By Briya Freeman
“Quand l’appetit va, tout va.”, or so say the French [Translation: When the appetite is good, the rest of our life goes well.]. Here, ayurveda tends to agree: good digestion is the cornerstone of good health, and that which builds your bodily tissues, your intelligence and your enthusiasm for life.
Ayurveda recognizes that the strength of your digestion comes from what is called “the digestive fire”, or agni. The condition of your digestive agni is what creates your appetite, your digestive process and the speed of your metabolism. Agni also governs the regulation of your body temperature, the quality of your complexion, your energy levels and your emotional balance.
To understand agni, you can start by imagining that you have a small fire inside your belly that’s responsible for digesting your food. Depending on the day, this flame may burn clearly and brightly, or may be weak, sensitive or difficult to feel. On other days, the flame may be too strong and hot! This is exactly how agni works inside your body.
Your body’s primary agni (fire) resides primarily in the stomach (jathara agni). There are also corresponding energies of fire which exist in the cells, tissues and organs of the body.
When digestion is working well, it naturally supports the function of the rest of your body, giving healthy bodily tissues (called dhatus), including beautiful hair, skin and nails, blood and muscles, a strong nervous system and healthy reproductive organs. On a more subtle level, good digestion promotes a calm, focused mind, balanced emotions and stable energy levels throughout your day. Agni can, however, be easily weakened by stress, unresolved emotions, weather changes, travel and/or poor food or lifestyle choices.
We can learn to honour our agni by through basic ayurvedic principles, which we’ll discuss in the coming pages.
Common Digestive Ailments
“All disease occurs due to imbalance in the digestion.”
– The Charaka Samhita
In modern society, poor digestion is incredibly common due to fast-paced living, high stress levels, poor lifestyle habits, convenience foods, or because of our simple misunderstanding of the needs of the body.
Poor digestion gives rise to a variety of symptoms, including:
- Poor appetite or confusion about what to eat;
- Feeling heavy or tired after meals; low energy, lethargy or lack of motivation;
- Food allergies, intolerances, reactions, acne;
- Weak immune system, congestion;
- Weight gain or loss; poorly nourished tissues;
- Mental fog or lack of focus;
- Emotional imbalances (e.g. anxiety, depression, irritability);
- Chronic constipation and/or diarrhea.
The 3 Most Common Digestive Imbalances
Ayurveda breaks down the three most common imbalances in the digestive system according to the doshas:
- The Vata-type Imbalance (Irregular Metabolism): Symptoms can include an irregular appetite, variable digestion, gas, constipation, dry stools (or hard to pass), bloating, nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, PMS; dry skin, hair or mouth; aversion to cold weather, irregular/unpredictable symptoms. Tends to be associated with anxiety, fear and insecurity.
- Pitta-type Imbalances (Hypermetabolism): Symptoms can include hyperacidity, heartburn, indigestion, insatiable appetite, skin inflammations (eczema, acne), ulcers, hot flashes, fever, hemorrhoids, headaches that are light sensitive, frequent anger or frustration, aversion to heat, redness, loose stools, hypoglycemia, intense cravings for sweets. Tends to be associated with irritability, control, harshness or anger.
- Kapha-Type Imbalances (Hypometabolism): Symptoms can include nausea, bloating, feeling of heaviness, weight gain, frequent colds/congestion, lymph congestion, allergies, edema, desire to eat frequently, lethargy/difficult to find motivation, hyperglycemia, aversion to damp and cold, depression, craving for sweets. Tends to be associated with lethargy, depression, greed and excessive sleeping.
Identifying the dosha that is causing your digestive imbalance can make it easier to make tailored choices for dietary, herbal and lifestyle remedies. It also explains why one remedy (e.g. herbal) may work well for some, but not for others.
In more complex cases, you may notice symptoms of imbalance from two or even three dosha types. In cases of chronic indigestion, it may be helpful to seek guidance from an ayurvedic practitioner.
Ayurveda also considers a blessed fourth type of digestive type: balanced digestion. This type of digestion is gives strong immunity, healthy bodily tissues and a clear, calm loving state of mind.
Balanced digestion is evident when you have a good appetite and you feel satisfied by a normal quantity of food. Unfortunately, balanced digestion is rare in our modern world. Most of us will identify with one of the other 3 types of digestion.
Understanding Your Digestive Type: An Ayurvedic Self-Assessment
The following quiz can help you to better understand your digestive and metabolic type. It is not intended to diagnose complex health issues.
|1.How is your appetite?||My appetite varies. I love to snack, but will sometimes not feel hungry at meal times and skip meals. When I eat, I feel satisfied by small amounts.||I have a strong appetite and can eat a moderate amount. I get moody or angry when I skip a meal.||I love to eat, but I normally don’t have a strong appetite. I can easily skip meals. I find it hard to stop eating.|
|2. How is your digestion?||After meals, I often experience gas, indigestion, bloating, belching or gurgling in my stomach.||After meals, I often experience burning sensations, heartburn, hyperacidity or feel like I am too hot. I have had an ulcer..||After meals, I often feel tired, heavy or lazy. It feels like the food will sit in my stomach for hours.|
|3. Which type best describes your digestion & metabolism?||My digestion is easily disturbed and I have to be careful what I eat.||If I don’t eat, I get lightheaded or irritable.||I tend to gain weight easily, even without eating a lot.|
|4. How is your elimination?||I am easily constipated. Sometimes I also have dry stools (hard to pass, like rabbit pellets) or loose stools.||I tend to have several bowel movements per day. They tend to be soft or loose.||I tend to have regular bowel movements once a day. The stools tend to be regularly formed and easy to pass.|