It is often frustrating and confusing working out what the right diet for you is. Often, despite our best efforts to eat well, digestive issues such as bloating, irregularity, food sensitivities or poor energy levels continue to persist. Sure, most of us could eat better but maybe much of the ultimate solution is more fundamental than simply picking the right foods to eat?
What if we simply tended more to the quality of our “digestive fire”, how much would that help?
Ayurveda, Agni & Digestion
The ancient science of Ayurveda describes digestion as a sacred fire. In the Indian tradition the god Agni Deva, personifies this digestive fire in the belly that consumes our food and transmutes it into the elements of the body, mind and spirit. Agni Deva is the link between heaven and earth, taking offerings to the other world in his fire.
In Ayurveda, the digestive system is Agni’s seat. A healthy digestive system is considered to the cornerstone of wellbeing, and every disease is believed to arise from inefficient digestion. In fact, you could almost distil the science of Ayurvedic health down to the simple idea that total health resides in the state of our digestive powers, and that restoring health must originate with a focus on our digestive system.
There are certainly conditions related to excess digestive fire such as acid reflux and inflammatory bowel conditions, however in this post I’m focusing on the effect of low digestive fire which manifests in the all too common symptoms of excess gas, abdominal cramps, food sensitivities, sluggish bowel function and lack of energy.
* It should also be noted that in conditions related to excess digestive fire they tend to be more advanced conditions that come after chronically low digestive fire.
The Effect of Low Digestive Fire
If digestive fire is low, then the different stages of digestion are not correctly processed, and the assimilation of nutrients will be insufficient as well as the destruction of harmful microbes and toxins which are ingested with food. Food that hasn’t been properly incinerated thus sits in the intestines partially digested. Bacteria and yeast then have the job of breaking down the food which results in toxic gas as a by-product. These toxins generate a vicious cycle as an “inflammatory response” is triggered, resulting in further gas and reactive mucus in the intestines. Over time more sludge builds up through the digestive tract, eventually backing up into gall bladder and bile ducts in the liver.
Digestive fire (Agni) is fuelled by bile, without which none of the other digestive juices would be sufficiently effective to break down food into nutrient components. Bile is alkaline. When food that is saturated with hydrochloric acid enters the small intestine, it first needs to be mixed with bile before digestive enzymes can act on the food. An intestinal pH-value of high acidity would block enzyme secretion and become a major stumbling block for proper digestion of food.
Due to bile’s central importance to digestion, what happens to food before it reaches the intestines is particularly important. If by the time the food reaches the intestines the food has not been prepared well, then the bile just ends up adding to the sludge, which eventually leads to obstructions in the liver and gall bladder. Thereafter less bile then is created, lowering the digestive fire (agni) further, and the vicious cycle perpetuates itself.
4 Tips to Re-Kindle the Digestive Fire
1. Start with Some Kindling & Allow Space
When building up a camp fire, the first principle is that you start with kindling i.e small dry twigs to give the fire something to start on. The same principle holds true with our digestive system. Starting your meal with something that “sparks” digestion makes sense. Ayurveda teaches that all six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent) should be eaten at every meal for us to feel satisfied and to ensure that all major food groups and nutrients are represented.
Sour foods (lemon, pickles, sauerkraut, yogurt/lassi) consumed at the beginning of a meal have the effect of activating the salivary glands and stimulating digestive juices. In addition these “starter” foods are eaten in small quantity so that by the time the heavier foods enter the body, a “small fire” is already burning brightly.
Allowing space; simply we supply the right amount of fuel. This starts with smaller meals, and chewing food well. Overloading the stomach with too much food, particularly if it hasn’t been chewed well, makes it impossible for the stomach to do it’s job of preparing the food for the next stage of digestion. Poorly prepared food then enters the intestines, rendering the bile largely ineffective in triggering the digestive enzymes.
Intermittent Fasting and or not snacking between meals is another excellent way to allow enough space for the digestive fire to kindle itself. When food then comes into the digestive system there is enough space (oxygen) for the fire to fully engulf the food and properly incinerate it.
Keep in mind too that hunger is the sign of a healthy digestive fire, rather than constantly snacking, wait to eat until the level of hunger is high, but not too high. Wait until mealtimes, and only then make our offering to the flames.
2. Eat when the Fire is Ready & Add Glowing Embers to it by Emphasing Raw Food
In Ayurveda, midday represents the time of day when the digestive fire is at it’s brightest (the three elements that make up the daily cycle are; Vata – Air/Either, Pitta – Fire & Water, Kapha – Earth & Water). Midday presents Pitta, making it the ideal time to have the largest meal of the day as it is when the digestive fire is at brightest.
Raw food is a akin to add glowing embers to the fire because they contain live enzymes which once ingested, actually help break down the food and add “flames” to the digestive fire. With cooked food these live enzymes are destroyed. Aim then to make at least 50% (ideally 80% or more) of your daily caloric intake as raw plant based food.
* Taking tip 1 & 2 together – start breakfast with fruit, and lunch and dinner with a small green salad, with a dressing including vinegar.
3. Regularly Cleanse the Liver, Gallbladder and Colon
As pointed out at the beginning of this post, bile is particularly important in fuelling the digestive fire. Periodically cleansing the liver’s bile ducts and the gallbladder (bile reservoir) is therefore an important health preserving practice. Over the last 5 years in my clinical practice, I’ve observed many patients undertake Andreas Mortiz’s liver & gallbladder cleanse protocol – I highly recommend it.
Similarly, cleansing the colon periodically indirectly improves liver performance because a congested colon results in toxins being reabsorbed and sent back to the liver for reprocessing, thereby placing additional burden on it. A seasonal Detox / Fast with Liver Cleansing and Colon irrigation makes practical sense. If you are interested in doing colon irrigation safely and easily at home a Higginson Syringe is a good option.
4. Make Eating a Sacred Practice
I’ve saved the most important to last. In India, as in many traditional cultures, meals are a time of sacred offering. Prior to eating, the food is offered to the divine power with humility, reverence and gratitude. The food itself is considered sacred and is prepared, handled and served as a precious gift. Many traditional cultures attach rituals to the act of eating to acknowledge its divine nature. This practice nourishes the soul as well as the body and mind.
We can all begin to honour this truth by simply becoming more conscious when we eat. At home at meal times the TV goes off, at work you never eat at your desk. Go outside even if it’s for 10 minutes. Find a quiet spot and look at the Sun – all life comes from it. Look at the food you are offering, take a moment of reverential silence before taking your first bite and enjoy each mouthful.
The wisdom lies in eating less and eating the right way .
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Aaron Travers is author of “The Boda Fast – a three step plan to lower inflammation, maximise fat burning and restore vitality”. Aaron writes at www.thebodacleanse.com.au and shares his ideas and experiences on health and wellbeing from his personal life and through working with clients clinically and those doing his “supported fasting” programs. Every Friday he sends out his newsletter, fill in below form to subscribe.