My Vedic Kitchen
The Importance of a Strong Digestion for Healthy Living
By Dr. Sankari Menon Wegman, Maharishi Ayurvedic Ph.D. Candidate and Ayurveda Consultant at The Raj
The digestive system can be likened to the roots of a plant. The roots receive all the nutrients the plant needs from the soil and rain, and it is able to transform these nutrients into a colorless sap that circulates and nourishes the whole plant. In the same way, we receive nourishment from the foods that we eat and fluids that we drink. We'll start with a simple, easy recipe to help digestion, and then we'll explain why digestion is a foundation stone of health and wellness in Maharishi Ayurveda.
Pure food + complete digestion = ideal health
According to Maharishi Ayurveda, a strong digestion is the foundation of a strong and healthy physiology.
The root cause of all disorders, according to the ancient texts, lies in poor digestion. This is why there is such an emphasis on making sure that the digestive fire is strong and is able to metabolize the foods that we are eating. Otherwise, regardless of how healthy our food choices might be, the body will have trouble in assimilating and absorbing the nutrients within those foods.
When our digestive system is able to break all of these nutrients down, it creates a nourishing essential fluid called ojas. Ojas is a very important substance in Maharishi Ayurveda. It's understood as the essence of the intelligence of the food. When our digestive system is strong, then everything we eat will be metabolized into ojas, which is then circulated throughout our physiology, nourishing all the cells, tissues and organs.
If our digestive fire is weak, then this means that the power of metabolism is poor and the digestive system is unable to fully break down food into its most subtle essence. This incomplete digestion creates impurities or toxins, which in ayurveda is known as ama. Poor digestion results in the formation of ama, which prevents the cells of the physiology from fully receiving nourishment (ojas) from the food.
Ama is the opposite of ojas and is an indication that one's digestive strength can be improved. A person whose digestive system is weak might experience some heaviness after meals, or maybe gas or bloating, mental fog and lowered immunity. If the digestive system is strong, then the person will experience clarity in the mind, luster in the skin, lightness after meals, increased energy, happiness, bliss and general well-being.
In order to ensure that this is the experience after every meal, it is important to not only know which foods to eat but also how to make sure that the digestive fire is functioning at an optimum level. And here is an important point. This will be done differently for different individuals, depending upon their ayurvedic constitution.
Ayurvedic Constitution and the Digestive System
According to ayurveda, there are three governing principles known as doshas.
These three doshas are known as Vata, Pitta and Kapha and are made up of the different combinations of the five elements. Vata is made up of space and air and is known as the wind that moves. In the physiology Vata governs movement such as breathing, circulation, transportation, etc. Pitta is made up of fire and water and is known as the fire of transformation. In the physiology, Pitta governs the digestive fire. Kapha is made up of earth and water and is known as the earth element that gives structure to all else. In the physiology, Kapha governs the manifest aspects such as the bones, muscles, tissues, joints, etc.
Since the doshas are understood as governing principles, these elemental combinations can be found in everything, from the foods we eat, to the spices we cook with, to the makeup of our own physiology. How the doshas combine within our physiology is known as one's constitution, or prakriti. Some individuals are more Vata, or Pitta or Kapha predominant, or they may be some combination of the three — such as Vata-Pitta or Pitta-Kapha or Kapha-Vata, etc.
This is why different people will digest the same foods differently. Say, for example, there is a group of friends sitting at a table for lunch sharing a pizza. For some it might create heaviness in the stomach even a few hours after eating the pizza, while for others digesting the pizza might not take as long. For others it might create some congestion and for some it can create some heaviness in the mind. Someone with a predominance of Vata dosha might have irregular digestion — sometimes they are hungry and sometimes not. Due to the fire element, a person with a predominant Pitta prakriti might experience some heartburn or acid reflux after meals. A person with a predominant Kapha prakriti might experience some heaviness or sluggishness (earth element) after meals.
Therefore in determining how to strengthen the digestive fire and which foods to favor, it is important to have a consultation with a Vaidya (ayurvedic physician) trained in Maharishi Ayurveda. In this way, each individual can receive specific instruction for which foods to favor and avoid, and also specific spice combinations and routine for bringing balance back to the physiology.
