Hippocrates, the ancient Greek practitioner hailed as the father of modern medicine, contended that all diseases begin in the gut. Indeed, as Western medicine continues to advance, scientists are gathering mounting evidence that chronic disease does not simply materialize from a void. Instead, chronic conditions are the result of gastrointestinal complications. Research is revealing that factors like stress, dietary quality, genetics, and medications affect the nature of our microbial makeup. The state of our microbiome, in turn, regulates our immune system, produces neurotransmitters, breaks down food into digestible forms, and governs inflammation. It follows, then, that microbial imbalance can lead to inflammation, poor nutrient absorption, and both physical and psychological disease. Thankfully, Ayurvedic eating can go a long way in nursing the microbiome back to health.
Ayurvedic Medicine was on to the critical role of digestion in regulating physical and mental health long before the advent of Western medicine. According to Ayurvedic philosophy, optimizing digestion is the key to promoting vitality and warding of chronic disease. Below we explore the ways in which digestion can impact physical and emotional health from both the Ayurvedic eating and Western medical vantage points.
Ayurveda on Digestion
Ayurvedic philosophy hails the digestive system as the modulator of all bodily systems. The reason that digestion is critical to holistic health, according to Ayurvedic eating, is that it is the primary means through which the body can dispel toxic compounds, or ama. Toxic ama can derive from a number of sources, from environmental pollutants and heavy metals in our soils to cosmetic products and harmful food additives. When digestion is functioning at a sub-optimal level, constipation results, preventing the expulsion of ama from the body. These toxic substances instead build up in the digestive tract, re-entering the blood stream to be deposited into bodily tissues. When ama builds up in the body, inflammation and disease are inevitable.
Optimizing your digestion to effectively dispel ama is therefore a critical element of a healthy lifestyle. In order to ensure that ama is properly excreted, you must make lifestyle changes to stoke your Agni, or digestive fire. Agni is the energy that converts food into consciousness, linking the lower consciousness of the body to the higher consciousness of the mind. Agni is thus emotionally and spiritually healing in addition to being physically cleansing and fortifying. It allows you to process thoughts and feelings and to “digest” experiences and sensations.
Agni also helps to maintain doshic balance in the body. We are each born with a unique balance of the three doshas, or life forces, which lend us our unique physical and emotional qualities. Just as excess ama can accumulate in the body, so, too, can excess pitta, vata, or kapha. Maintaining balanced agni through Ayurvedic eating helps to expel these excess energies and preserve doshic balance, preventing disease.
Ayurvedic Prescriptions for Healthy Digestion
Fueling agni is both methodical and sacred. When we are eating, we are not just sustaining our bodies; we are also nurturing our digestive fire. Ayurvedic tradition prescribes several methods for maintaining healthy levels of agni for optimal health. Perhaps the simplest and most essential practice is to drink hot water with lemon upon rising. Doing so stimulates the digestive process without introducing more waste into the digestive tract, thus promoting the expulsion of ama. It is also important to eat in accordance with agni’s natural waxing and waning. Agni is strongest in the middle of the day, so it is best to ensure that your lunchtime meal is your largest.
What you eat, too, can make or break the strength of your agni. It is important to eat light, digestible foods, avoiding hard-to-digest foods that are too cold, fibrous, or oily. It is critical to cook your vegetables to increase their digestibility and to be mindful of which foods are and are not suitable for your dosha. Try to limit yourself to two handfuls of food, avoiding products that slow digestion like meat, cheese, and cold beverages. Lack of exercise, an irregular routine, excessive caffeine, and eating too quickly can also hamper agni. Slow down and savor your food, transforming mealtimes into sacred meditations.
Finally, unique practices like pranayama (breathing exercises) and regular Ayurvedic cleansing in addition to Ayurvedic eating make for strong, healthy agni.
The Significance of the Gut
Modern studies are beginning to make sense of the incomparable impact that digestion yields upon our state of health. Immune responses, nutrient absorption, energy metabolism, anti-fungal and anti-viral activity, and detoxification—all of these processes rely on the presence of a healthy amount of good bacteria in your gut.
Our bodies’ single celled organisms are ten times as prevalent as our bodily cells. The human body is therefore mostly comprised of bacteria. Furthermore, nerves in the digestive tract vastly outnumber those in the peripheral nervous system. It logically follows that bacterial imbalance in the digestive tract heavily impacts the nervous system. Thus, if you are suffering from chronic disease, frequent infections, weight gain, hormonal dysfunction, skin conditions, low energy, candida, nutrient deficiency, gas, bloating, or any other debilitating physical condition, an imbalance in your gut flora is likely to blame.
Imbalanced gut flora, or gut dysbiosis, occurs when harmful bacteria overpopulate the gut, out-competing friendly bacteria for space and resources. Unlike friendly bacteria, which aid in digestion and facilitate essential biological processes, bad bacteria generate toxins that cause blockages in the lymphatic system, compromise immunity, and infect tissues of the body. Gut dysbiosis can be the result of a broad array of afflictions and habits. These include the consumption of antibiotics, additives, chlorine/fluoride in water, stimulants, caffeine, improperly prepared grains, and foods that are difficult to digest. Stress, trauma, improper exercise, and lack of sleep can also contribute to gut dysbiosis.
Thankfully, gut dysbiosis is not a lifelong sentence. There are a number of things that you can do to restore healthy bacteria to your gut. Consuming probiotic supplements and fermented foods like kefir, kraut, and yogurt can help to repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria. Practicing regular exercise, taking stress reduction measures, and improving your diet are also effective methods of combatting gut dysbiosis.
Gut and Brain
The health of your intestinal tract can actually influence your mental health as well. In fact, more and more studies are revealing that poor digestive health can cause psychiatric complications.
Gut health is critical to the production of neurotransmitters, the biochemical messengers responsible for cognition and emotion. Like the brain, the digestive tract contains dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine, nitric oxide, endogenous opiates called enkephalins, and benzodiazepines. 90% of serotonin is manufactured in the gut. What is more, certain microbes actually produce neurotransmitters like dopamine, GABA, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin themselves. Others are capable of replicating GABA receptors in the brain, improving mood disorders and decreasing cravings for alcohol and benzodiazepines in recovering addicts. Microbial balance also heavily impacts emotions, cognition, behavior, and even pain perception.
Ayurveda and the West on Digestion
Ayurvedic prescriptions for healthy digestion make even more sense in the light of recent western discoveries. Ayurveda prescribes a healthy, whole-foods diet of properly cooked foods that are easy to digest. It therefore encourages motility, reducing constipation and clearing waste from the digestive tract. Maintaining regularity is critical to maintaining a healthy microbial balance in the gut because it flushes bad bacteria. A healthy diet feeds good bacteria while starving bad bacteria of the sugars they thrive upon.
Ayurveda also advocates a regular practice of yoga and exercise, both of which work to encourage motility. Additionally, yoga and exercise help to reduce stress levels, preventing the overgrowth of harmful bacteria that can occur when stress compromises the immune system. The Ayurvedic diet also includes plenty (but not too many) fibrous foods, lots of water, and limited sugar and starches, all of which help to maintain regularity and subsequently support a healthy microbiome.