Understanding The Four Types Of Digestion Is The KEY To Healing Your Gut
In Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old "science of life" from India that concerns itself with holistic health and well-being, digestion is the start and end point of feeling at your absolute best. Even Hippocrates said that all disease begins in the gut—something that we're beginning to recognize in the West, judging by the huge focus on gut health and digestion in the current news cycle. When you are digesting efficiently, you feel energized and ready to take on the day, and you sleep better, too, not to mention your body assimilates the essential nutrients from your food and eliminates the rest easily. If it's not working, then it can be the beginning of so many issues. So how does one achieve healthy digestion?
Ayurveda understands our digestion as agni—the Sanskrit word for "fire"—which we must look after in order to keep it lively and balanced. We can describe the condition of our digestive fire through four discrete types of agni with a balanced agni being ideal. Each of us corresponds more closely to one of the three other types in our natural state (or individual mind-body type, designated by the three doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha) but can inch toward any of the others depending on how we eat, how we sleep, our everyday habits and our current environment.
The four types of digestion.
Balanced agni, known as "sama agni," corresponds to great digestion, the type of agni we should strive for. Physical signs of a balanced agni are not only great digestion, but also an ability to adapt to changes in weather or seasons. In terms of emotional signs, people with a balanced agni are able to think clearly, enjoy steady moods, and are better at dealing with stress and other hurdles that come their way—all other types of agni are the result of imbalances we need to remedy.
Visham agni is irregular digestion, most often experienced by vata- (the dosha defined by space and air) dominant individuals, or those experiencing a vata imbalance. Their digestive fire is erratic, changing from fast-burning to slow, as if air is blowing on it. Their moods, feelings, and hunger can change at the drop of a hat, and they may suffer from constipation or "rabbit dropping"-type waste. These symptoms can also manifest as gas pain, indigestion, and even dry skin. Visham agni can be soothed by privileging clear foods such as broths, soups, and ghee.
Tikshna agni or sharp digestion is mostly associated with pitta (fire and water dosha) mind-body types, which can be understood as fighting fire with fire. This fire is fast-burning and overactive. Although it might seem ideal as we liken it to a "fast-burning metabolism" within a Western approach, too much fire in the belly leads to a hotheaded, "fiery" mood and can burn down nutrients before your body has a chance to assimilate them. These symptoms can manifest as insatiable hunger, heartburn, and hot flashes. This can also lead to runny, oily waste material that burns—no need to explain that one in everyday terms! Soothe tikshna agni with cooling foods such as fennel and mint teas and fruit smoothies.
Lastly, manda agni or slow digestion is likened to kapha (water and earth dosha) mind-body types and can be described as if building a fire with damp branches—it is slow-burning and weak and easily leads to weight gain and lethargy and renders large, heavy, soft waste material. These symptoms can manifest as nausea, weight gain, and cold, clammy skin. Manda Agni can be brought back in balance by eating two to three smaller meals throughout the day and privileging spicy curries and dried fruits. To help you make sense of agni and other Ayurvedic concepts, check out my book East by West.
Recognizing these four types of agni can tell you a lot about the imbalances you're experiencing and how to remedy them. The Ayurvedic system works with a set of opposite qualities, so if you're feeling stressed and erratic, which may point to a vata imbalance, you should privilege warm, soothing, grounding foods and practices to offset the negative effects on your digestion. A pitta imbalance leads you to cooling, calming foods and lifestyle practices to tame the fire. If the imbalance you're experiencing seems more kapha-related, i.e., cold, heavy, and wet, the remedy is to expose yourself to more energizing, dry elements, and so on.
As you can see, digestion, like everything else in ayurveda and the natural world, depends heavily on the individual and their environment—it’s not a one-size-fits-all affair.
As you can see, digestion, like everything else in Ayurveda and the natural world, depends heavily on the individual and their environment—it's not a one-size-fits-all affair. There are however some universal ways of taking care of your agni, thank goodness. It's not just about what you eat, macros and micros and its physical properties, far from it. You could be eating the "healthiest" food in the world, but if you are eating it in a stressed-out state you are by far reducing the effectiveness of your digestion and the benefits are lost. In fact, Ayurvedic doctors repeatedly tell me it is better to have good digestion and a bad diet than a good diet and bad digestion. When your digestion is poor for an extended period, toxins build up in your system, known as ama in Ayurveda. When ama, which is a result of poor agni, accumulates, you start to feel a whole legion of side effects, including indigestion, sluggishness, insomnia, body odor, congestion, depression, and more.
It's about more than just food.
Mind-body (dosha) types and agni types aside, how, when, where, how much, and with whom you eat are all just as important, if not more so, as the food that's on your plate. Eating too much raw, which is hard to digest if you don't have adequate agni, eating dinner too late in the day (especially a large, hard-to-digest meal) gives your body little chance to fully digest before bed, just as when it comes to breaking your overnight fast, eating too large a meal that's hard to digest too early in the day doesn't give your body the chance to fire up properly, so again it takes longer and can lead to more ama.
Proper digestion is also very much dependent on your environment, which can help or hinder, so try to eat mindfully (i.e., without undue distractions), taking the time to enjoy your food and be grateful for it (rather than stressfully multitasking), listening to your body, and stopping when you're satisfied but not overly full (rather than just going by what's on your plate—efficient digestion needs room to take place!). Reduce incompatible food combos (Ayurveda suggests an intake of fruits, starches, proteins and fats separately at different times of the day) such as dairy and fruit or dairy and fish, avoiding iced or chilled drinks. Long, slow cooking renders your food easier to digest while marrying ingredients that might otherwise be incompatible, making it all less taxing on the body, as does being emotionally present as well as physically when eating a meal that will ultimately become part of you.
All of this helps your digestive fire burn bright and healthy, or at least begin to repair from previous upheaval. And the good news is that the qualities of a lively, healthily burning digestive fire are exactly what we need to start burning away the sticky, cold, wet, heavy qualities of ama in our system. As you can see, good digestion is important for overall health and body function, so play by that rule first before fussing about what makes the perfect plate of food—a far simpler and more romantic and intuitive approach to health and diet than trying to work out calories and chemical components!
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