Ayurveda considers healthy digestion as the foundation of good health. In fact, healthy digestion is so essential that it is the first consideration in any Ayurvedic treatment plan. The term Kaya, which is used to denote the body, means ‘to collect’. In this case it refers to collecting food - the body is thus defined as being built up by food.
Agni is the principle of ‘fire’, responsible for all digestion and transformation in the body. Just as fire has the power to transform raw food into cooked food, our inner Agni digests and transforms food into nutrients for the body to absorb.
The Ayurvedic concept of digestion is intricate: 13 different types of Agni, including an Agni for each of the five elements and the seven body tissues. The thirteenth and most important Agni, known as Jatharagni (gastric fire or gastro-intestinal digestion), is located in the stomach and duodenum, where gastric and pancreatic juices and bile are excreted. Keeping Jatharagni functioning optimally is absolutely essential for good health, as the other twelve Agnis are dependent on it for their proper functioning.
‘You are what you can digest’
We have all heard the saying ‘You are what you eat’. Ayurveda takes it one step further by saying ‘You are what you can digest’. When having a meal, not only is the nutritional value of the food important, but also its digestibility. When food is not properly digested, either due to an imbalance of Agni or factors concerning the nature of the meal, Ama forms. Ama (digestive toxins) are the unripe, uncooked, immature or undigested chyme and chyle that can’t be metabolised by the body. This Ama prevents proper nourishment of the body tissues, clogs the subtle channels and spreads into deeper tissues of the body, leading to disease.
A quick way to check if you have Ama in your system, is to look at your tongue in the mirror: if you observe a coating on any part of the tongue’s surface, it means that there is Ama in your body.
‘All foods and drinks that are consumed should thus support healthy digestion.’
Ayurveda states that all foods ingested should thus support healthy digestion. Below are a few simple guidelines from Ayurveda to maintain healthy digestion:
1. Eat warm food
Food is easier to digest when warm. Warmth contains the quality of fire (i.e. heat) and thus supports the hot quality of Agni to promote the release of digestive enzymes. Inversely, cold food causes the body to expend energy to warm it up and it depletes Agni.
2. Food should be slightly oily
A little bit of oil or ghee (clarified butter) on your food acts as fuel for Agni and thus enhances the digestibility of the food. It also aides the downward passage of food through the intestines.
3. Do not under- or overeat
Ayurveda recommends dividing the stomach into thirds when eating a meal: one third should be filled with solid food, the second third with liquids and the last third should remain empty. It is a bit like when you’re boiling vegetables in a cooking pan - you wouldn’t fill it up to the top, as it would boil over during the cooking process.
Another recommendation that is perhaps easier to visualise, is that the ideal quantity of food would fit inside your two cupped hands.
4. Eat when you experience true hunger and after the previous meal has been digested
Eating when you experience true hunger ensures that your Agni is functioning optimally and is ready to ingest new food. Finish a ‘cycle’ of digestion fully, before having a snack or the next meal to prevent partly digested food particles mixing with new undigested food particles.
5. Avoid eating too fast or slow
Eating too fast can lead to overeating and indigestion, whilst eating too slowly may cause digestive enzymes to release in an irregular manner.
6. Mindful eating
Eating when stressed or upset can cause overeating, whilst the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system inhibits gastrointestinal secretions. When food is taken in a relaxed atmosphere with our full focus, there is sensory enjoyment and we are able to feel the signals of satiety with more ease. Being in a relaxed state allows the parasympathetic system to be in a ‘rest and digest’ mode, thus aiding healthy digestion.
In a world where we tend to be very disassociated from our bodies, where eating on-the-go or whilst working in front of our laptop have become the norm, eating with the Ayurvedic principles in mind provides us with an opportunity to slow down and be truly present in our bodies.