Happy Holidays and Happy Digestion: The Secrets of the Second Brain

By Mark Toomey, Ph.D., Director of Ayurvedic Programs at The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Spa, Fairfield, Iowa

The holiday season starts with Thanksgiving and sails through to the New Year. It is a time of celebration with family and friends. It is also a time of eating and preparing sumptuous, delicious treats. It can also be emotionally and physically stressful. Extra demands are placed on our time and emotions. With the gathering of our dearest and not-so-dearest relatives, extra demands are placed on our hearts. The season to be jolly can be a time of increasing stress from the shopping, social commitments, expenditures, card-sending, decorating, cooking, planning, gatherings, and the small amount of time to manufacture these miracles. Holiday bliss becomes holiday stress.

One of the main areas that suffers at this time is our digestion — holiday foods can be a stress in themselves. From an ayurvedic perspective, these delights should not become a time of discomfort and decreased well-being. Good planning will help to a point, but here's an ayurvedic secret for surviving the holidays: attention to digestion will ease your burdens and support your health on many levels — emotionally, energetically and physically.

The Amazing "Second Brain"

For those of you with a curiosity about this amazing part of your anatomy, here's a brief tutorial about the power and the "smarts" of your digestive system. It's so intelligent, and so central to your health, that it's been referred to as the "second brain." You may be surprised to learn that this second brain is located in the lining of the gastrointestinal system. Yes, this second brain is in your gut. It is an independent system, too. It can and does operate independently of the brain and the spinal cord.

Our digestion is controlled by this second brain, which is called the entericnervous system (ENS). But these nerves also communicate with the central nervous system. The ENS consists of some one hundred million neurons — one thousandth of the number of neurons in the brain, but considerably more than the number of neurons in the spinal cord.

The neurons of this second brain in your gut report on mechanical and chemicalconditions in the gastrointestinal system and keep the system in balance. The motor neurons control intestinal muscles, which maintain peristalsis and the important churning of intestinal contents. Other neurons of this second brain control the secretion of enzymes. The ENS makes use of more than 30 neurotransmitters — most of which are identical to the ones found in the central nervous system, such as acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin.

And think about this amazing fact: more than 90% of the body's serotonin lies in the gut; as well as about 50% of the body's dopamine. These are the natural biochemicals associated with robust feelings of joy, happiness and elation.

Stress Hits You in the Gut

When stress activates the "fight or flight" response in your central nervous system, digestion can shut down because your central nervous system shuts down blood flow, affects the contractions of your digestive muscles, and decreases secretions needed for digestion.

Stress can also cause irritation in the gastrointestinal system, and make you more susceptible to falling ill. Stress can cause your esophagus to go into spasm. It can increase the acid in your stomach, causing indigestion. Under stress,the actions of your stomach can shut down and make you feel nauseous. Stress can cause your colon to react in a way that gives you diarrhea or constipation. Remember how you felt before a big exam or speech, when you had to rush to the bathroom.

Manage Stress - Support Digestion

Practice the Transcendental Meditation® technique. Research has continually demonstrated its countless benefits for the mind and body, allowing us to maintain balance in the face of life's daily onslaughts.

Another way to manage stress and maintain healthy digestion is moderate exercise. Physical activity relieves tension and stimulates the release of brain chemicals called endorphins that relieve stress and improve your mood.

Just because it is a time to celebrate does not mean one actually has to eat all the foods (junk or otherwise) or abandon your good eating habits. Remember:"everything in moderation."

Take Maharishi Ayurveda Stress Free Mind and Organic Stress Free Emotions to help deal with the emotional overburden of holiday preparation. Try Blissful Joy to deal with feelings of sadness. Sip warm Worry Free Tea to help you relax — it is far more beneficial than alcohol or drugs.

The Power of Balanced Agni - Taking Care of Digestion with Ayurveda

In ayurveda the word for digestion is agni. Agni refers to an intelligent,creative fire. In the Vedic literature agni is described as the first sound emerging from the dynamic, silent field of intelligence, from which the whole multiplicity of creation develops.

