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Why is the digestive system key to good health?

January 17, 2014

005Ayurveda really is obsessed with how we digest and eliminate food. If someone comes to see me with a host of issues, including constipation, this is the first thing to be addressed. The ideal stool is the shape and texture of a ripe banana, in case you wanted to know!

What is Agni? 

The concept of ‘agni’ or ‘digestive fire’ is central to Ayurveda. Composed of various acids and enzymes, this digestive fire is seated within the lower stomach and small intestine. It relates to Pitta dosha, being the energy of heat and transformation. Maintaining a healthy ‘agni’ is at the heart of Ayurvedic preventative health. When agni is balanced, we full good. When its no working, everything starts to feel wrong.

Ayurveda teaches us there are three types of improper digestion caused by eating the wrong types of foods; overeating; eating too late at night or at irregular times; eating excess processed or convenience foods; taking excess liquid with our meals and not taking enough exercise:

  1. Erratic digestion is sometimes quick and sometimes slow and is typical of aggravated Vata. Symptoms include: irregular appetite, bloating, indigestion, cramps, constipation and gas. It can be triggered by irregular eating and sleeping habits, and can be treated by using herbs such as fresh ginger, cumin, and fennel. The Ayurvedic remedy Trikatu (ginger, black pepper, long pepper) and eating at regular times of the day are also helpful.
  2. Rapid digestion is a sign of aggravated Pitta, or too much heat and liquid in the digestive system. Food is digested too quickly leading to weakness, excess thirst and hunger, diarrhoea, low blood sugar levels, acidity and burning. Useful Ayurvedic remedies are Shatavari and Amla, as well as eating smaller, more regular meals and avoiding hot spices such as chilies, fried foods, coffee and alcohol.
  3. Sluggish digestion is the main cause of ama being formed and is the root cause of many diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and obesity. This is an increasing problem due to diets rich in convenience foods, wheat and dairy.  Eating lighter, more easily digested foods helps, as do herbs such as Ginger and Trikatu.

And Ama?

If we eat the wrong foods and impair agni, we get what is termed ‘ama’. This undigested food residue is sticky, whitish-yellow, has a putrid smell and is linked to the most health problems. Initially it coats the gastro- intestinal tract before permeating the rest of the body. This leads to us losing the ability to build healthy tissue, or malnourishment. In turn we lose the ability to nourish the immune system which is the start of the disease process. Simply stated, ama is undigested food that begins to eat you!

Answer the following questions to assess if you have ama:

  • Do you feel a sense of blockage in the body (e.g.: constipation or congestion)?
  • Does your tongue have a greasy white coating?
  • Do you get a bad taste in your mouth sometimes?
  • Do you have difficulties digesting food?
  • Do you feel foggy when you wake up in the morning?
  • Do you feel weak, lethargic and unmotivated for no apparent reason?
  • Do you easily become exhausted, both mentally and physically?

We all have some ama in our bodies, but if you answered yes to several of the above it is likely you have higher than average levels.

How to get rid of Ama?

To both prevent and reduce the build up of ama, aim for a balanced diet, lifestyle, and exercise routine in accordance with your constitution. Yoga and meditation are also important as ama can be caused by negative emotions and stress, as well as poor diet. To rid the body of excess ama, Ayurveda recommends detoxification such as ‘panchakarma’ as well as purification through diet and herbal remedies. Long term, Ayurveda identifies several ways we can all improve our digestive capacity and reduce the likelihood of ama forming in our bodies.

  1. Start the day with a glass of hot water to cleanse the body’s channels.
  2. Favour seasonal, local food which has the right balance of the five elements.
  3. Use digestive spices such as cumin, coriander, fennel, saffron and ginger to aid digestion.
  4. Chew food as many times as you can as digestion begins in the mouth.
  5. Favour lightly cooked food that can be easily used by the body.
  6. Sip small amount of room temperature water with meals as excess fluid dilutes gastric juices. Avoid iced water which cools the digestive fire.
  7. Increase exercise which stimulates metabolic activity in the body
  8. Try to eat at regular times each day with lunch as your main meal.
  9. Eat a cooling, calming diet if you get acid related digestive complaints
  10. See your food as medicine with poor diet responsible for 80% of disease. Avoid ready made, tinned and microwaved foods as much as possible as these are low in prana (life force).
  11. Avoid mixing animal milk/ yoghurt with fruit, meat or fish as these are incompatible food combinations.
  12. Ayurveda advises us not to heat honey above 40 degrees as it becomes toxic for the body causing blockages in the subtle channels. Avoid refined and artificial sweeteners.

“Wholesome food is one of the causes of growth of living beings and unwholesome food for the growth of diseases.” (Charaka Samhita)