Since ancient times, Ayurveda’s primary tenet has remained the same: good digestion. The digestive fire is the secret to sustaining good health. For this reason, it is helpful to understand the basis of good digestion and the result of poor digestion—agni and ama, respectively.
AGNI AND AMA
Agni means “fire” in Sanskrit, and in the context of Ayurveda it means “digestive fire.” The term refers both to the digestive enzymes and to the metabolic process whereby food is chemically transformed into energy. With strong agni, we can digest most anything without suffering negative consequences. Even toxins, microorganisms, and foreign bacteria are destroyed by strong agni. When the digestive fire is strong, our energy is strong—we are healthy and we live longer.
When agni is weak, our health is likely to be more fragile, our energy decreases, and our immunity is compromised. People who suffer from allergies in the spring and fall tend to have weak agni; this is why their bodies are unable to eliminate the pollens to which they are exposed. If we have a low digestive fire, our bodies are unable to complete the chemical work of digestion, and this means that undigested food is trapped in the large intestine, where it ferments and decays. It is this undigested food that ultimately becomes the sticky and smelly mucus Ayurveda calls amaor ama. Simply put, ama is toxins.
SIGNS OF TOXIC BUILDUP—AMA
- White or yellow coating on tongue
- Bad breath
- Smelly stool
- Runny nose, especially while eating
- Aches and pains
- Joint inflammation
- Poor circulation
- Intestinal bloating and gas
- Fatigue after eating
- Lack of mental clarity
- General weakness
These toxins are distributed throughout the body via the circulatory system. Deposits of ama can appear in the body in its joints, organs, or hollow channels—the veins, arteries, glands, lymph nodes, and nerves. Dr. Smita Naram explains in Secrets of Natural Health the significant consequences ama has for health:
If it blocks the circulatory system, it can lead to arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, or infarct in the brain or heart. If it blocks the respiratory channel, it results in asthma, bronchitis, or sinusitis. If it blocks the mental channels, it causes confusion, fear, excessive worrying, lack of focus, and irritability. Emotionally, it can cause sadness and oversensitivity.
The consequential link between our digestive power, agni, and the toxins that accumulate in the body cannot be overstated. Although it may take months or even years for symptoms to appear, once toxins begin to accumulate, be assured you will experience their effects. “Ama is the starting point of any form of illness,” Dr. Naram says. A weak digestive fire leads to the accumulation of toxins and, once the toxins begin to build, they further weaken the digestive fire.
Do you wonder whether or not you have toxins in your body? Then try this quick self-test. In the morning, before you drink or eat anything, take a toothbrush or tongue scraper and pull it down your tongue, starting at the back of the tongue near the throat and moving toward the front of your mouth. Do you find a thick, sticky substance coating your tongue? Bingo. This is ama. For a list of the telltale signs of toxin buildup in your body, see the sidebar above.
It is vital to understand the importance of the digestive power. To survive you need to eat every day, and to thrive you need to digest what you’ve eaten. You may be eating a diet of pristine foods that are just right for your constitution, but if you aren’t digesting those foods well, your health will be compromised. Ultimately, as Dr. Naram indicates, even your emotions can become unstable. Toxins will accumulate in your body, and as toxins accumulate, the body’s innate organizing intelligences—the doshas—go awry.
Ed Danaher, manager of the Panchakarma Clinic at the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, explains it this way:
“The balance or imbalance of the doshas is dependent upon agni.Therefore, anything that imbalances agni should ideally be given up.”
SETTING A HEALTHY ROUTINE
The diet and lifestyle choices that either support or sabotage agni demonstrate a fundamental truth of Ayurveda: it is up to each individual to make daily lifestyle choices that strengthen digestion and lead toward the goal of optimal health. Certainly, we don’t always have control over what we eat. Yet even when we’re traveling, eating in restaurants, or taking a meal in someone else’s home, we can always make the healthiest food choice possible in that situation. And for the rest of the time—which, for most of us, is most of the time—we can set a healthy routine for our diet.
Although we may not be able to avoid stress as easily as we control our food intake, we can support ourselves with practices such as meditation (preferably daily) that reduce stress, calm the mind, and support digestion. If we focus on foods and lifestyle choices that enhance agni, the strength of our digestion will literally burn up the occasional toxins that are unavoidable in our diets.
