Ayurveda and Digestive Health
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
“Anyone who has experienced butterflies or knots in the stomach during episodes of stress does not need to be convinced that the nervous system and the digestive system are intimately related. Biologically, the gastrointestinal system of the human embryo develops as an outgrowth of the nervous system. In an adult, the entire internal tract is abundantly supplied with nerves through the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that is automatically self-regulating . . . many digestive problems are psychosomatic in character” – Deepak Chopra
Ayurveda and Digestive Health
According to Ayurveda, our digestive health has everything to do with our internal, digestive fire—or agni, in Sanskrit. The health of our digestive fire, agni, determines how the body responds to what comes in and how it organizes what comes out. It’s responsible for how we absorb nutrients, digest food, eliminate waste, and destroy (or not destroy) pathogens in the gut. When agni is healthy, our digestion is strong, circulation is good, our skin complexion is even, our body odors are pleasant, and we have adequate/appropriate amounts of energy and the ability to naturally resist disease. When our agni is low or abnormal, the opposite occurs. “Therefore, treating the digestive system—regulating agni—is a radical (root) treatment for disease.”
We’ve talked about the doshas in most of our articles, and you can refer to previous articles to gain more in-depth information on them; however, to refresh your memory or give some basic information if you’re new: the doshas inform and are informed by every aspect of life, including nature out in the world and nature within us—our physical bodies and personalities. Ayurveda describes three main doshas: kapha, pitta, and vata, and the elements, organs, qualities associated with each. In an incredibly basic and overly simplified description, kapha is earth and water, very grounded and motherly, cozy and soft unless out of balance, where it’s prone to sluggishness, depression/suppression or exhaustion; pitta is fire and water (mostly fire) and is sharp, direct, quick-witted, able to adapt quickly, but prone to anger or frustration or “hot-headedness” and agitation when out of balance; vata is air and ether, and is incredibly creative, in flow, and experiences the world deeply and sensually, unless out of balance, where it then becomes spacy (or “spaced out”), flakey, anxious, ungrounded, and afraid. We all have all three moving through us, and one (rarely two or three) that is dominant and dictates the majority of our personality, behavior, interests, and health.
In terms of agni, pitta is usually high in agni, as the main element of this dosha is fire. Pitta people often have excessive appetites, great circulation, and high energy. When digestion is off, pitta types can experience loose stool with periods of constipation, and also bleeding issues or toxic buildup in the blood. Kapha types usually have low agni, and therefore slower digestion, less energy, poor appetites, and a tendency to gain weight quickly and easily. They can also experience excess mucus in the body, and are more likely to contract colds and flus. Vata types experience a range of agni, and often have periods of time with a strong appetite and then no appetite at all/forgetting to eat. They can be prone to gas, distention and constipation, and variable energy levels.
Regular bowel movements (1-2 or more times per day with little gas and bloating) and a regular consistent appetite that is easily satisfied with whole, organic, not strongly spiced foods is a good sign of balanced agni in all the doshas. With our busy lifestyles, food on the go, packaged goods, and high-stress/sensory-overloaded world, it’s easy for our digestion to be thrown off track even when we eat everything organic. Digestion, and the health of our agni, isn’t just about what foods you eat; it has to do with everything you take in and need to process, which goes for: conversations, visual stimulation (computers, phones, what you see out in the world), auditory stimulation (what you listen to throughout the day, conversations you have), what you think about, emotional stimulation and stress levels (how you feel throughout the day), what you eat and drink, and how well you slept. Needless to say, we digest/process a lot in a day! So it’s essential that we give ourselves time and space to unwind, clear our minds, relax our bellies, sit and eat mindfully and slowly, and to be aware of the content we engage with on a regular basis. If the majority of our conversations and thoughts make us feel awful or tired or stressed or hopeless, it’s time to re-evaluate the line of work you’re in, people you’re surrounded by, and/or how you think about yourself and the world, because all of that energy informs how the physical bodies feels and operates—the more negative thoughts we have and environments we are in, the more prone we are to dis-ease (especially in the digestive system).
We can increase agni by eating more pungent, sour, and salty tasting foods; we can decrease it by eating too many sweet, astringent and bitter tasting foods (although bitter in small amounts before meals can also increase agni)—please refer to our previous articles on the six tastes to learn more about each individual taste and its properties. Spicy taste is a point of focus when we talk about agni, though, because digestive fire has the same nature/quality as spicy taste—hot, dry, light and fragrant. That means, in most cases, if agni is weak, spicy tasting foods can help amp it up. It’s important to note that there isn’t a general cure-all or fix-all for digestive issues. Every body is so unique, and it’s important that we know our own constitution (which dosha(s) are dominant within us, analyze our symptoms, etc.) before we self-diagnose or jump to conclusions like spicy foods will cure a weak metabolism. Spicy tasting foods can help amp up agni (in most cases); however, which spicy tasting foods, or which kinds of herbs, will be best for each person is individual and based on a wide range of factors beyond just sluggish bowels.
The strength of agni ranges from person to person and phase of life to phase of life. We can have very strong, high agni when we’re young, and experience slower agni as we age; or, the opposite can be true for some people depending on what they ate growing up and what kinds of environments they lived in over time (because, again, digestion isn’t only what we eat; it’s everything we take in). A general, basic understanding of things you can incorporate or be aware of are: when agni is high, spices should generally be avoided, except cooling bitter herbs like aloe or barberry; when agni is low, hot spices can be taken like cayenne or ginger or black pepper, and for the most part, all spices will be good to amp it up; when agni is variable, spices like asafetida, ginger cumin, and some rock salts can help even it out; when agni is normal, keeping spice intake to a minimum is best, and using harmonizing spices like cardamom and turmeric can help maintain good balance. It’s wonderful to know bits and pieces of information like these, as a lot of us only have time or capacity for incorporating one or two things into our routine—like maybe a pinch of turmeric if you’re feeling good, or a pinch of cayenne if you’ve been tired and had sluggish bowels. The best thing to do, though, is to schedule a consultation with us so that you can come to understand the nuances of your body and some of the more intricate protocols that Ayurveda can offer no matter what symptoms you’re experiencing, phase of life you’re in, or how well you do or do not feel. That's the best way across the board to take better, specialized care of your body.
That said, some really good, general Ayurveda-inspired things you can do for your digestion at home, though, are:
Drink plenty of water; staying hydrated helps everything move smoothly
Eat mindfully and slowly, chew everything completely and avoid eating while in the car, watching TV, or multi-tasking at all
Eat sweet foods first in a meal; this one is hard for a lot of us that grew up eating dessert after dinner, but sweet things break down quicker than the rest of our food, and if we eat them last then they start fermenting while waiting for everything else to move through, and this can lead to bloating, gas, constipation, indigestion, and overtime, lots of other ailments
Astringent teas are great for after meals, and that includes things like black tea, alfalfa leaf, raspberry leaf, etc. If astringent tastes are eaten first, they can weaken the digestive fire and slow down digestion and the assimilation of nutrients
Eat salads at the end of a meal; they are more easily digested at the end of the meal, not beforehand or during, if possible
Get plenty of sleep
Exercise in moderation, move your body throughout the day; take walks, go for runs, practice yoga, spend time at the gym, hike a mountain, swim in a lake or river or stream—whatever you love to do and that’s "easy" to fit into your schedule, make some time to move your body every day even if it’s just for 30 minutes
Reach out if you have questions or if you need support; we're here every day of the week!
“Ayurvedic Healing,” by David Frawley, 2000