Digestive Fire in Ayurveda
We are not just what we eat, we are also what we digest
We live in a world where we have plenty of dietary choices: vegetarian, pescetarian, pollotarian, vegan or paleo, keto, low carb, raw, organic, processed and many more options. Often we find it very challenging to decide which is the right diet for us. Each dietary choice has advocates claiming their path to be the best. Ayurveda believes that we are not just what we eat , we are also what we digest. If our digestive system is weak, even the most healthy food in the world can make us sick. If our digestion is strong even the unhealthiest food can sustain us.
Agni, the Digestive Fire
The concept of Agni is very important in understanding the process of digestion in Ayurveda. Ayurvedic wisdom considers life as a sacred fire, or Agni. It should be protected in its pure form without tampering. Agni exists in many forms in the body. It is the force of intelligence responsible for metamorphosis, transformation, digestion, metabolism and assimilation within each cell. The whole process of biological conversion and utilization of energy is symbolized by the term Agni.
Ayurveda considers the involvement of Agni at many levels. It is the key to all bodily processes from cellular metabolism to perception in the brain, which involves the burning of energy and the generation of light /knowledge.
The most important form of Agni is the digestive fire or ‘fire in the belly’, called Jatharagni. This is the basis of physical health. If the digestive fire is consistent and unhampered, then health is guaranteed; our food is digested properly, our tissues and waste materials form normally. If the Jatharagni is hyperactive (Tikshna) or hypoactive (Manda), it will cause an excessive or retarded action resulting in the production of Ama or endotoxins which acts as precursors to various disorders.
This is the reason Digestion is considered more important than nutrition in Ayurveda.
On the subtle level, Ayurveda considers the ‘life-fire’ or fire of subtle energy (Prana) as the key to healing, which is again a result of healthy jatharagni or digestive fire.
Signs of healthy Agni:
- tongue is pink and non-coated
- hungry before meals
- regular bowel movements
- well formed poop
- clarity of mind
- clear skin
- good energy and stamina
- feels light and at ease
Signs of impaired Agni
Poor dietary choices, improper food combinations, an unsupportive lifestyle, emotional disturbances and stress result in the impairment of Agni. When we start recognizing the symptoms of impaired Agni and do what is necessary to reverse changes, then the ill-effects won’t last long. If the signs of impaired Agni are ignored, it will lead to ill-health and disease.
Here are some important warning signs that Agni is not operating at its full strength:
- feeling heavy
- low energy, fatigue
- Emotional disturbances
- Suppressed or over-active appetite
- Indigestion: gas, bloating, constipation, nausea, hyperacidity, loose stools, a sense of heaviness, feeling tired or mentally foggy after meals.
- whitish coating on tongue
Tips to keep Agni strong:
- Sipping a cup of hot water frequently. Hot water can also be infused with herbs like crushed ginger or cumin. (Boil 1 liter of water with 10 gms of ginger or cumin.)
- Taking a brisk walk after heavy meals can aid digestion
- Eat a small breakfast, large lunch and small dinner
- Eat with peace of mind, this will help to check emotional eating. When our mind is focused only on eating, the body will start releasing the right amount of chemicals needed for digestion.
- Drink less water with food. The right time to hydrate yourself is 90 minutes before or after the main meal. Never take cold drinks with food.
- Make sure you eat when you are hungry , not because it’s time to eat. It is important to eat on time; if the body is not trained to eat breakfast , lunch and dinner on time then it has to be trained.
- Avoid snacking; eat enough so that you won’t be hungry before the next meal.
- Keep yourself physically active with 10-15 minutes walking or yoga every day.
- Meditate on a regular basis to process stress. Stress can inhibit the natural digestive process and lead to chronic digestive issues.
- Eat warm, light, easily digestible fresh meals like soups and porridges. Take less creamy, cheesy and heavy foods if the Agni is hypoactive.
- If Agni is hyperactive, causing frequent hunger pangs, hyperacidity, nausea etc. avoid heating spices like garlic, ginger, pepper and chilli. Liquorice root or fennel seed-infused herbal tea is beneficial.
- Consult a good Ayurvedic doctor to learn more about the status of your Agni, imbalances of bioenergies and any long-standing ailments if your body does not respond to the above advice.
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Aparna K. BAMS, MD, PhD
Aparna is one of the few specialists worldwide with a PhD in Ayurveda. Born into an Ayurvedic family which operates a traditional Ayurvedic Panchakarma hospital in Kerala, India, she grew up observing her father, the renowned Dr Padmanabhan.