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Home sjmtoc 7 Food and the Three Humors

7.4 Digestion in Ayurveda

Ayurveda says that each of the three humors contributes to the digestive process. V contributes to movement, and K to lubrication, but the P humor directly controls our ability to digest. According to the percepts of Ayurveda, the external Sun provides life to al the Earth through heat, transformation, light, and unseen energies. The same actions are applied to the P humor (as it is derived from agni, the principle of fire and transformation). It is centered in the small intestine - commonly known for heartburn - provides the heat in the body (metabolism), and s responsible for transforming food into energy. Each cell has the ability to absorb and transform energy like the small intestine, but it is said that each humor resides in the place of its primary action; for the pitta humor that’s the small intestine.

There is so much emphasis placed on digestion and the quality of it in Ayurveda that it could be considered obsessive. (My mother certainly through so a few years ago when she visited me; she said, “ All you ever talk about is your digestion!”) The importance of digestion cannot be underrated or just passed over briefly. It is wrongly assumed that whatever food you put in you stomach will generally contribute to the nourishment of the body. In actual fact it is what you are able to digest that is important. Few people can digest all they eat; most people have a digestion that is running far below normal due to a weak or suppressed digestive fire.

In Ayurveda there is a difference between the actual ability to digest food and the pitta humor which controls the overall digestion and metabolism. They call this function agni, like the god of fire, but in reference to the body it really means your actual ability to digest something. So a person can have high pitta, but low agni. This was, in fact, my case when I returned from living in India. For the first time in six years of living in India I contracted giardia (intestinal parasites), and after some month amoebas. They both knocked out my agni, or the actual ability to digest the food even after I got rid of the beasts. It was a long process to re-ignite agni; I used a satvic diet (with a little French Bordeaux to even things up!) And the correct digestive herbs.

Perhaps it is interesting to note cultural differences in diet and their relation to the body’s ability to digest the. For example, the french eat an enormous amount of dairy products as compared to the Americans, yet as a culture they maintain the digestive enzymes (agni) necessary to process these foods. Americans generally are not able to maintain this kind of diet for any length of time. The French custom of drinking red wine with cheese at the end of a meal is actually following Ayurvedic percepts considering their normal heavy diet. The heating wine (pitta) is a strong digestive agent, helping to process the heavy kapha) fermented cheese. In France, wine is not alcohol! Alcohol is hard liquor, wine is good for health! Although this is often taken to the extreme, there is both Ayurvedic and scientific evidence to support this view. Bear in mind that this, like all other information, has to be applied to your individual situation and constitution. If you eat a heavy diet, drinking wine may be appropriate; however, if you eat a light satvic vegetarian diet, wine will imbalance you fairly quickly. For wine lovers, please note that older wines aggravate pitta less than younger wines, and that reds are less acidic than whites generally.

In my practice I often find people with low agni, which is usually centered around a malabsorption syndrome. This is primarily the lack of agni in the small intestine, which hen allows food to pass through the digestives process without extracting the vitamins and nutrients needed for normal health. This often creates a weight problem because the body feels starved, not because of a lack of food, rather due to a lack of absorption. To correct low agni and the a malabsorption syndrome, a pure natural food diet according to your constitution and the correct digestive herbs are necessary. Ghee is considered excellent for maintaining ans promoting agni. Short fasts are usually needed to begin to reeducate the body along with the change in diet and herbs.

The pitta humor exists as acids and enzyme in the digestive tract. The excessive and continual use of heavy, fat foods, junk foods, cold food and drinks, meats, raw foods, and cheese will reduce the quantity and quality of the digestive enzymes in the intestines. If this continues, a mass of undigested foods will start to accumulate on the intestinal walls; this leads to the non-assimilation of the nutrients in your food and low agni.

In summary, it is what our bodies can digest that is important, not how much we eat, although overeating will reduce the overall life span. The daily diet should consist of foods in their natural states, processed foods of any kind are to be avoided. It is far more important to watch what kind of food we put in our minds than what we put in our mouths. My teacher in India once said to us: “People are more concerned with what goes into their mouths than what comes out of their mouths”. Hence, a loving attitude toward all beings , especially those with whom we eat, greatly helps the absorption of the vital nutrients and prana in our food.

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