Digestion is the process through which we digest, break down and assimilate substances—usually foods—via the mouth, stomach, small intestines and large intestines. The liver, gallbladder and pancreas also step in to help out. However, being the whole beings that we are, digestion can also be looked at from a more holistic perspective.
These days, it is widely acknowledged that our mood, emotions and stress can have a significant effect upon our digestive system, and vice versa. We might extend the definition of digestion a little further to not only include food and drinks but also to the breaking down and assimilation of our experiences, emotions and impressions of the world around us. Daily we sort through what is useful and serves us well, and eliminate what does not.
Our ‘digestive fire’, or ‘Agni’ as it is called in the Ayurvedic tradition, is what helps us take nourishment from our food and life and convert it into life force, energy and substance. If our digestion is working well we are able to receive all we need in our for our bodies to be happy and healthy. This life force (or as I like to think of it: the twinkle in our eye) is know as our ‘Rojas’.
However, if our digestive fire is not burning well, digestion and elimination becomes impaired. Think of a fireplace and the chimney: when the fire is burning hot, it burns the wood cleanly and completely; however when it is smouldering it leaves un-burned substances, which end up coating the inside of the fireplace and chimney with a dirty soot. Similarly, undigested food left sitting in our digestive tract ferments and putrifies in our body. This can create a build-up of metabolic wastes, a loss of digestive integrity and, in the longer term, responses from the body like allergies, digestive discomfort and disease.
Most of us at some time or another have probably experienced both sides of this digestive coin. At time we may feel heavy, bloated, sluggish and foggy after eating. Other times we seem to be able to eat just about anything and gain loads of energy from it, the food putting a pep in our step.
So, how do we stoke our digestive fire and keep our internal furnace humming along happily?
Nutrition has become complicated these days—a complete overload of information is available to people about what is good and what is not. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the spleen, paired with the stomach, is one of the most important organs in digestion, assimilation and the coordination of nutrition. It is also the organ which correlates with worry. The first step to building a strong digestive fire is relaxing and taking time to enjoy your food, whatever it may be.
The food we eat can be so super delicious that it may be difficult to stop eating even once we are full. Be careful though—it puts a strain on one’s digestive fire when there is too much to digest all at once. By only eating until you feel around two-thirds full, you will ensure that there is space for optimal digestive functions to occur.
Moderate eating has been shown to have many positive links to living longer, happier and healthier lives. Practising moderate eating can also encourage us to savour and enjoy our food more. Think quality over quantity. You might like to try eating smaller amounts of good quality, highly nutritious and lovingly prepared food. Treat yourself, where possible, to organic, local, seasonal, fresh and delicious whole foods.
When to Eat
It is commonly said that we should eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a merchant and dinner like a pauper, and there is plenty of evidence to back up this approach. This means starting the day with a hearty meal and then gradually decreasing meal sizes as the day goes on, in alignment with the natural flow of our body’s energies. This practice helps to keep the digestive fire burning strongly. A large meal eaten late in the evening, just when the fire is mellowing down to glowing embers, is not going to give optimal digestion.
Also consider the seasonality of foods. The natural variations of the seasons tend to help support the body in digestion and elimination. Winter is the perfect time to eat hearty, warming foods. Cleansing, digestion-stimulating greens are perfect and cooling in the Spring time.
Keeping the Fire Burning
Fire is, by nature, about heat and warmth. It makes sense, then, that cold and damp foods generally dampen or put out our digestive fire. Small amounts eaten occasionally, as with water on a fire, won’t put out a fire which is burning well, however, a bucket of water will, or even small amounts of cold, damp foods when ingested frequently.
Raw foods are considered cold and hard to digest. For those with very high Agni, a diet high in raw foods may be fine, however for most people, it’s best to include only small amounts of raw food alongside a predominantly cooked diet.
Raw foods can also be ‘warmed’ in the digestive sense by adding pungent, heat-generating spices and dressings such as mustard, vinegar, cayenne and ginger. Cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, cumin, coriander and most aromatic herbs and spices can also be added to meals, or taken prior to a meal, to help stimulate the digestive fire and increase the warmth of foods.
We have all heard how important it is to chew your food. Chewing your food well increases its warmth, digestibility and absorption rates. The process of mastication breaks your food down into smaller pieces and mixes it with digestive enzymes and secretions.
Food, family and fun
Food is such an integral part of our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. Good digestive function, as mentioned earlier, is about more than just the physical going-ons. The Mediterranean diet is one of the most researched diets out there. It has been a focus of much study as it is linked with very low levels of heart diseases. There are many reasons for this, including the healthy oils and anti-oxidant-rich red wines, however there is another factor that enters the picture: the beautiful culture around, and passion for, food. Eating and drinking with joy and relaxation is great for your bod!
Mealtime can be a great time for people to gather together, socialise, share, relax and enjoy the flavours of the food as well as the love of those who have prepared it for you. The smells, sights and thoughts of food before a meal help to stimulate the appetite, exciting the digestion and igniting the fire within. The moments before a meal allow for our appetite to hit full swing and for our digestive system to be ready and raring when the food arrives.
So… how is your Agni?
— Written by Damian Harrison of Chamomile Naturopathy and edited by Rachel Stone