With the consumption of food and the fire of our agni, billions of cells are nourished with both energy and intelligence to continually create and maintain our body. Through balanced agni, or digestion, we create ojas. Ojas is the fundamental essence of food — a substance that acts like a system-wide, intelligent, nourishing cosmic glue to keep those billions of cells functioning as an organized wholeness.

Agni — A Family of Intelligent Digestive Fires

Ayurveda describes 13 main agnis in the body. These are the digestive fires. They are called jathar agni (the main digestive fire), the bhut agnis (the five elemental fires), and the dhatu agnis (the seven tissue fires).

The jathar agni is the leading source of energy for the other agnis. A good analogy is that jathar agni is like a fire in the middle of a room surrounded by 12mirrors around the walls of the room, reflecting the main fire. The strength of all the agnis is determined by the strength of jathar agni.

Signs that Your Agni is Balanced

A balanced agni is called sama agni. We experience this when we are digesting our food properly. Many people do not appreciate this state simply because the indicators are so simple: we are comfortable eating and digesting our food.

In the ancient traditional ayurvedic model of healthcare, a balanced agni isconsidered the first line of defense in maintaining normal health andyouthfulness. According to the texts of ayurveda, digestion acts like aguardian — a protective gateway to support the internal environment in maintaining its natural state of homeostasis. It also creates a favorable environment for the transformation of food into nutrients that can be assimilated by the physiology.

The Three States of Agni Out-of-Balance

There are three main imbalanced states of agni:

Number one: vishama agni, or irregular digestion, is due to aggravated Vata dosha. Theresults of this type of imbalance are irregular appetite, indigestion, gas andbloating, problems falling asleep, excess worrying, weight loss, fearfuldreams, and/or a coating on the tongue.

Number two: tikshna agni is characterized by overactive digestion. This agni imbalanceis due to an imbalance of Pitta. In this situation agni becomes intense; thedigestive fire is too hot. The results of this imbalance include excess hunger, thirst, lethargy and fatigue, burning sensations, and an inability to tolerate hunger, which causes irritability. According to ayurveda, in this circumstance you could experience acid reflux.

Number three: manda agni is characterized by sluggish digestion and is associated withKapha dosha. This means the fire is dull. The transformation of food and nutrients is slow. This leads to partial transformation of food and nutrients and creates ama, or a toxic sludge in the body. The results of a mandaagni imbalance are lack of appetite, heaviness, oversleeping, lethargy, and an increase of Kapha.

Ayurveda emphasizes avoiding the creation of ama. It's one of those simple, powerful, remarkable ayurvedic understandings that have a big impact on the quality of your well-being. Wellness and ama-reduction go hand in hand in ayurveda.

Avoiding ama, and regularly reducing it, sets the body and mind strongly on the path to higher states of wellness. The results of ama buildup are plain and easy to see: a white coating on the tongue in the morning, bad breath, irregular appetite or lack of appetite, excessive gas with a bad odor, low immunity and problems with allergens. If this is the case, ayurveda recommends ama reduction, which is easily accomplished with simple dietary changes, herbs, the experience of regular transcending, exercise and panchakarma (classic ayurvedic purification procedures). All of these approaches help reduce and remove ama and balance agni.

Food Rules — Protecting Agni with Smart Choices

The historical ancient texts of ayurveda state that the three main dietary causes of poor health are:

  1. Mixing the wrong foods together, such as milk with sour food,
  2. Eating too much ortoo little, and
  3. Eating before the previous meal is digested.

This is a classic example of the power of simple solutions from an ayurvedic perspective. The core of the insight rests upon the recognition that digestion plays a huge role in the state of our health and in supporting an exceptional state of wellness. Digestion is the foundation of transformation and nourishment in the ayurvedic model. Respecting the system's likes and dislikes,and supporting it in our food and dietary choices, allows this system to function at peak levels. The goal is more ojas and less ama. For more information on ayurvedic recommendations for food combinations, visit www.mapi.com.

Following these additional simple food insights will support your digestion during thedemanding holidays.

