Going back thousands of years, the great sages
of India taught that disease begins in the stomach with bad digestion.
While modern medicine probably wouldn't concur, similar thoughts
were held by the Iroquois and many other traditional cultures.
According to the theory, each individual is born
with a particular constitutional type and all the idiosyncrasies
and management challenges of that type. So, if one is born without
enough firewhat is called agni in Indiathere
will not be enough gastric secretions to metabolize food. Fire
governs the caustic chemicals that are needed to transform food
from culinary delight into nutritional substances that the body
can use. These juices include hydrochloric acid, bile, enzymes,
and probably also insulin.
As a starter, let's say that the pH of the stomach
acids ranges from 1.0 to 2.0 though I'm sure some people are outside
this range at times. Obviously, those with more acid are able to
break food down more easily. Those who are deficient usually do
not digest food normally. Instead of separating the food into assimilable
nutrients and bulk, food sits in the stomach and is broken down
by fermentation. The evidence for this is bloating, distention,
abdominal rumblings, and gas. Headaches and muscle spasms as well
as heartburn. Food that is not metabolized becomes a residual and
is usually stored in the body as some form of congestion: fat and
sugar in the liver, deposits in the joints, and phlegm in the lungs
and sinuses and usually also in the intestines and even the brain.
A medical doctor told me once that mucus has the
same molecular structure as sugar. I have never seen this in print,
but it conforms to the Ayurvedic teaching that food is 93% "sweet," not "sugar" but
comprised of the sweet taste. The main characteristics of this
taste are: coldness, dampness, and heaviness. Eaten in excess,
these properties tend to congest and thereby impair circulation
and the supply of nutrients to the body.
As anyone who has read the Kamasutra knows, Indians
value the water type above all others. They do so because it is
the most fertile and, all other things equal, has the best longevity.
The fine line is somewhere between water and excess water. Having
a stuffy head is no fun and while such a condition is not really
a clue to intelligence, duh and huh tend to give the impression
of less acuity.
My Ayurvedic teacher taught us that mucus has
the consistency of wax and that when it is heated, it melts and
comes out of the body. According to this system of medicine, it
is normal to accumulate phlegm in the winter and to discharge it
in spring. When this happens, we say we have a cold, but unless
the color of the discharge suggests infection, Ayurveda says this
is a completely normal occurence when the weather becomes warm
enough to melt the accumulations of winter. They even promote the
discharge by drinking hot, spicy concoctions. My teacher gave us
Shyam, my teacher, said one could boil these
spices in water and just drink the liquid. Most people I know can't
stand the taste unless they add a bouillon cube or soup stock.
In any event, when you drink this, your sinuses really run, this
whether it is flu season or not, winter or summer, proof positive
that one does not need a cold in order to decongest. In fact, there
is a term for this therapy: errhine.
To compensate for lack of digestive
secretions, one has a few options:
- eat food that is easier to digest
- eat less frequently
- reduce the quantity of what is consumed
- make the food more digestible by cooking with
- stimulate the appetite and output of juices
with exercise and aroma
- take supplements, hydrochloric acid and/or
- use carminative bitters post-digestively
Of all of these, understanding that appetite is
a clue to the availability of digestive power is the most important.
This is the best protection against injudicious consumption. The
next is knowing what can be safely consumed and what will constitute
excess for any given meal.
Ayurveda is adamant that when the digestive power
is weak, one should never eat food that has been reheated. Not
only is this food harder to digest, but the oils have been rendered
unsafe. In this age of fast foods, very few people recognize that
most of our foods presented at the table are not really wholesome.
Foods cooked in microwave ovens are very hard to digest and probably
aggravate most of the problems associated with kapha. Speaking
for myselfand I'm a fire typeI always have a gallbladder
attack after eating something prepared in a microwave oven. I have
been trying to think of ways to dispose of these creatures without
creating bad karma. Oh, one can remove them from the home, but
giving them to a friend or adding them to a landfill is not good
One of the interesting features of
fire is that it destroys many unwelcome pathogens and parasites.
Ergo, when digestive fire is low, not only is digestion impacted
but immunity can be compromised as well. Generally, water has good
immunity in the form of abundant white blood cells and thicker
cell membranes (to rebuff intruders); so while these assets are
not compromised by low fire, fire destroys microorganisms and thereby
reduces the work of water.
Water types can use foods that are
spicy to increase fire. The sweet taste and pungent taste are opposites:
Since, of the six tastes, the spicy
is the only hot one, it is needed in our diets. Some cultures use
spices liberally, but some do not. India uses an enormous variety
of spices in savory combinations that I personally love. However,
in Japan, wasabi and ginger are the only two major spices used
in cooking. In the Southwest, chili is the only traditional spice;
and in ordinary European cuisine, spices are considered to be exotic
almost all were imported, this going back to the early days when
Islamic influences in medicine and cuisine were seen throughout
The way I try to explain this to
students is that a sausage is a nearly impossible challenge to
the gastrointestinal system. It is heavy, fatty, and usually made
in such a way as to revolt. However, if the sausage is consumed
with heaps of sauerkraut and bitter beer, there is a chance of
digesting it. If it is also made with spices, the chances are better.
What has happened in America is that sauerkraut is not usually
served with sausages and the beer is not bitter. Very few people
have enough gastric secretions to knock off a sausage, even if
they add a picante sauce.
The best way to address low fire
is to cook with spices, not just any spices: use non-irradiated,
organic spices that have lovely aroma. If you grind fresh cinnamon
bark in a coffee mill, there will be a coating of oil on the inside
of the grinder. If you rub this off with your fingers, the oil
will burn your skin. You only need the smallest amount of this
quality cinnamon to perk up digestion and knock off bacteria; but
if you use that dreadful stuff in cans from the supermarket, the
once proud cinnamon has become an irritant, thanks to massive amounts
of irradiation and improper handling and storage. It's the same
with black pepper. Making a nice curry with peppercorns bubbly
around in the sauce is different from shaking some pepper onto
some lettuce leaves. When food is cooked with spices, the spices
are absorbed by the foods and the foods themselves are easier to
Ayurveda offers lots of remedies
for low fire. The most basic of these is Trikatu, a formula whose
name means three peppers. We have it in our online store. It can
be taken before meals to excite gastric secretion. HingaShtak is
more for complaints that arise from meals that have not been digested.
Sweet Ease aids sugar metabolism and then there are a host of products
such a Triphala to help peristalsis (which is usually slow when
there is not enough digestive power); Guggul for fat metabolism;
Blood Cleanse to detoxify; and on it goes.
I will try to keep adding to this
so people can get a feel for how to manage their agni.
Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2002,