CHAPTER 9: DIGESTION AND FOOD
9.1 How Digestion Works
AYURVEDA HOLDS THAT YOU ARE NOT WHAT YOU EAT, BUT RATHER WHAT YOU DIGEST.
There is a well known saying, ‘You are what you eat’, which illustrates the importance of digestion to maintaining good health. This also puts forth the question: how much do we actually know about our digestive system? Ayurveda provides innumerable interesting insights which go beyond what is commonly understood. It especially talks about how the entire mechanism of digestion is a ‘three stage process’, which occurs on both subtle and physical levels.
DID YOU KNOW THAT THE DIGESTIVE PROCESS TAKES 36 DAYS TO COMPLETE!
Ayurveda says that the entire process of digestion takes about 36 days, ending with the creation of ojas – the most refined by-product of digestion in the body. Ojas is the prime energy reserve of the body and a very important component of your immune system. It protects life, gives strength, controls heart and maintains tissue balance. You can fix your digestion for good health by simply paying attention to the three stage process.
9.1.1 Three Stage Process of Digestion
Typically, the duration of digestion through the GI tract takes about 4-6 hours, depending upon the food you eat, state of agni (digestive fire) and individual’s body constitution. This whole process is broken down into three stages:
- Stage One – Mouth and upper stomach- This stage takes about 1–2 hours and is majorly associated with kapha and its elements. At this stage, saliva mixes with food to make it moist, foamy and oily in order to be digested well. Being lethargic and completely inactive at this stage can lead to indigestion, indicating that this stage of digestion is compromised and the food is unable to properly circulate in the body. Hence, it is important to be active as soon as you finish eating your food so that your body gets enough time to digest it.
- Stage Two – Lower stomach and small intestine- This stage takes about 2–3 hours and is associated with pitta and its elements. This incorporates the role of pancreatic secretion which is required to break down food. Heartburn and acid reflux are related to imbalances in this stage.
- Stage Three – Large intestine (colon)- This stage takes about 1–2 hours and is related to vata and its elements. Bloating and gas problems are likely to arise at this stage, prompting indigestion problems.
9.2 Stimulation of Agni
Agni or Fire is the metaphor of all metabolic functions in the body.
You eat to ‘offer’ food into the fire of your bellies. Agni digests this food and controls your brain which gets sustenance by these fragrant ‘vapors’. This nourishment releases the nervous impulses, which in turn release various enzymes and hormones in the body. This leads to stimulation of metabolic activities so that the entire body-mind-soul structure functions efficiently.
ACCORDING TO AYURVEDA, AGNI AT PEAKS AT NOON AND THEN AT MIDNIGHT.
Qualities: Hot, Penetrating, Pungent, Luminous, Transforming, Nourishing, Warming
The key functions of Agni include:
- Digestion, sensory perception, cellular metabolism and mental assimilation which links mental well being as well as physical health.
- Strong immunity, a sparkle in the eyes and glow to the skin.
- When agni is in perfect balance, it releases emotions that are beneficial to health- courage, intelligence, happiness, strength.
- When agni is out of balance, it causes destructive emotions – fear, anxiety, confusion, jealousy, irritation, anger.
9.3 Understanding Indigestion
Indigestion or Anijra is the abnormality or discomfort in digesting food, which can occur due to a number of gastro-intestinal reasons like formation of gas or an upset stomach. Ageing is another phenomenon that is accompanied by several changes in the gastro-intestinal system, and is thus common amongst elders. Indigestion can also happen due to dosha imbalance.
9.3.1 Common Causes of Indigestion or Anijra
- Irregular food timings such as skipping breakfast or having late dinners
- Overeating and eating junk food in large quantities
- Profuse drinking, such as large amounts of water or juice immediately after food or excessive alcohol consumption
- Eating Stale food, such as leftovers, refrigerated or frozen foods in heavy amounts
- Unhealthy eating habits, such as eating too fast or slow, eating while driving, watching TV or your mobile phone, standing, or prior to bathing
- Psychological factors, such as emotional disturbance, fear, anxiety and stress
9.4 Managing Your Digestion
Some Ayurvedic tips and habits to aid Agni stimulation include:
- Indulge in some form of daily movement. This can be Yoga, walks, and general exercises are especially recommended after having meals.
- Eating only till satiation. By overeating, our stomach is unable to properly break it down. This leads to indigestion and acid reflux. Ayurveda’s recommendation is that we should leave one-third to one-quarter of our stomach empty to allow the body to easily digest the food.
- Sip on some hot ginger tea throughout the day. Ayurveda sees ginger as a “universal remedy” due to its innumerable benefits. Ginger has the quality to stimulate the digestion mechanism by speeding up food movement in the body. It is also capable of relaxing the intestinal muscles, thus relieving gas and cramps.
- Eat your largest/ heaviest meal during lunchtime. Your bodies are efficiently able to digest food at midday. Your body’s digestive juices are highest during midday which makes it the best time your largest and the heaviest meal
- Eating heavy foods in the evening should be avoided as your bodies slow down in their working and digestion processes.
- Focus on releasing all your negative emotions. Emotions can often affect the rate and quality of digestion. For instance, you may get heartburn when you’re under stress, lose your appetite when you feel depressed, or become nauseated before any big event. High stress levels may also inhibit the natural digestive process and lead to chronic digestive issues.
