Using Ayurveda to maintain your digestive fire
Why does Ayurveda view these three things:
- disrespect of your senses
- making choices from a place of ego
- living out of rhythm with nature
as the three causes of disease? Because these three things have a direct impact on your ability to digest. And, here, we’re not speaking just of food but of all things in life. When you’re able to absorb and transmute all of life’s experiences, then you are healthy and resilient able to adapt on the fly and manage things as you encounter them unburdened by past experiences and past meals.
In Ayurveda, Sanskrit words are commonly used to define things because the original texts were written in Sanskrit. While my intention is to steer largely clear of these words and describe Ayurveda using plain English, there’s a beautiful metaphor that deserves to be explained with the use of the Sanskrit word for digestion, Agni.
Agni is the Hindu fire god, and the purpose of fire is to transform. So, if you think of your digestive fire as a god, and meals as offerings, then your digestive tract digests the food and uses it to nourish your entire body and your mind.
If you're Christian, before you write this off,consider your body is a temple. So, the meals you eat are offerings made in the temple to give you the strength to live a life of service, sharing your gifts with the world and shining your unique light.
Continuing with the metaphors, imagine a wood stove or camp fire. Too much fuel and it burns too hot and too bright, too little fuel and the fire goes out. Likewise, when you add the wood (fuel) and the state of the wood (whether it's cold, dense, dry, etc.) impacts the fire.
Agni goes beyond digestion, to the entirety of the metabolic functions in your body. It includes cellular metabolism. Agni also controls your sense perception, by allowing assimilation both of physical foods and of all of your experiences.
Problems with your ability to digest meals, your circumstances, your thoughts, and world events create a build-up of toxins and can lead to energetic imbalance.
Just one more thing in case you’re struggling with the idea of digesting things other than food. How’s your appetite when you’re stressed? What about when you’re angry… and, here, I mean aside from when you’re hangry 😊? Do you want to eat when you’re scared or grieving?
So, how do you keep your digestive fire strong?
Ayurvedic principles for eating
How you eat is more important than what you eat.
- In Ayurveda, paying attention to your food while you're eating, noting the color, smell, texture, taste, and even the sound of the food on your plate and as you're chewing matters.
- Also, being sure to thoroughly chew each bite matters. Ayurveda considers that digestion begins in your mouth and you make digestion easier for the rest of your system when you take the time to thoroughly chew each bite. This also gives you time to think about your food's life cycle.
Imagine the carrots on your plate as seeds. Imagine as those seeds burst forth into seedlings and grew in the sunlight. Consider the hands that grew and harvested the food on your plate.
Eating in a calm (preferably quiet) environment and even by yourself (or at least avoiding conversation... specifically heavy topics and work related discussions while you eat) matters.
Why is this so important?
By eating in a calm environment, you encourage your body and your mind into a rest and digest state instead of what's typical for most of us these days... fight or flight state. And, this gives your digestion a head start.
Likewise, continuing that state of calm for a few minutes after you finish eating is also recommended in Ayurveda. Ayurveda recommends taking a leisurely walk after each meal, nothing crazy or strenuous, and a walk as short as 50 steps is considered sufficient.
Avoid multitasking while you eat. This goes along with #3, transitioning your body to a rest and repair state and also #1 for paying attention to your food as you eat.
This means avoiding driving, working, reading, or doing other things while you're eating. And, about half of these things go back to the idea that you digest everything that you take in, not just food.
So, if you read or work while you eat, you're asking your body to digest the food you're taking in as you're also digesting the information you're taking in.
In other words, you're asking your body to focus on two different tasks, and taken a step further, asking your blood and energy to focus both on digestion of food and digestion of information.
- Don't eat more than you can digest at a time (and don't eat too frequently). Ayurveda largely recommends eating at most what will fit in your two cupped hands at each meal. And, for most of us, Ayurveda recommends two or three meals a day... and no snacking.
The reason for this is to keep your digestive fire hot and allow it time to fully metabolize the meal you just ate. According to Ayurveda, when you eat too much at one sitting or too frequently, before you've given your body time to digest the previous meal, it's kind of like throwing wet wood on your digestive fire choking it and making it struggle to stay hot.
When you have strong digestion, this might not be a problem when you do it once in a while, however, when you overeat or eat too frequently on a regular basis, you're at an increased risk for impairing your digestive ability.
We'll take a closer look at the exceptions to this particular principle later. For now, we'll move on into why all of this is so important.
