July 2, 2016
By Virender Sodhi, MD (Ayurved), NMD & Priya Walia, MS (Ayurveda), NMD
Healthy Digestion & Elimination: The Ultimate Seat of Health
In continuation of this series on “Swasthyavrit,” we are going to take a look at what the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda has to offer for digestion and elimination.
Digestion & Elimination According to Ayurveda
Eating and digestion are daily, life-sustaining events. It’s no wonder that a healthy digestive system is revered in Ayurveda as a cornerstone of well-being and that every disease is believed to arise from inefficient digestion. The metabolic energy of digestion, known as agni, allows us to assimilate food while ridding the body of wastes and toxins (ama). It transforms dense physical matter into the subtler forms of energy that the body needs to be vital, generate internal warmth, and produce a clear mind.
Charak, the most distinguished Ayurvedic doctor, has mentioned,
"A faulty fire (agni) leads to improper functioning of the tissues which in turn, creates Ama [toxins] in the gastro-intestinal tract and leads to poor synthesis of tissues."
There are many types of digestive fires, called agni in the body. Within the digestive system, agni determines the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach (where it’s known as jathar agni), bile acids in the liver (bhuta agni), and sugar-digesting pancreatic enzymes (kloma agni). The same digestive fire regulates the thyroid gland (jatru agni) and the metabolic transformations of the tissues (dhatu agni). Specific agnis are even found in each cell. The metabolic pathway of agni begins with digestion and ends in the cells. This might sound complex. But simply put, when agni is weak, there is not enough digestive power to metabolize food into energy.
On a subtler level, the five senses, known as the door of perception, help with digestion and transform external information into knowledge. That is why the relationship with your food source is important for healthy digestion and detoxification. In other words, food in its most natural form allows for a clearer and more vital body and mind.
The ideal is a balanced digestive fire, agni, that is neither too weak nor too excessive. The quality of agni varies depending upon one’s dominant subtle energy, or dosha: vata, pitta, or kapha. These 3 subtle energies reside in every cell of the body, however, they maintain their “home base” within the digestive system. Vata’s main seat is in the colon, pitta resides in the small intestine, stomach and liver, and kapha lives in the stomach, mouth and saliva. Once dislodged, they move to other sites and become associated with improper digestion and elimination leading to toxins being deposited in the body. Without healthy digestion and elimination, the body cannot maintain its homeostasis, creating a breeding ground for disease processes.
In vata and kapha types, agni tends to be weak and the digestive system cold, sluggish or irregular. This can result in malabsorption, chronic constipation, loose stools and gas. In pitta types, agni is robust and can become excessive, leading to heartburn, acid reflux, colitis and other burning sensations.
Ways to Promote Healthy Digestion & Elimination: Deepan and Pachan
Deepan translates to “strengthening one’s digestive fire” so that it can digest food almost like a perfectly burning stove where there is not too much or too little flame under the cooking pot. Under ideal conditions the body naturally enables this process, however, our current-day lifestyles have weakened our digestive fire.
Pachan is the process of digestion to elimination. Although individual variations exist according to our individual body types, we can follow simple steps to optimize Deepan and Pachan.
- Eat meals at a proper time and the same time daily.
- Breakfast should be done before 9am
- Lunch between 12-2pm
- Dinner between 6-8pm
- Drink fluid (warm water is advised) without food and in small sips during meals if needed.
- Eat when hungry.
- Don’t eat to full capacity, eat only to ⅔ of your hunger or eating capacity.
- Sit down to eat.
- Eat in silence, without the television, computer or phone next to you.
- Meditate on the food: smell it, taste it and feel the energy of the food.
- Have the largest meal at lunch time.
- Take a short and gentle walk after meals to enhance digestion and circulation.
- Add ginger over cooked food.
- Add organic ghee (clarified butter) or other organic and unrefined oils like coconut oil, olive oil or avocado oil over cooked food.
- Include digestive spices or herbs in food appropriate for the individual, such as: pippali (long pepper), ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, guduchi, chitrak, triphala, cumin, fennel and coriander. It is better to sprinkle spices on top of food rather than cooking with them, to avoid destroying the digestive properties of the herbs.
We can further enhance the digestive process with supplementation of herbal or other formulations, such as:
- A combination of three fruits, amla (Emblica officinalis), haritaki (Terminalis chebula) and bahera (Terminalia belerica), triphala is considered to function synergistically as an adaptogen for the digestive system to enable optimal digestion and elimination. This traditional formulation contains high levels of antioxidants, tannins and vitamin C to support optimal health and vitality. This can be taken after meals or at bedtime.
- Translating to the “three bitters,” this ancient combination of black pepper (Piper nigrum), ginger (Zingiber officinalis) and long pepper (Piper longum) form an energizing and digestion enhancing tonic. Trikatu enhances the metabolic processes by aiding digestion in and elimination of toxic products from the body. This formula promotes the body’s secretion of its natural hydrochloric acid and other substances in the stomach. It also aids in the body’s natural production of secretory IgA in order to optimize digestion. This formula should be taken before meals.
