Published on September 30th, 2019 | by Gedalia Genin0
The Fire of Life: Ayurveda and Digestion
by Gedalia Genin
Ayurveda—a five thousand-year-old system of holistic medicine that promotes longevity, balance and overall health—is finally getting more of the attention it deserves.
Many popular energy and protein drinks now include Ayurvedic herbs such as turmeric and ashwagandha. Ginger tea is getting recognition for its immune-building properties. Ayurvedic treatments are offered at hotel spas, and Ayurvedic chefs are getting calls to cook for people with special needs. Even Forbes magazine claims Ayurveda is going mainstream in their “10 Wellness Trends” of 2019.
Considering the toxins in the environment and in our foods, the overuse of prescription drugs, increased stressors and a fairly broken health care system, Ayurveda holds a treasure trove of tools to help us return to our innate wholeness and optimal health. And beyond that, for those inclined, the practice offers people a path to spiritually align with their true divine Self, their purpose and creativity.
The Role of Digestive Health
From the Ayurvedic perspective, a healthy digestive system is the cornerstone of health and well-being, and every disease is believed to arise from inefficient digestion. People might eat what they think are the best of foods, organic and unprocessed, but if they are not digesting, absorbing and eliminating them properly, then undigested foods are stored in organs, tissues, the brain, cells and energy channels, according to Ayurveda. The result is ama, the Sanskrit word for toxins.
Common physical signs of impaired digestion include weight gain, fatigue, low libido, constipation, dry skin, bloating, congestion, acid reflux, impaired immunity, sleep issues, acne, eczema, psoriasis, brain fog, thyroid conditions and joint pain.
Ayurveda pays attention to agni, the “fire” or energy that is responsible for digestion. When the agni is balanced, it causes things that are beneficial to health—courage, joy, intelligence—to arise. When agni is out of balance, emotions that are destructive to health— such as fear, anger and confusion—arise. Further, one “digests” their life is as important as what they eat.
Even with good intentions, doing things in the wrong order won’t get results. Ayurveda teaches that when a person tries to clean up their diet before first clearing out the toxins, the “good” food will literally go to waste in the digestive system. That doesn’t mean we should ditch the kale or the smoothies, just that we should first examine the larger picture of our health and consider detoxing. [In Part 3 of this series, Panchakarma, a comprehensive Ayurvedic detoxification program, will be discussed.]
On top of it all, the by-product of excellent digestion is ojas, the “essence of vitality.” It can be one’s best friend for maintaining vim and vigor, vibrant skin and clear intelligence.
Keeping the Fire Burning
How does one keep the digestive fire burning bright? By giving it the right amount of fuel. When one overloads it by eating too much at meals or drinking too much water with meals, one drowns its full potential. Unlike Western all-you-can-eat buffets, Ayurveda recommends eating only until the stomach is 2⁄3 full. Then, by giving the body enough time to fully digest between meals, the “sacred inner fire” is kindled.
Another key to good health is taking pleasure in, and bringing awareness to, the act of eating. Far more than it’s realized, our meals are mechanical and joyless. People have countless excuses to avoid taking the time to prepare, share or enjoy a meal. But by bringing full attention to eating—and eating slowly—people can transform the act of eating into a ritual of thanks.
After all, the consequences of unconscious eating have become devastating. More than 10 percent of the world’s population, including 604 million adults, is now obese, according to a 2017 study at the University of Washington. There has also been a sharp spike in heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease.
“Ayurveda is about living in harmony. Eating seasonally and locally. You not only get the most nourishment, but also rekindle your relationship to food and the environment,” says Nishista Shah of the Ayurvedic Institute of Albuquerque.
Ayurveda recommends we nourish ourselves by eating what is in season. For example, we can eat cooling foods, herbs and spices in the summer, such as cucumber, mint, coconut water, cilantro and watermelon. In winter, we can consume warming soups and stews that include spices such as ginger, cinnamon and chilis, and herbs such as ashwagandha and holy basil to warm us. Each season is associated with a primary dosha, or energetic quality, that dominates it, so when people pay attention to nature on the outside and on the inside, they harmonize and improve their health at the same time.
The Six Tastes
Much of the wisdom of Ayurveda lies at the tip of the tongue. Our taste buds do much more than simply identify tastes, they extract the nutritive value of foods and provide the initial spark that revs up the entire digestive system.