One of the most significant lifestyle choices to support agni is what I call the vital rule of digestion: eat only when you are hungry, and stop eating before you are full.The first part of this equation is important because hunger is the signal that the inner digestive fire is kindled and the body is ready to ingest more food.
Typically, it takes three to four hours to digest any meal, and for this reason, Ayurvedic experts caution us not to eat between meals. (The exception is for people with hypoglycemia, who may need to sustain their blood sugar with small protein snacks such as a few nuts every two or three hours.) By avoiding most between-meal snacking, we give the body time to complete the digestion process before we eat again. If you find that you’re hungry an hour or so before mealtime, it’s the ideal time to enjoy a light snack—a piece of fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, or a small glass of almond milk.
Just as it’s vital to wait for the inner coals to get hot before throwing a meal on the fire, it is equally important that we stop eating before we’re totally full—in other words, while there is still space in the stomach. Ayurvedic texts suggest that to sustain good health we need to eat only as much food as we can hold cupped in two hands. When we overeat, we overwhelm agni. When we habitually overeat, much of our food is never digested. Stuck in the colon for weeks and months at a time, this undigested food putrefies, becomes toxic, and then is absorbed into the body.
For many people, deciding to stop eating before they’re full is easier said than done—especially when tantalizing food is left in the serving dish! Nonetheless, this advice is a critical part of sustaining good health. As I mentioned earlier, when I was growing up, my family always went for second and third helpings. In recent years, I’ve had to learn a new way of eating—paying attention while eating, noticing that I’m getting close to full, and then stopping. I don’t succeed every day, but I’m getting much better at it. When I overeat, I feel lethargic or get indigestion. When I eat modest portions, I feel so much better.
CHOICES TO SUPPORT OR SABOTAGE DIGESTION
WHAT WEAKENS AGNI?
- Excess vata
- Cold drinks and food
- Excessive raw food
- Heavy foods: deep-fried foods, red meat, hard cheeses, wheat
- Eating when not hungry
- Eating late at night and at irregular times
- Incompatible food combining
- Refined sugar
- Refined and processed foods
- Eating when emotionally upset
- Anxiety, stress, negative emotions
- Sensory overload
- Lack of exercise
- Excessive sleeping during the day or lack of sleep
WHAT SUPPORTS AGNI?
- Ghee in moderation
- Fresh lime
- Fresh ginger
- Warm or hot drinks, water or herbal tea, depending on the season
- Cumin, coriander, fennel, saffron, black pepper
- Eating at a regular time in a peaceful setting
- Finishing the last meal of the day no later than 7:00 p.m.
- Prayer and meditation
- Singing and chanting
- Hatha yoga, stretching exercises
- Pranayama (yogic breath)
- Walking, being in nature
- Thinking positive thoughts
- Keeping good company
Reprinted with permission from Sacred & Delicious © 2018 by Lisa Joy Mitchell. Sacred & Delicious is a food memoir, a primer on India’s traditional dietary approach to wellness, and a glorious cookbook―with 108 enticing gluten-free and vegetarian recipes (most with vegan options), and more than 60 full-page four-color photos. This book celebrates the healing power of food and spices, embodying ancient Ayurvedic wisdom while appealing to a modern American palate and dietary needs. With this book in hand, readers can sustain or regain their health and vitality . . . deliciously!
Lisa Joy Mitchell, a busy public relations consultant, was drawn to study Ayurvedic cooking in 1998, when chronic health problems began taking center stage in her fast-paced life. On her road to wellness, Mitchell changed her diet and began an informal study with Ayurvedic physicians Dr. Vasant Lad, Ed Danaher, and Dr. Alpana Bhatt in the US and Dr. Smita Naram in India. Mitchell is now a wellness mentor and cooking instructor based in Raleigh, North Carolina. She often works in partnership with her husband, Tom Mitchell, a chiropractic physician who practices Ayurvedic pulse assessment and herbal medicine. During the past decade, Mitchell has cooked for hundreds of participants in Ayurvedic clinics and meditation courses.