The root cause of all disease according to Ayurveda
Why is all of this so important? According to Ayurveda, the reason disease starts is due to toxic buildup of improperly digested food and environmental and synthetic toxins within the body.
This circles back to the 3 causes of diseases according to Ayurveda that we talked about a few weeks ago:
- disrespect of your senses
- making choices from a place of ego
- living out of rhythm with nature
- overuse your senses (consuming more than your body can digest)
- make poor choices (like drinking too much wine daily, eating things you know make you feel bad, overwork your body and your mind at the expense of your body and your mind)
- and do things out of sync with nature's seasonal and daily rhythms (like eating mango in winter, eating right before bed, etc.)
then, you challenge your digestive fire resulting in improper digestion, and the result of improper digestion in Ayurveda is a substance known as ama. In plain English, ama is improperly metabolized or unmetabolized food, and while those 3 things mentioned above may lead to all disease, the reason for this is they encourage ama or metabolic toxins to accumulate in your body, and in Ayurveda, these metabolic toxins are considered the cause of all disease.
Within the digestive tract, ama reduces your digestive fire thus perpetuating the buildup of more undigested material.
And, this improperly metabolized material can make its way outside the digestive tract, or rather be metabolized improperly either in the liver or the kidneys and then because the body doesn't recognize it and doesn't know what to do with it, this material gets transported into the bloodstream or lymph and often lodges itself in a weak tissue.
When this happens... when the metabolic toxins leave the digestive tract and wind up elsewhere in the body, they are sometimes referred to as ama visha, roughly translated as metabolic poison.
The term weak may mean genetically weak, as in a genetic predisposition towards an autoimmune condition (like Hashimoto's, eczema, psoriasis, MS, Raynaud's syndrome, asthma, etc.) or another hereditary disease (like breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease) or weak may mean an organ or tissue that's been under undue stress typically because your diet and lifestyle are out of sync with natural rhythms or are overworked.
Moreover, as the metabolic toxins (ama) increases within your body, they begin to clog the subtle (and gross) channels of the body. Channels are a concept in Ayurveda that refer to anything from your digestive tract, the largest channel within the body, to subtle energetic channels, the unseen channels, smaller even than capillaries and lymph vessels within the body. This links up to the Ayurvedic concept of marma points, which typically align with acupressure points in TCM.
As these channels become clogged, nourishment and removal of wastes to tissues deeper than these clogged channels is impaired. This results in a buildup of waste in those deeper tissues even as the tissues are starved for nourishment leading to creation of more ama.
Ultimately, Ayurveda believes ama, the metabolic toxins, can coat the membranes of individual cells, and this coating weakens cellular communication and leads to autoimmune disease as the immune system no longer recognizes the cells of that organ as "self".
It's also possible for cells to go in the opposite direction, and for this loss of cellular communication to confuse the immune system so that it doesn't notice cells which have mutated, and this leads to cancer growth.
According to Ayurveda, cellular intelligence is deeply impacted by the buildup of metabolic toxins within the body.
This is astounding that thousands of years ago people were able to determine this... without all the diagnostic tools and laboratory equipment and capabilities of performing the tests and observations we can make today. It's nearly impossible to imagine the level of attention that they poured into making these connections... and how Western medicine has uncovered some of these same connections thousands of years later.
Aside from metabolic toxins, a second class of toxins, non-food toxins, for example bacteria (and the cell wall of bacteria, specifically endotoxins) that cause food poisoning, plasticizers like phthalates, and synthetic compounds, that make their way into the digestive tract, often, when these compounds make their way out of the digestive tract, they create a special type of poison in the body known as gara visha.
Like ama visha, gara visha also contributes to loss of cellular intelligence. Regardless of the source of the toxins, many practices in Ayurveda focus on ways to eliminate these from the body and even more practices focus on preventing them from entering the body (in the case of gara visha) and on preventing them from being created in the body (in the case of ama).
So, circling back around to why the manner in which you eat your food is important, the goal is to prevent the formation and buildup of metabolic toxins.
What is Ayurveda's definition of dosha?
Like many protocols, you'll often see recommended food lists for Ayurveda, and typically these food lists are presented in terms of balancing or pacifying a dosha.
While we'll dive deeper into what Ayurveda recommends for your diet based on your individual constitution in a separate episode, we'll go ahead and do a 10,000 foot view here.
We talked a few episodes ago about what dosha is, and it's worth a recap here. According to Ayurveda, all things in the universe are composed of some mixture of 5 elements: space/ether, air/wind, fire, water, and earth.
