Our digestive system cleans itself throughout the day, in a process called the Migrating Motor Complex (MMC). First described in Western scientific literature in 19051, it remains surprisingly unknown to most. Also known as the ‘Housekeeper’, it is responsible for cleaning the digestive tract in between meals. About an hour after a meal is digested in the small intestine2, three phases of contractions of increasing intensity sweep any remaining undigested particles and microbes from the stomach and small intestine towards the colon for excretion. At the same time, gastric, biliary and pancreatic secretions are released to remove bacteria from the small intestine.1
This entire ‘housekeeping cycle’ takes about 90-120 minutes to complete and prepares the digestive system to receive its next meal. Should we decide to eat before the ‘housekeeping process’ is completed, the cleaning process will halt in order for the digestive process to take over, leaving bacteria and undigested food particles in limbo in the small intestine. This leads to digestive problems and predisposes to bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine3, which is associated with IBS-like symptoms such as:
- food intolerances
Ama - 'the main cause of disease’
The ancient Ayurvedic theory of Ama effectively describes a disturbance in the MMC process. The word Ama translates as immature or undigested food substances remaining in the body due to impaired digestion. Symbolically, it is food ‘uncooked’ by the digestive fire, Agni. Such food substances, instead of being transformed into life sustaining Ahaara-Rasa (meaning the essence, or ‘Rasa’, of food, ‘Ahaara’), cannot be utilised by the body.
The sticky, heavy and slimy qualities of undigested Ama are considered in Ayurveda to be the main cause of disease. Ama blocks the subtle channels of the body, prevents nutrition reaching the body tissues, unbalances the Doshas, and eventually lodges in weak parts of the body to create disease.
Indications of the initial stages of Ama presence include:
- loss of motivation
- a feeling of heaviness
- loss of appetite
- constipation or diarrhoea
- coated tongue
- tiredness or exhaustion even after a good night’s rest
You may notice that these are very similar to the aforementioned symptoms of bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine.
Prevent Ama formation by allowing the Housekeeper to do its job.
Ayurveda has a few simple dietary rules to prevent the formation of Ama. One of the simplest rules, and perhaps the most often broken, is never to eat before your previous meal has been fully digested.
The recommendation is to eat only when you are truly hungry, or to wait at least 3 hours after a main meal before eating anything else. Snacking shortly after a meal is thus not a good idea. The same goes for drinking large amounts of fluids: it will just deplete your digestive fire and prolong the digestive process. Having a 3 course meal in a restaurant, where you have to wait for each course to arrive, is not ideal either.
Interestingly (and rather conveniently!), the final stage of the sweeping waves of the Migrating Motor Complex is associated with the sensation of hunger. The experience of real hunger is therefore a signal that our digestive Housekeeper has finished its job and that the digestive system is ready to receive a new meal.
The digestive toxins of Ama can be reduced by detoxifying herbal remedies and dietary changes, in a process known as Ama Pachana (digestion, or ‘Pachana’, of toxins). Get in touch with your Ayurvedic Practitioner for further information.
1. Sanger, G.J. et al (2011): The hungry stomach: physiology, disease, and drug development opportunities. Frontiers of Pharmacology 2011, Vol 1, Article 145.
2. Enders, G. (2014): Gut, the inside story of the body’s most under-rated organ. London: Scribe Publications. Ch. 2.
3. Mondal , A. et al (2017): Underlying mechanism of the cyclic migrating motor complex in Suncus murinus: a change in gastrointestinal pH is the key regulator. Physiol Rep. 2017 Jan; 5(1).
4. Ghoshal , U.C. & Srivastava, D. (2014): Irritable bowel syndrome and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth: Meaningful association or unnecessary hype. World Journal Gastroenterology 2014 Mar 14; 20(10).