In Ayurveda there are six stages of digestion from initial food consumption to cellular nourishment. The five elements (ether, air, earth, water, fire) and the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent) work together to activate enzymes and the different stages of nutrient break down. It is important that all of these stages are reached for optimal nutrition. Each stage of digestion takes about one hour, making the whole beginning of the digestive process six hours. Kapha rules the first 1-2 hours of digestion, followed by 2-3 hours of Pitta and 2-3 hours of Vata. Here is a breakdown of the stages of digestion with correlated tastes and pancha mahabhutas (5 elements):
Madhura Avastha Pāka (Sweet)
~water & earth
This is the kapha stage of digestion that takes place in the mouth and upper stomach. Secretions are made during chewing and swallowing and the stomach makes secretions as the food enters the stomach. This is where starches are digested and simple sugars are absorbed. The body can feel full and grounded from eating and maybe a bit sleepy due to kapha qualities of this stage.
Amla Avastha Pāka (Sour)
~fire & earth
The hydrochloric acid causes heat and the sour taste kicks in, raising pitta dosha. More digestive enzymes are made and sour taste helps to begin break down of proteins and fats.
Lavana Avastha Pāka (Salty)
~water & fire
This stage takes place in the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine. Bile from the gallbladder is released with pancreatic enzymes. Fats, carbohydrates and proteins begin to be digested in this stage. This salty stage helps the body to maintain a water-electrolyte balance.
Katu Avastha Pāka (Pungent)
~air & fire
This stage takes place in the jejunum, which is the second part of the small intestine. Heat and circulation are increased here and the pungent taste can also increase pitta dosha. The air element helps to initiate peristalsis in the digestive system, which helps to move things along.
Tikta Avastha Pāka (Bitter)
~air & ether
This stage takes place in the ileum, which is the last portion of the small intestine and the longest part. The villi on the walls of the intestines use bitter taste to absorb nutrients from food. Bitter taste cools the body down and lowers the previously higher pitta. This stage also occurs at the intersection of the small and large intestine through the ileocecal valve.
Kashāya Avastha Pāka (Astringent)
~air & earth
This stage starts in the cecum, which is the first portion of the large intestine. The food stays in the cecum for some time, becoming astringent before it moves through the large intestine to the end of the colon. The rest of nutrients, mineral and liquids are absorbed. The colon is able to absorb even more nutrients and minerals with the astringent taste present. Feces are formed and eliminated and true hunger returns again.
Everybody is different and digestion may happen more quickly or at a slower pace. We can estimate that 6-12 hours after eating, all dhatus are nourished. However, deeper cellular nutrition takes longer than this. Ayurveda says that it takes 5 days per dhatu to be nourished. Because there are 7 dhatus, it takes 35 days after consuming food for the deepest tissues to be fully nourished, which are the reproductive tissues.
So how can this information be useful to us? Being aware of the stages of digestion may help us to not interfere with the process. Behavior that may interfere could be excess snacking, drinking too many fluids with meals or swallowing food before it is well chewed. These are also behaviors that impair the strength of Agni (digestive fire). Following the rules to keep our Agni fire stoked and strong are applicable to overall digestive function as well. Check out our last article on The 3 Nyāyas (Laws of Nutrition) for some tips on maintaining strong Agni.
Knowing about this digestive process can also give us a timeline for what our bodies are doing. We may be feeling sleepy and grounded after just eating when the digestion is in the sweet kapha stage. When we experience real hunger again, we know that the final stage of digestion is occurring as the colon just absorbed the final vitamins and minerals. This puts us in tune with the processes, timing and metabolism of our own bodies.
This information can also encourage us to consume all the six tastes. Knowing that they play an important role in enzyme activation and digestion will help us make sure that we are getting them all in our diet. At first we may not know which foods are astringent or pungent. Learning this will help connect us to the food we eat and how many flavors we incorporate or which ones we may be lacking. If you want to read more about the 6 tastes, check out our article from October on Shad Rasa (the 6 tastes) that includes a recipe to activate all the tastes and correlated enzymes!
May your Agni be strong and your digestive system working optimally to nourish your whole being!