There are, however, some general guidelines and recommendations that can be followed by everyone that will create optimum functioning of the digestive system:
- Go vegetarian. A vegetarian diet supports digestion because it is more easily broken down and assimilated by the physiology.
- Make it fresh and warm. Ayurveda also recommends a diet that is rich in whole grains, fresh organic fruits and vegetables that are well cooked and served warm. Foods that are cooked are more digestible than raw foods, since they have already been partially broken down in the cooking process. Warm foods are recommended for this reason as well, since it aids the digestive fire in breaking down the food to its essential parts. When the food is cooked and is served warm and fresh, this adds some heat element to the food which aids the further breakdown of the food. The more the food is broken down, the more it can be easily absorbed into the physiology. If something is more easily broken down and absorbed, it doesn't tax the digestive fire and cause it to become dull.
- Avoid processed foods. In the same way, avoid foods that are canned or frozen. They usually have higher levels of sodium and sugar, as well as trans fats (which can increase one's LDL or bad cholesterol). Even though it might be a time saver to use processed foods, in the long run these foods do not fully nourish the physiology and can actually cause more damage to one's health.
- Eat regularly. Eat meals at regular times (7 a.m. for breakfast, noon for lunch, between 6 and 7 p.m. for dinner) because this helps to ensure that the digestive fire remains even.
- Make lunch the biggest meal of the day. Lunch should always be the largest meal of the day, because this is when the digestive fire is the strongest.
- Avoid snacking. The digestive fire can also become dull if the person is eating or snacking in between meals. For example, if lunch is eaten at noon and the person keeps eating or munching on some snacks throughout the afternoon, the body never really has a chance to digest lunch. This also creates some dullness in the digestive fire, which dulls the ability to transform the intelligence of the food that is being eaten into ojas, which then nourishes all aspects of the physiology.
- Leave space between meals. It is best to make sure that there is some space between breakfast, lunch and dinner. How do you know if you are ready to eat the next meal? A good sign is that you are hungry! This seems obvious, but a lot of people in society eat because it's time to eat, and not necessarily because they are actually hungry. A good appetite is an indication of the strength of the digestive system. If you are hungry for some meals but not others, take a look at which meals you are not hungry for and then trace back to the previous meal.
For example, sometimes people are not hungry for lunch, but this could simply be fixed if they had a lighter breakfast and did not snack during the morning. For example, instead of pancakes and hash browns (which is a heavy meal) for breakfast, they might want to favor some cooked fruit with some digestive spices such as cardamom with one or two cloves. This is filling but also easily digestible, and they might find themselves hungry for lunch.
Another example is when people eat a very big dinner late at night and then proceed to sleep soon after. They usually don't feel that hungry in the morning for breakfast. This is because eating a big meal and then sleeping close to dinner does not give the physiology a chance to actually digest the food, since the metabolism slows down when the person goes to sleep. The optimum time to sleep, according to ayurveda, is before 10 p.m.; therefore, it is best to eat dinner closer to 6 p.m. This allows the physiology to wake up refreshed, clear and light because there has been enough time given for the food to be digested by the digestive system and assimilated. This allows one to wake up hungry for breakfast. How strong your appetite is and how you feel after you eat (full, heavy, sleepy, light, clear, dull, foggy) are all indications about the strength of your digestion.
These general principles go hand in hand with individualized recommendations you might receive from a Vaidya. If you are not able to see a Vaidya right away, you will notice a big difference in your digestive strength just in following some of the recommendations above. The Vaidya will then be able to give you specific combinations of spices, foods (vegetables, grains, fruits) and oils that will address any dosha imbalances in your physiology, and advise you how best to bring those imbalances back into harmony with the wholeness of the physiology.
You are not only what you eat; you are what you digest. This is why increasing the power of digestion is just as important to good health as what you are eating. The more in tune we are with what we are eating, how hungry we are before meals, and how we feel after meals, the more we can improve our digestion and our overall health. A strong digestion plays a vital role in living a healthy life.
Monica Kar's My Vedic Kitchen co-author, Dr. Sankari Menon Wegman, is a Maharishi Ayurvedic Ph.D. Candidate and Ayurveda Consultant at 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.