Ayurveda and the Process of Digestion
You just sat down to a delicious plate of pancakes slathered with butter and maple syrup. Your mouth waters before you even take the first bite. Whether you realize it or not, the process of digestion has already begun.
In Ayurveda, good digestion and a nourishing diet are among the pillars of good health. In this article, we'll explore the mechanics of digestion from an Ayurvedic perspective, and why each stage matters.
What is digestion?
Digestion is about a lot more than simply what you eat. From the standpoint of Ayurveda, digestion is broadly defined as "anything that is taken in from any field of perception, thought, any sense of perception, any mode of mind, and any mode of intellect." Put simply, we digest everything we ingest--from the foods and beverages we consume to the experiences, media, and conversations we have throughout the day.
When you eat something, it goes on a complex journey through your body. From a Western perspective, it takes about six to eight hours for food to pass from your stomach to your small intestine. After that, the partially digested food enters your large intestine (colon), where it spends another 36 hours moving along for further digestion and absorption of water before being eliminated.
From the Ayurvedic perspective, the complete and more subtle digestive process takes around 36 days and ends with the production of something called ojas. The finest byproduct of digestion, ojas means "life essence," or that which supports good health and longevity.
According to the Sushrut Samhita--an ancient Ayurvedic text--healthy digestion comes from balanced doshas (mind-body energies), balanced agni (digestive fire), balanced dhatus (bodily tissues), balanced malas (wastes), and a well coordinated and alert state of Self (Atma), senses (Indriyas), and mind (Manas).
The six-stage process of digestion
The initial process of digestion through the GI tract typically takes around six hours. According to Ayurveda, there are six stages to digestion and each one is related to the six tastes, or rasas: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent.
Stage One: Madhura Avastha Paka, sweet
The first stage of digestion is associated with the sweet taste, the mouth, and Kapha--the dosha governed by water and earth. As you eat, your chewing and saliva help to break things down into a mushy paste, which is then swallowed.
Stage Two: Amla Avastha Paka, sour
Next, the liquified food moves into your upper stomach. As your stomach juices help to break the food down further and move it to the small intestine, the heavy qualities of Kapha dosha transition to the fiery qualities of Pitta dosha. This stage is associated with the sour taste.
Stage Three: Lavana Avastha Paka, salty
Once in the small intestine, the salty taste predominates, associated with Pitta (the dosha governed by fire and water). Pitta is responsible for transformation in the body, and this stage is where nutrients and water start to become extracted.
Stage Four: Katu Avastha Paka, pungent
Next, the pungent taste begins to become predominant in the small intestine. At this time, the airy qualities of Vata dosha begin to combine with those of Pitta's fire.
Stage Five: Tikta Avastha Pala, bitter
As wastes are extracted and prepared to move to the large intestine, the bitter taste predominates. This stage is associated with Vata dosha, the dosha that's governed by air and space and which is responsible for movement.
Stage Six: Kashaya Avastha Paka, astringent
The final stage of digestion takes place in the large intestine, which ultimately expels waste matter. At this time, the astringent taste predominates, along with Vata dosha. Ayurveda distinguishes between two different types of bodily waste products: ahara malas (food waste) and dhatu malas (waste from the tissues). Waste is produce in the form of purisha (feces), mutra (urine), and sweda (sweat).
The subtle digestive process
Once this initial, six-stage process of digestion has completed, your body moves on to the more subtle process. After waste matter is expelled, what remains is ahara rasa--a subtle, refined fluid that goes on to nourish each of seven different tissue layers in your body. The seven tissues are nourished in turn as follows:
The 7 types of bodily tissue layers
The seven different types of bodily tissues are:Rasa: Lymph/plasma Rakta: BloodMamsa: MuscleMeda: FatAsthi: BoneMaija: Bone marrow/nerve Shukra/artava: Reproductive
The importance of agni (digestive fire)
The strength and quality of your digestion depends on the strength and quality of your agni, or digestive fire. When your agni burns brightly, your body is best able to extract nutrients and expel wastes from the foods you eat (and the experiences you have). When your agni is compromised, you may experience uncomfortable digestive issues like occasional heartburn, constipation, gas, diarrhea, bloating, and so on. That's why strengthening, and maintaining, good digestion is one of the key aims of Ayurveda. Read more about Ayurveda, digestion, and gut health.
As it is said in the ancient texts: "The Agni that digests food (Jatharagni functioning in the digestive tract) is regarded as the master of all Agnis because the increase and decrease of the other Agnis (functioning in the different tissues) depends on the digestive fire (Jatharagni). Therefore, one should maintain the digestive fire carefully through proper intake of wholesome food and drinks, because on maintenance of Agni depends the maintenance of life-span and strength."
Agni and the doshas
The quality of your digestive fire has a lot to do with your dosha type, also known as your Ayurvedic mind-body type.Vata: erratic and/or delicate digestion Pitta: fiery and/or intense digestionKapha: slow and stable digestion
Don't know your Ayurvedic mind-body type? Take our Dosha Quiz to learn more about your own unique digestive patterns and needs.
Factors that can disturb agni (dushtyati agni)
A number of different factors can disrupt your digestive fire. These are known as dushtyati agni, and they include things like:FastingEating during occasional indigestionIntake of unsuitable, heavy cold, too rough, and contaminated foodSuppression of natural urgesOver-eatingIrregular eating
Avoiding and eliminating these habits and behaviors will help to keep your digestive fire strong.
Tips for healthy digestion
The best way to support your digestion naturally is by eating a nourishing, largely whole-foods diet that's rich in fresh produce, lean proteins (like lentils and pulses), nourishing nuts and seeds, organic dairy (if tolerated), and healthy fats like olive oil and ghee. Learn more about how food affects your digestion--and mood.
It's also helpful to eat foods that are best suited to your unique constitution. Take our Dosha Quiz to learn more about the best foods to support your Ayurvedic mind-body type. Other easy ways to stimulate your digestion naturally include:Starting your day with a glass of room-temperature, or warm, water mixed with a bit of fresh lemon juice and honey to stimulate your body's natural detox processes. Eating a bit of freshly grated ginger with a sprinkle of salt and a splash of lemon juice before meals.Eating your meals in a quiet, settled environment.Eat your biggest meal of the day at lunchtime, when your agni is at its peak.Take Herbal Di-Gest Tablets with meals to support improved digestion and ease occasional gas and bloating. Explore more Ayurvedic supplements for good digestion.Eat a light dinner (soups or stews) to avoid overtaxing your digestive system.Take Organic Triphala Rose Tablets before bed as a gentle daily detox that helps to ease occasional constipation and strengthens the digestive system. Discover more digestion-boosting Ayurvedic herbs.
Now that you know more about the importance of strong agni and healthy digestion, you may want to read up on some more of our favorite Ayurvedic tips for good digestion. You can also visit our Digestion & Gut Health wellness hub anytime!