Digestion and Balanced Health: Insights from The Raj
Dr. Mark Toomey
The ancient texts of ayurveda say: Rog sarve api mande'anau. Translated from the Sanskrit it means: "all diseases have their basis in dull digestion." Clearly, digestion is an all-important consideration for one's health and well being.
It starts with something called agni. This is a Sanskrit word that means fire, and it is used in this context in ayurveda to also mean digestion. Our digestion is like a fire — what we take in the form of food is transformed into that which is either useful to the body or not. By this it is meant either nourishment or waste.
The balanced and correct transformation of our food into the categories of nourishment and waste must be balanced. If it is balanced, then assimilation and sequential and balanced transformation of the food into the body takes place, and waste is properly eliminated in a timely fashion. In this proper transformation and balanced elimination, ojas is created (ojas is the body's master product for creating an individual whose mind, body and senses are full of bliss). If it is not proper due to dull, ineffective digestion, then we create ama, a toxic sludge that blocks the flow of the body's intelligence and creates the basis for disease.
Your digestive system is an amazing and delicate piece of nature's intelligence. Your small intestine has a surface area of 970,000 square feet. Even though it is called the small intestine, it is actually the largest internal organ in the body. It is four times as long as an adult is tall, and is neatly looped back and forth to fit in your abdomen.
You get a new stomach lining every 3-4 days, to cope with the hydrochloric acid that your stomach produces, which by the way is strong enough to dissolve a razor blade. But the miracle is that it doesn't dissolve the stomach, just your food.
But this intricate system requires care. It is controlled by the vagus nerve, which is the main parasympathetic nerve; this means that it is very much influenced by the mind. For instance, have you ever tried to eat when you are stressed or emotionally upset? At such times, healthy digestion is not possible due to this stomach/brain connection.
Therefore ayurveda has strict and timely rules that involve how we eat, when we eat and what we eat so that digestion/agni is always ready to perform perfect transformation of our food that will create perfect health.
Following is an elaboration on the main factors to consider in creating perfect digestion.
First let's take into consideration what to eat.
Food should be digestible and delicious; we should actually be able to see and smell our meal and have that alone stimulate digestion.
Food should be taken in consideration of one's doshas and agni. If one is more Vata, favor foods that are more warm and unctuous, and favor tastes that are sweet, sour and salty. If one is more Pitta, then favor foods that are cooling and with tastes that are sweet, bitter and astringent. Kapha food should be warm, light, and well spiced, favoring tastes that are pungent, bitter and astringent.
Lunch is always the main meal, and food should always be taken on time. Local food is best; organic is preferable, and definitely no genetically modified food.
One should take into account the time of year. For instance, as winter is cold and dry, favor more warm, unctuous food. Summer is hot, so favor more cooling foods.
Standard ayurvedic rules for eating are that food should be warm, unctuous, and taken in proper quantity, which means never overeat or undereat. Do not eat until the previous meal is digested. Don't eat too fast or too slow; eat in a settled, quiet atmosphere with full attention on the food.
It is common for people to have an imbalance whereby they cannot tell what is the right amount of food to eat. In general, ayurveda says to divide your stomach into three parts: one part for food, one part for liquids and one part for air.
When food is taken in the right quantities, then there is no undue pressure or heaviness in the stomach, and no obstruction to the functioning of the heart. One feels proper nourishment of the senses, and relief from hunger and thirst. Food taken at breakfast is digested before lunch, and food taken at lunch is digested by dinner. Food taken in the evening should not interfere with our sleep, whether too much or too little.
Finally and most importantly is to take into consideration the one who takes the food. It is said in the Vedic texts that if only the surface level of diverse values is metabolized, then the metabolism is wrong.
This means that not just what we take in through our mouth should be digested properly, but through any sensory experience or mode of action, through the mind or intellect. All should be self referral, with reference to our own essential nature, which is pure consciousness.
Wrongful metabolism through the senses will cause improper digestion. Therefore it is necessary to have in one's daily routine a program to enliven the ability of the senses, mind and intellect to metabolize any experience.
Dr. Mark Toomey - Medical Director, The Raj
The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.