. So As soon as we become aware of dis-harmony in the body, whether it be tiredness, stress, negativity, anger, anxiousness, depression or physical symptoms such as nausea, skin rashes, pain or stiffness, we should quickly try to balance by reducing the amount of toxins entering and also stored in the body. This can only be achieved by changing our diet and lifestyle, increasing our digestive capacity, cleansing our colon and detoxifying our bodily tissues. Just changing our diet or taking a few herbal remedies will be unsuccessful, or at least limited in its affect, if we do not also cleanse the body at the same time.
Ayurveda recommends us to do a seasonal cleanse at every season so that we can clean and clear the channels of the body from the toxins which could have been built up during the previous season. Seasonal cleanse or detox is particularly important during spring.
Once the digestive system has been purified, balanced and strengthened, the ingestion of pure, unrefined foods and the taking of herbal teas and remedies will start to have the desired effect on the areas of the body we specifically wish to improve. Our ultimate goal should be to create constant energy, vitality, lightness, love, compassion and joy which are our inherent birthright and allow us to act efficiently, effectively and appropriately at all times; they are also the true measure of a healthy mind and body.
Ayurvedic healthy eating habits for healthy digestion:
Avoid drinking ice water, ice cold food and drinks at all times. And favor warm drink during meal time. If you do need to take cool drinks specially to balance the excess pitta in the body it is best to for take them in between meals.
Make lunch the main and largest meal of the day as the digestive fire is strongest between 12:00-13:00 p.m. Dinner is best before 18:30P.m and should be the lightest meal of the day.
Avoid eating and snacking after 19h30 p.m. This is the time that we should be in bed so that body can burn off the toxins and digest the food that has consumed during the day.
Minimize and if possible avoid the use of leftovers, canned, frozen or preserved foods.
Minimize the amount of raw eating specially during fall and winter.
Do not eat contraindicated foods: Dairy and fruit; melon after other food; fruits with other food; fish and milk; eggs with milk; lemons with milk or yogurt;after dark; equal parts of ghee and honey.
Avoid excessive fasting or excessive eating. The recommendation is to eat until you are 50% full, have 25% liquids and leave the remaining space for proper digestion.
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Your body, which is bonding millions of molecules every second, depends on transformation. Breathing and digestion harness transformation. Food and air aren’t just shuffled about but, rather, undergo the exact chemical bonding needed to keep you alive. The sugar extracted from an orange travels to the brain and fuels a thought. The emergent property in this case is the newness of the thought; no molecules in the history of the universe ever combined to produce that exact thought.” Deepak Chopra, The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden dimensions of Your Life