Using Food as Medicine: Balancing Your Digestive Fire is Key
How many times have you heard the phrase, "you are what you eat", and do you wonder what this really means? Are we really what we eat or is there more to it than that?Trained both as a clinical dietitian and Ayurvedic nutritionist, I find it interesting to bring insights from both systems, East and West.
While both systems recognise the importance of a well balanced diet in maintaining health, in Ayurveda, the East, what matters is both “what” you eat and importantly, “how” well you are able to digest and absorb the nutrients. What good is all that healthy food if your body is not able to absorb and utilise it?
The Western perspective often presents itself as a “one size fits all” approach i.e., broccoli is healthy and that means everyone should consume broccoli! This is an oversimplification, of course, but it illustrates a major difference between East and West! In Ayurveda, based on his or her constitution, each individual is unique and not all healthy foods are necessarily suitable for everyone.
One of the bedrock principles in Ayurveda is metabolism…the fire that burns within….the internal furnaces that process inputs which fuel our systems. They call it agni, which literally means fire or metabolism. Agni operates intelligently as the transformative process within each cell, tissue, and every system within the body. All bodily enzymes, hormones and metabolic activity are functions of agni.
In Ayurveda, balanced agni is key to maintaining good health. Most health conditions or diseases are believed to be caused by imbalanced agni.
From a western perspective, agni is somewhat comparable to all biochemical processes in the body. However, in Ayurveda, agni not only processes what we consume, it also affects emotions and gives a particular zest to life. It has a direct influence on confidence, alertness, enthusiasm, logic, contentment and longevity.
Ayurveda recognizes different types of agni in the body working on different levels. Without going into too many technical details about each type of agni, I would like to highlight the “mother of all” or the first “main processing point” on a long journey down the digestive tract. This main “furnace” is called Jatharagni.
Jatharagni is responsible for the transformation of food in the stomach. Your capacity to digest and assimilate nutrients depends on how efficient your agni is. If it is too low, digestion will be sluggish and incomplete, allowing for unwanted toxins to accumulate in the body. If the agni is too high, food will be broken down too quickly without first having its nutrients sufficiently absorbed. Ones agni can also be irregular, alternating from low to high.
Because jatahragni is the first main stop in the digestion process, any impairment or imbalance at this level usually impairs all other forms of agni in the body, making jatahragni one of the most important ones to be looked after. It is also relatively easy to recognize and treat imbalance at this level.
This “digestive fire” can be compared to a real fire where if you throw in too little wood the fire goes off and if you throw in too much, the fire dies. Therefore putting in just the right amount and the right kind of wood will keep the fire in equilibrium.
A delicate balance of the right quantity of food at the right time, as per your unique constitution is the main requirement for maintaining healthy jatharagani.
“Designing a diet without considering the state of your agni is not correct, because the purpose of the food you eat is to nourish your body and keep it healthy—and agni is what makes this happen. If you ignore the state of your agni, the food you eat may be creating an imbalance in your body, even though your diet itself may appear to be balanced” - A.G Mohan and Indra Mohan, A guide to the therapeutic use of yoga and Ayurveda for health and fitness.
These are some key symptoms of imbalanced agni:
Indigestion after meals e.g. acidity, excessive burping, lethargy, heartburn or burning sensation
Bad breath or body odour
Constipation or diarrhea
Excessive gas or bloating
White coating on the tongue
Underweight or overweight
Ulcers, Irritable Bowel Syndrome
What are the main causes of imbalance?
Irregular eating habits.
Consuming cold foods and drinks.
Overuse of stimulants like coffee, salt, alcohol, recreational drugs.
Eating foods that do not suit one’s constitution.
Some simple ways to balance your agni:
Avoid cold foods and drinks.
Eat only when “really” hungry.
Sip on warm ginger tea in between meals or eat a few slices of raw ginger before or after meals.
Eat with awareness and chew well.
Do not overeat! Small, light frequent meals as per your constitution. As a guideline, fist size portions are the ideal, but a little over is ok! J
Daily moderate sweating through exercise/yoga/walking as per your constitution.
Fasting for different durations depending on your constitution. An easy regular fast can be skipping one meal a day once a week. It is better to fast for a shorter period regularly than for a longer period once a year, especially for those with Vata constitution dominance.
The fundamental principle in the Ayurvedic philosophy is clearly illustrated in the Ayurvedic proverb “when diet is wrong, medicine is of no use; when diet is correct, medicine is of no need”.
Remember, if you want your well-balanced healthy diet to be your only medicine, keep your agni balanced, because ultimately you are “how well” you digest, not just “what” you eat!