  1. Eat meals at the same time daily, with lunch as the main meal. An old saying goes: eat like a prince at breakfast, a king at lunch and a pauper at dinner. The body likes habits and routine.
  2. Food should be warm, well cooked and unctuous. Avoid extremes like following your main course with lots of cold ice cream.
  3. When you sit to eat, make sure everything you need is on the table. Mothers, fathers and caregivers particularly should refrain from continually getting up to fulfill requests during the meal. Eating should be uninterrupted.
  4. Do not eat too fast or too slow, and chew your food well — as your grandmother used to say, 30 times.
  5. Eat in a settled manner. Focus on eating — no TV or loud music, just pleasant conversation.
  6. Savor the tastes.
  7. Sip a little warm water with your meals — no large amounts of cold beverages before, during or after eating. Leave at least three to four hours between meals; let your digestion do its work before throwing more food onto the fire.
  8. After the meal, rest a little and then have a light stroll to help digestion —no heavy exercise.
  9. Take Maharishi Ayurveda products like Herbal Di-Gest — a wonderful digestive formula to help with digestion whenneeded. If you are prone to more acidity, then favor Aci-Balance to help cool off that internal heat. Organic Digest Tone (Triphala Plus) is a great product to help tone and balance the digestive tract and promote good elimination — great if you're travelling during these holidays.

Conscious Eating

In my practice I often hear people say, "I cannot tell when I am full." It may seem odd. You'd think this is an easy thing to ascertain, but it isn't always. Andif it is, you don't give it much thought. After many years of continually over-or under eating, some people develop an understandable disconnect between theirawareness and their stomach. Advice from the ayurvedic texts may help.

The first point from ayurveda is one of the most important. The texts say eat with "full attention," presence of mind and after due consideration to the Self. This is "conscious eating" — eating with awareness of the state of your hunger, the level of satisfaction, and how your stomach feels. This isn't a kind of "trying" to be aware. You should be effortlessly established in the field of silentawareness, and be a silent witness to these subtle indicators. This is cultivated though regular transcending. This is not a state of mood-making or strain to "remember the self." It is a naturally cultivated state. In this state, wakefulness is your friend, which is why the texts of ayurveda recognize the importance of transcendence. It provides a quiet, discerning background of perception, without effort, to all of the subtle communication between your body and mind. It increases acuity, wakefulness and perception. The texts also make it very clear that you should not eat when you are emotionally upset.

The amount one should take is clearly stated in the ayurvedic texts: your intake should be one part food, one part air and one part water. This principle is based on three conditions: how thirsty are you, how hungry are you, and what is your digestive capacity? If you honor these principles, then you avoid the negative effects of overeating.

How Much is Too Much Food? Simple Clues to "Just Right"

The main texts in ayurveda are also very clear about the best clues to knowing justhow much is the correct amount of food intake. These insights are brilliant indicators, and as always in ayurveda, powerful in their simplicity. The following is a simple "Eating Just Right" list:

Eating Just Right Tip Sheet

  1. No undue pressure on the stomach due to food intake.
  2. No obstruction of the functioning of the heart.
  3. No pressure in the sides of the chest.
  4. No excessive heaviness in the abdomen.
  5. The senses should fee lproperly nourished, not dull and tired.
  6. There should be relief from hunger and thirst.
  7. One should feel comfortable when standing, sitting, walking, exhaling, laughing and talking.
  8. Food taken in the morning should be digested by evening and evening food by the next morning.
  9. What one should experience is strength, happiness and a good complexion.
  10. If you do overeat — which is not uncommon at this time of year due to all the holiday treats — then there could be a disturbance of all doshas. The effects depend on your constitution, your overall state of balance and the degree to which you unbalance the doshas.
  11. The signs are simple: gas and bloating, acidity, giddiness, pain and stiffness in the sides and back, and loose elimination. In more extreme cases, nausea, vomiting or heaviness in the body may occur.

If this should happen, don't panic. Undoing this is also simple. Help rebalance your digestion and recover the next day by eating very lightly and/or just sipping hot-to-warm water all day. It is a fast, easy fix for holiday overindulging.

One last inspiring point from the texts of ayurveda: when you eat with full attention and love in your heart, then ojas is the main outcome.

So do your best to celebrate and be happy. In taking care of your agni/digestion, you are promoting future well being.

Happy Holidays from Maharishi Ayurveda and Happy Digesting!

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.