- Spice it up the Ayurvedic way by Incorporating herbs and spices such as fresh ginger, cumin, black pepper, turmeric and fenugreek in your food. These substances are high on digestive properties and can enhance the digestion process, making it easier for you to shed those extra kilos.
- Eat local, seasonal and fresh foods. Ayurveda stresses that fresh foods that have been ripened by the sun contain more prana (life force) than those contained for long periods of time. Avoid foods that hold added preservatives.
- Follow the principles of Mindful Eating. Be present in the moment, eat with purpose. Because we cannot stress the importance of this enough, we have expanded on this much more below.
9.5 What is Mindful Eating?
MINDFUL EATING IS A BRANCH OF MINDFULNESS, A FORM OF MEDITATION THAT AIDS RECOGNITION AND COPING OF EMOTIONS AND SENSES.
Do you eat while looking at your phone, watching TV, or are simply distracted? Mindful eating is a simple concept that helps in controlling such eating habits. It ensures that you follow a healthy and holistic system of eating for healthy functioning of the mind, body and soul. It promotes weight loss, reduces binge eating, and enables overall health.
Mindful eating helps in treating a number of conditions. These include eating disorders, depression, anxiety and various other food-related abnormalities. Mindful eating is about using the mechanism of mindfulness to reach a state where one is capable of fully drawing one’s attention to the eating experiences, cravings, and physical cues while eating, thus being in the moment.
9.5.1 Following Mindful Eating
Next time you eat, pay adequate attention to food and listen to digestive cues. Eating slowly, chewing properly, avoiding disturbances, and tuning into your hunger and non-hunger cues are essential to maintaining a healthy diet and appetite. Mindful eating is also necessary for healthy and regular secretion of malas, or bodily waste.
9.6 What is Malas?
Consumption of food involves various external and internal biological processes which tend to generate different kinds of waste materials, or malas. These must be excreted appropriately and in a timely way from the body.
Ayurveda distinguishes between two kinds of malas – Ahara malas, or food waste, and Dhatu malas, or waste from the tissues. The ahara malas consists of faeces (purisha), urine (mutra), and sweat (sveda). The dhatu malas include the various secretions of different body parts like the nose, eyes, ears; lactic acid, carbon dioxide, and other metabolites of cellular respiration, exfoliated hair, skin, and nails.
Although these are all waste products, they still play a vital role in maintaining good health as long as they are optimal in their quantity (pramana), qualities (gunas), and function (karma). However, if the malas become abnormal in any way, they start posing a serious threat on health. Dhatus and malas in their unbalanced state are called dushyas (soiled). The different malas are composed of different elements, however there is presence of all the three elements of the Universe in each of its forms.
9.6.1 Types of Malas
- Purisha is the excretory bi-product of the digestion process of solid food and hence it is known as ‘Anna Mala’
- Purisha is also Pancha Mahabhuta by constitution, but exhibits the dominance of Vayu and Agni Mahabhoota
- Pitta which is secreted into the liver for digestion mixes with food and is later excreted along with it, which is why stools appear yellowish in colour
- The quantity of excreta is determined by the attribute of food we eat and also on the process of digestion taking place in the Maha Srotas
- The consumption of green vegetables or food material which has a dominance of Prithvi attribute increases the amount of excreta produced as it provides excessive roughage.
- The functioning of faeces can be hampered due to internal or external imbalances and changes.
- Excessive travel, eating junk food, oversleeping, drugs, insufficient body movements are a few common reasons for digestive irregularity.
- It is a clear fluid with a yellowish tinge and a distinctive odour, that enables the release of toxins
- It exhibits the dominance of Jala and Agni Mahabhoota
- The primary function of mutra is to flush out bodily excretes in liquid form
- The Mutra excretes all the bodily wastes formed as a result of various metabolic processes and is responsible for keeping the body clean
- The amount and frequency of urine majorly depends upon the amount of fluid intake; large fluid intakes obviously lead to the formation of large amounts of Mutra and vice-versa
- Poor urine elimination often results in bladder pain or infection, difficult urination, fever, thirst, dry mouth, or dehydration
- Diuretic drugs, alcohol, excessive sex, trauma, fright, or less liquid intake may be a cause.
- The fluid element expelled out of the small pores on our body due to heat or activity is known as Sweda or sweat, formed as an excretory bi-product of digestion
- Sweat (sweda) controls body temperature by releasing excess water and toxins, which cools down the body, moistens the skin and hair, carries away excess unhealthy fat from the body, and purifies our blood
- However, excess sweating can cause various skin diseases (usually Pitta related) like eczema, boils, fungus, acne, fatigue, or convulsions
- Deficient sweating can also result in stiff hair, dry skin, dandruff, wrinkles, paleness, or susceptibility to colds and flu
- Too much dry food, lack of salt, excess or null amount of exercise, and excessive use of diaphoretic herbs creates an imbalance in sweating.
Thus, to have healthy digestion keep an eye on your symptoms (especially malas), follow the principles of mindful eating, ensure you are promoting positive digestion and reach out to us for anything that’s on your mind!
Now that we’ve understood how digestion works, it’s important to know the different nutrients that make up our bodies. Chapter 10, which talks about food and nutrition, can be found here.
You can refer back to the broader course outline here.
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