- The human body contains around a 100 trillion cells and around 1000 trillion bacteria. Out of those, we have only identified around 500 different bacterial strains. Such bacteria include the “good” and the “bad” kind, as we need both in order to live in balance. Bacteria enables healthy digestion and is instrumental in preventing disease. In order to ensure this balance, probiotics and prebiotics are essential. Prebiotics serve as a fertilizer to make beneficial bacteria in the gut, while probiotics provide good bacteria to the gut.
- Generally, a probiotic when taken 10 to 15 minutes before a meal, enables the dominance of beneficial bacteria over harmful or detrimental bacteria in the digestive system. It is advisable to take a formulation that has several different strains with a high amount of bacteria.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables are a source of both prebiotics and probiotics. Fruits are best eaten in between meals for better digestion. Traditionally probiotics came from fresh fruits and vegetables. However, our food quality has deteriorated due to preservation, pesticides, insecticides and chemicalization leading to a loss of the beneficial probiotics. Naturally fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles contain naturally occurring probiotics.
- Our body manufactures several different enzymes that enables the breakdown of food substance including proteins, carbohydrates and fats. However, when digestion is weak, with a low digestive fire or agni, it is beneficial to support the body with enzymes to assist in the digestive and elimination process. Enzymes can be taken after meals.
What Healthy Elimination Entails:
According to Ayurveda, one should have a bowel movement upon waking in the morning, and ideally, before sunrise. It is also normal to have a bowel movement after a meal. When one has a healthy bowel movement, it means that there is proper flow and movement throughout the digestive channel–from mouth to anus. This means that proper digestion is being attained.
Healthy Stool Qualities:
- Well formed, like a banana or figure eight
- Maintain their shape in the toilet
- Light brown to dark brown in color
- Float in the toilet
- Slightly moist
- It isn’t sticky (i.e. stick to the toilet)
- No undigested food, blood, or mucus should be seen
- Odor should be mild
Other Ways to Promote Healthy Digestion & Elimination:
- Drink one to two 8-oz glasses of warm water upon waking to help stimulate the digestive and eliminative processes.
- Drink warm fluids throughout the day and at least 30 minutes before meals.
- The concept of a routine goes hand in hand with the body’s physiologic clock. By promoting a routine, we enable our bodies to live in sync at all times. For example, when one travels, it is common for bowels to slow down and become irregular. When there is regularity, our bowels “behave” in a regular way.
- If bowel movements aren’t occurring at the same time every day, it is worthwhile to retrain the bowels. This is done by sitting on the toilet or squatting at the same time daily and going through the cleansing motions as if one has had a bowel movement. Most importantly, remember to relax and breathe deeply to help retrain the bowels.
- By having an exercise routine, we promote regularity and enhancement of the metabolic system. This can dispel sluggish or blocked stools, as well as open the channel of digestion.
Meditation & Pranayama (Breathing) for Stress Reduction for Healthy Digestion and Elimination:
The digestive system is thought to have its very own brain: the enteric system. Digestion and elimination function optimally when the body is in its relaxed state, known as the parasympathetic state. You may have noticed that when stressed, emotionally or physically, you may experience more bloating and or constipation, or just lack of regularity of bowel movements. This is why it happens. Promoting relaxation and stress reduction will help the digestive system to function optimally.
Any form of meditation can be practiced. The simplest one is breath awareness meditation, where one focuses on his or her inhale and exhale without letting the mind wander towards the thoughts that may arise.
Breathing practices can be both stress reducing and agni strengthening.
One such practice is known as Anulom Vilom (Alternate Nostril Breathing). One round of alternate nostril breathing consists of the following 6 steps:
- Use the right thumb to plug your right nostril.
- With your mouth closed, inhale completely through the left nostril.
- Pause briefly. Plug your left nostril with the ring finger of right hand.
- Unplug the right nostril and exhale completely through it.
- Inhale through the right nostril and plug it again with your thumb.
- Pause briefly. Unplug the left nostril and exhale completely.
*Perform for 15 minutes, twice a day.
Another breath practice that stimulates our internal agni is known as Kapalbhati (Breath of Fire):
- Close your eyes and take a few relaxing, deep breaths.
- Close your mouth and inhale through the nose to full lung capacity.
- Begin forceful exhalation. Use your belly to push air out of both nostrils in short puffs.
- In between exhalations, do not actively inhale. The body naturally draws in a small amount of air.
- After 10 or more exhalations, relax and take a few normal breaths before repeating.
- Repeat this exercise 3-5 times, twice a day.
Note: Breathing exercises are best done after elimination.
Simply put, keeping the furnace strong enables health for the entire body. Ayurveda regards healthy digestion and elimination as the key to disease prevention. With the simple Ayurvedic techniques mentioned above, you can start maintaining healthy digestion and elimination today.
In continuing the “Circle of Health,” our next topic will discuss healthy sleep.