Some things contain only one of the elements... for example, empty space (as in like beyond the earth's atmosphere) contains only space. An empty jar contains only air. A fire flame is only fire. A glass of distilled water contains only water (plus dissolved gases from the air). And, the last one is the hardest of all, imagine dense, red clay... even it contains earth and water or once dried earth and air trapped in all the porous spaces :).
These are all physical examples of each element. In Ayurveda, both physical and energetic aspects of each element are at work. So, your body contains all five elements:
- space: think of the synapses between neurons or all the empty space within each and every atom of your body
- air: whether in its gaseous form or dissolved in your blood vessels and body's cells
- fire: all of the metabolic processes within your body. The transformation and conversion of food into energy, air into energy
- water: contributing to your blood volume and bulking up your plasma. Vital for cellular processes to function normally.
- earth: your physical form
And, the three doshas contain mixtures of the 5 elements:
- vata: blend of space and air
- pitta: blend of fire and water
- kapha: blend of earth and water
And, Ayurveda assumes that your unique constitution, both your physical and mental state, are a unique ratio of these three doshas.
And, you are healthy when you maintain your unique ratio of these three doshas. Two of the ancient Ayurvedic texts recognize 7 different possible combinations of these three doshas as a person's possible constitution:
- Vata dominant
- Pitta dominant
- Kapha dominant
- Vata-Pitta dominant
- Vata-Kapha dominant
- Pitta-Kapha dominant
- Tridoshic: equal or nearly equal constitution of all three doshas
Eating for your dosha type
If you eat foods that are too light and dry (or have a drying effect on the body), over time, you may become imbalanced with too much vata in your constitution because some of the characteristics of vata are light, dry, and cold.
For this reason, if you're someone who doesn't do very well on a raw foods diet, noticing an increase in restlessness and lack of concentration, moving pains within the body, bloating, constipation, and irregular periods, you might already have a great deal of vata in your constitution and so increasing these qualities in your diet might be the cause for why you're experiencing these symptoms on a raw foods diet.
If you're someone who gets hangry, you're prone to autoimmune conditions, and inflammation (including acne), you may naturally have abundant pitta in your constitution. Ayurveda advises avoiding spicy foods and also recommends including sweet, bitter, and astringent foods in your diet to counter the characteristics of pitta and reduce the fire element of pitta.
Lastly, if you're someone who easily gains weight, is naturally strong, and prefers a relaxing vacation over an action packed one, you may have a significant amount of kapha in your constitution. Eating Ayurvedically for you might include many of the foods that vata and even pitta can't tolerate like drying foods and spicy foods. For you, sweets are recommended in smaller quantities in your diet than for people who have vata and pitta in their nature.
Typically, the food lists associated with Ayurveda are geared towards maintaining balance in one of the three doshas. And, yes, there are also food combination lists in Ayurveda. However, when your digestive fire is strong and when you're in sync with natural rhythms and well balanced, the food combinations aren't as important and the same is true of the food lists.
Ayurveda and skincare
What does all of this talk about Ayurveda have to do with skincare?
Ayurveda recognizes your body as a holistic system meaning that the health of your liver, the health of your immune system, the health of your intestines impacts the health of your skin.
When looking at diseases and afflictions like rosacea, psoriasis, acne, eczema, and even cellulite, Ayurveda takes a holistic view of your body evaluating your current state and your natural state... and seeking to restore balance between the two.
Ayurveda uses diet and daily routine in addition to Ayurvedic herbs applied topically or taken internally to address imbalances within your body. We'll talk about the energetics of these herbs in a future episode.
With today's episode and the previous episode on Ayurveda, you have the foundation of this ancient science, and in the next podcast episode, you'll hear Angela Perger, founder of Simple Ayurveda, describe her journey with Ayurveda and how she's incorporated this wisdom to help manage her autoimmune conditions.
After that episode, we'll turn the podcast back to skincare for a bit talking about preservatives in your skincare.
About the Author
Brandy's a formulation scientist and self-proclaimed health geek who loves hiking, gardening, bird-watching, and body boarding.
Her struggle with acne during her teens and 20s led to a holistic and healthy approach to skincare, embracing skin as an organ to be loved and cared for rather than a canvas to wage war on.
Since 2008, she's been developing all-in-one products for a simple routine at home, & Rain Organica started when her backpacking friends asked for a portable skincare routine to keep their skin healthy & happy on and off the trails.
You can try Rain Organica for yourself with The Essentials Kit, a complete skincare routine in just 3 steps.
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