The healing tradition of Ayurveda teaches that health and wellbeing depends upon our ability to digest everything we take in from the environment. This includes not only tangible substances like food and drink, but also our experiences, emotions, and the impressions we take in via our sensory portals, namely our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Agni is the Sanskrit term for the “digestive fire” that breaks down the food and other things we ingest from the environment, assimilating what is useful, and eliminating the rest.
When our digestive ability, or agni, is strong, we create healthy tissues, eliminate waste products efficiently, and produce a subtle essence called ojas. Ojas, which is a Sanskrit word that means strength, can be envisioned as the innermost vital essence. According to Ayurveda, ojas is the basis for clarity of perception, physical strength, and immunity. On the other hand, if our agni is weakened through improper eating, lack of activity, negative emotional energy or unhealthy daily routine, our digestion will be hampered and we produce toxins that get stored in the body. According to Ayurveda, this toxic residue, known as ama, is the root cause of disease.
Uncovering the Root Causes of Digestive Issues
Whether we are coping with weight issues or uncomfortable GI symptoms such as bloating, gas, or indigestion, often the underlying root problem is weak agni, or poor digestion. Unfortunately, in Western medicine, we aren’t trained to ask the key question “How strong is my digestive fire?” Instead, we concentrate solely on the foods going in. When a patient goes to a health care provider trained in conventional allopathic medicine, the treatment options for digestive issues are typically medications, which serve to control symptoms, but do not treat the underlying cause.
Even when a provider’s approach includes testing and the elimination of offending foods, this is still only addressing part of the problem. While this treatment addresses the agent (or food) being ingested, it doesn’t look at why it is not being digested properly. Although eliminating foods that are bothersome can often alleviate symptoms, it is often difficult for patients to continually avoid those foods. It can often begin to disrupt their quality of life. The Ayurvedic concept of agni allows us to expand the conversation into answering the most important questions: “Why did the body begin to improperly digest, or not tolerate, this food?” and “How can we both eliminate the offending agent and concurrently increase agni or digestive power?” This approach opens up the possibility of re-introducing the food at a future time, allowing the person to fully experience foods again.
Ayurveda recommends a variety of practical techniques for keeping our digestive fire strong. Incorporating these practices into your daily life can strengthen agni and, in turn, facilitate weight loss, improve the metabolism of food, and minimize uncomfortable GI symptoms.
Here are six powerful ways to strengthen your agni:
1.) Meditate on a regular basis—Studies are increasingly confirming the genetic changes that occur with regular meditation, which can help restore the body’s homeostasis, including the processes controlling digestion. To achieve maximum benefit, meditate for 20 to 30 minutes, twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening. To get started with meditation or to deepen your meditation practice, please visit the Chopra Center’s Meditation Resource Library.
2.) Do some form of daily movement, whether it is a little yoga every morning, or a daily walk—A recent study published in Diabetes Care showed that a short 15-minute walk after each meal helped to control sugar spikes after eating. These short post-meal walks were more effective than taking a longer, 45-minute walk once daily.
3.) Don’t overeat—When we eat more food than our stomach can accommodate, we cannot properly break it down. We also tend to produce more acid, thus causing reflux and indigestion. In addition, the amount of digestive enzymes produced may not be able to completely break down the volume of food ingested, which leads to more gas formation, discomfort, or bloating. Ayurveda recommends that we leave one-third to one-quarter of our stomach empty to allow space for our body to easily digest our meal.
Here is a simple way to gauge an ideal portion of food for a meal based on your body size: Cup your hands together with your fingertips touching, forming the shape of a bowl. The recommended amount of food for a meal is the equivalent of two of these handfuls of food. Of course, you can eat less than two handfuls if your appetite is smaller.
4.) Sip on ginger tea throughout the day, and with meals. Ginger is known in Ayurveda as the “universal remedy” due to its many benefits for the body, and it has been used for more than 2,000 years to treat digestive issues. Ginger can relax the smooth muscle of the intestines, thereby relieving symptoms of gas and cramping.
A recent study in the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that ginger stimulates digestion by speeding up the movement of food from the stomach into the small intestine, and helps eliminates digestive discomfort after eating. In addition, ginger can stimulate saliva, bile, and gastric enzymes to aid in digestion of the food that has been ingested. The researchers concluded that these beneficial effects are a result of phenolic compounds, primarily gingerol and shogaol, and various other volatile oils that are present in ginger.
Ginger Tea Recipe: Ginger tea is refreshing and easy to make. Just add one teaspoon of grated or sliced fresh ginger root to a cup of hot water. You can prepare a larger batch and keep it with you in a thermos bottle to sip throughout the day.
5.) Eat your largest meal at lunchtime—Our bodies are most able to digest food at midday, when we are active. As studies have found, our digestive system secretes the highest concentration of “digestive juices” around noon, making this the best time to eat our largest meal. In the evening, our bodies are slowing down and preparing for sleep. If we eat our biggest meal at dinner, when our digestive fire is weaker, we will feel heavy and bloated and will be more likely to have difficulty falling asleep.
6.) Focus on releasing negative emotions—You’ve no doubt noticed that your emotions influence your digestion. You may get heartburn when you’re under stress, lose your appetite when you feel sad, or become nauseated or even throw up before a big exam or presentation. A growing body of research is findingthat the stress associated with unprocessed negative emotions can inhibit the natural digestive process and lead to chronic digestive issues.
As we now know, a complex, independent nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS) lines the gastrointestinal tract. Dubbed “the second brain” by Dr. Michael Gershon, a researcher and physician at Columbia University Medical Center, the ENS contains many of the major neurotransmitters that are found in the brain, including serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine, and nitric oxide. In fact, about 95 percent of the serotonin contained in the body at any given time is in the ENS.
This second brain controls our digestion and can work both independently and in conjunction with the brain in our head. Without getting bogged down in the details of this intricate system, we can briefly state that there is an intimate relationship between our brain and our gut, and our digestion responds to the thoughts and emotions. When we experience a situation that we interpret as stressful, signals from the brain can alter nerve function between the stomach and esophagus, resulting in heartburn. With extreme stress, the brain sends signals to the gut immune cells that release chemicals leading to inflammation. This inflammation can then lead to malabsorption, and even food sensitivities if the stress becomes chronic. By learning how to manage stress and release emotional turbulence, we help our digestive tract to work naturally and efficiently.
Learn how to release emotional pain
Chopra Center co-founder, Dr. David Simon, developed a powerful five-step emotional release process that you can use to let go of stored emotional pain. The process is detailed in his book, Free to Love, Free to Heal – and you can also be personally guided in this process at the Chopra Center’s Healing the Heart workshop. Learn more about Healing the Heart workshop here.
Proper digestion, with a strong agni, plays a central role in our physical and emotional wellbeing. As Ayurveda recognizes, we are not what we eat, but “we are what we digest.” By making choices that strengthen our digestive ability, we form the foundation for good health and vitality.
Sheila Patel, M.D. is a board-certified family physician who is passionate about bringing holistic healing practices into the Western medical system. Before coming to the Chopra Center, she practiced full-spectrum family medicine, from prenatal care and deliveries to ER coverage and primary care for all ages. As the Chopra Center’s Medical Director, she offers integrative medical consultations that combine the best in conventional medicine with the wisdom of Ayurveda. Her special interests include preventive medicine and mind-body medicine, with an emphasis on Ayurveda.