While many other health systems focus on labels describing protein content, calories or carbohydrates, Ayurveda identifies six tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent—that need to be included in the diet to help maintain health and balance.
Of course, Western culture emphasizes sweet and salty tastes, which will often trigger cravings for bitter foods such as coffee and chocolate. The cravings are one way our bodies tell us what we might be missing.
Ayurveda recommends incorporating the six tastes at each meal, suggesting that by balancing the tastes, we can feel more balanced and satiated. At the same time, one will be less likely to overeat or crave foods that are not good for them. If we consistently eat only a few of the tastes, for example, we are at greater risk of health problems.
Working with the six tastes is one way to balance the doshas. When one or more of your doshas is out of balance, the tastes can help one repair an imbalanced state.
For example, the sweet taste decreases Vata and Pitta while increasing Kapha.
The sour taste balances Vata but increases Pitta and Kapha. While sour foods can awaken digestion, thoughts, and emotions, it can possibly lead to aggression.
The salty taste decreases Vata but increases Pitta and Kapha. It is grounding, good for absorption and helps with electrolyte balance and absorption of minerals. But too much salt can have a negative impact on the blood and skin.
The bitter taste increases Vata and decreases Pitta and Kapha. It is detoxifying but it can be quite drying for a Vata person if overdone.
Pungent foods, like ginger, garlic and onions stimulate the mind, nervous system and emotions. They will aggravate Pitta quickly (think of a spicy Indian meal) but balance Kapha.
Foods with astringent taste can aggravate Vata but balance Pitta and Kapha and can mentally strengthen and purify.
In sum, the best way to approach the tastes is to aim to eat with the seasons and include all six tastes at a meal while favoring one’s primary dosha to keep it balanced. This is a pathway to inner balance.
Simple Ayurvedic Steps for Healthy Digestion
Here are a few simple recommendations to promote healthy digestion based on Ayurvedic principles:
- Avoid ice cold drinks and foods directly out of the refrigerator.
- Avoid processed, radiated, microwaved and leftover foods. They have no pranic, or life force, energy.
- Learn to use healthy food combining.
- Eat only kitchari for a day or more. (See recipe below)
- Drink Digestive Tea (See recipe below)
*Disclaimer: This information is not meant to replace medical care or to suggest that it can replace your medications or your doctors’ advice. For best results, work with a professional Ayurvedic practitioner who will customize and attune a program for you.
from “The Ayurvedic Institute”
Kitchari is a staple in Ayurvedic life. It is an easily digestible, highly nourishing and detoxifying food that is made from rice, split mung beans, spices and vegetables. Kitchari can be used for a cleanse, for a “day off” from regular food or simply eaten on a regular basis. In Ayurveda, the transition between seasons is an optimal time to cleanse.
½ cup basmati rice
1 cup mung dal (split yellow)
6 cups water
½ to 1 inch ginger root, chopped or grated
A bit of mineral salt (1/4 tsp. or so)
2 tsp ghee
½ tsp coriander powder
½ tsp cumin powder
½ tsp whole cumin seeds
½ tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 pinch asafoetida (hing)
Handful of fresh cilantro leaves
1 ½ cups assorted vegetables (optional)
Carefully pick over the rice and dal to remove any stones. Wash them separately in at least two changes of water and place them in a pot. Add the water and cook, covered, until it becomes soft, about 20 minutes.
While that is cooking, prepare any vegetables that suit your constitution. Cut them into smallish pieces. Add the vegetables to the cooked rice and dal mixture and cook 10 minutes longer.
In a separate saucepan, sauté the seeds in the ghee until they pop. Then add the other spices. Stir together to release the flavors. Stir the sautéed spices into the cooked dal, rice, and vegetable mixture. Add the mineral salt and chopped fresh cilantro and serve.
- Add vegetables such as zucchini, asparagus, sweet potato
- For Vata or Kapha doshas, add a pinch of ginger powder
- For Pitta doshas, leave out the mustard seeds
1 Tbsp fennel seeds
2 Tbsp cumin seeds
2 Tbsp coriander seeds
Boil the seeds in six cups water for five minutes. Strain and drink throughout the day.