According to the oldest Ayurvedic texts, most or all health problems begin in the digestive system.
Constitutional fire is responsible
for gastric secretions. These, in turn, determine how well food will be digested. Fire is anabolic — and is the perfect opposite of water which is catabolic. Our production of hydrochloric acid, bile, enzymes, all the
caustic chemicals that are required for the breakdown of food and
its conversion into micronutrients are fiery processes. So, proper assimilation as well as peristalsis are governed by agni. If there is too little agni, metabolism is incomplete, assimilation is poor, and transit time through the gastrointestinal tract is slow. This leads to breakdown via fermentation instead of digestion and is the cause of many illnesses.
Theoretically, someone could d be on what might be touted as the world's most perfect diet
and not be able to digest the food.
In general, appetite is a clue to the presence or absence of the ability to digest; however, in today's highly organized world, many people eat by the clock instead of listening to their bodies. This is pretty obvious, we eat before leaving for school or work; we might have a snack in the middle of the morning, eat lunch around noon, have another snack in mid-afternoon; come home, have some cocktails and crackers and then try to knock off the biggest meal of the day. For countless people, this simply does not work and they pay for the eating habits by gastric distress: abdominal rumblings, swelling, belching, burping, bad breath, and eventually similar problems in the intestines, often painful enough to disturb sleep.
Indian food has traditionally
been prepared with a lot of heat. By Chinese standards, not to
mention the advocates of raw foods diets, Indian food is overcooked,
but it is very easy to digest because the food is predigested by
heat and spices.
Dr. Vasant Lad taught, "Sooner
or later, all food is cooked."
He then drew exquisite illustrations on the blackboard and showed a cauldron
in the abdomen.
In my former days when I had a clinic, I often
met patients who had had chemotherapy and could hardly hold down
food much less eat without severe gastric distress. One particularly
memorable evening, I videotaped Dr. Smita Naram cooking dinner
for her husband and me. I asked her if she would prepare something
that was easy for patients on chemotherapy to digest because I
wanted to show them the video. She made a lovely meal in less than
twenty minutes and gave me the leftovers to take back to the clinic.
I want to interject that Ayurveda
frowns on reheating food, not because proper means of storage were
lacking in ancient India but because the vitality of food is lessened and the oils are affected.
People with mucus congestion, the kapha type, are particularly
admonished not to reheat food. Nevertheless, the lucky patients
who had a chance to taste Smita's cuisine were astonished to find
that they were able to eat as much as they wanted without gastric
distress, belching, bloating, and pain.
The conclusion is that when one's
digestive power is limited, one must get the needed nutrition from
foods that are easy to digest. The easiest foods to eat are fruits
because the acids that make fruit sour make fewer demands on the body for hydrochloric
acid. The more tart the fruits, the easier they are
to digest. Over the years that I have been teaching this theory,
people have grimaced and made faces and protested that they do not understand the concept. For many, they equate fruit to sweet tastes.
What don't you understand?
Patients immediately ask about peaches, pears, and bananas.
While fresh peaches and pears are usually digestible, they are
not nearly as sour as most berries, again not strawberries so much
as raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, and one of my favorites, sea berries.
I vividly recall
one patient looking at me with misty eyes saying, "I know
I'm dying, but what can I eat when it gets really bad?" I
told her that grapes and berries would remain easy to digest and
the relief on her face was something I will remember the rest of
my life. Obviously, the juice is even easier to digest than the whole fruit.
Besides fresh fruit, spices make
food more digestible. First, when food is cooked in spices, as
with a curry, the spices are absorbed by the food in such a way
as to almost predigest the food. Second, spices stimulate the secretion
of saliva and digestive juices. If people really do not have the
capacity to produce these conversion chemicals, the spices will
not excite what cannot respond to the stimulus, but the food itself
is nevertheless easier to digest. It is important to use spices
that have not been irradiated and important to cook the food in
the spices without burning the spices!
These examples suggest that Ayurveda
is a world apart from the raw foods advocates as well as those
who think that a good meal is a bowl of lettuce with low calorie salad dressing and
some irradiated black pepper sprinkled on top.
More importantly, when food is not
digested, it is broken down by fermentation rather than digestion.
This produces gases which are both noisy and uncomfortable. Worse,
the gases are absorbed by other tissues of the body which become
both toxic and spastic. So, low agni can be the underlying cause of excess vata that is muscularly and neurologically
In the days ahead, I will bring back
some of my own spice mixtures. One woman wrote me that her husband
would divorce her if she stopped using the Sky Mountain spices.
I have a seed blend and a curry powder that are specially formulated
to make meals more savory and digestible. This said, nothing can
help anyone who eats food that is indigestible. Top on my list
of such foods is everything that is prepared in a microwave. Such
food is responsible for a great deal of gastric distress. GMO foods are also no doubt extremely dangerous, allergenic, and indigestible.
For those who do have discomfort
after eating, try chewing on some fennel seeds and then spitting
out the pulpy part after swallowing the juice. Aromatic seeds such as fennel are called carminatives: they both relieve gas and promote comfort. My lymphatic teas are also helpful
since they have many spices as well as herbs that stimulate the movement of lymphatic fluids.
Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2004 and 2012