Pachan is the Sanskrit word for digestion and proper digestion is the cornerstone to enjoying good health. There are numerous factors that influence our digestion. Certainly the quality of the foods we eat are one of the primary factors. We also need to be aware of our lifestyle, because it too can affect our digestion, especially if we are having a rough time managing our stress levels.
In order for the foods we eat to be most efficiently processed we need to have balanced agni, or digestive fire. There are 13 primary types of agni. The one found in our stomach is called jathar agni and governs our transient metabolism known as prapak metabolism. Jathar agni is what works on the nutrient material in the stomach and small intestine to assure that our foods are thoroughly digested and assimilated. It is important to make sure this agni is in good working order because it sets the stage for the digestive process. Once the food is homogenized in the stomach and is assimilated in the small intestine, these nutrients known as ahar-rasa, enter the bloodstream with the help of the liver.
Liver metabolism is governed by bhuta agni and there are five bhuta agnis to correspond to the panchamahabhutas or the five cosmic elements - space, air, fire, water and earth. Bhuta agni assures that we receive adequate amounts of the panchamahabhutas to nourish our tissues or dhatus. In other words, when we eat our meal the food is comprised of these five elements. For example, if we are receiving too much water and earth elements we start to accumulate these elements in our tissues, hence we gain weight. Too much air and space and we might have a difficult time keeping weight on. Maintaining balanced bhuta agni assures that the first stage of metabolism - prapak, will send sufficient nutrients to the dhatus.
When ahar-rasa enters the dhatus, the second stage of metabolism known as vipak metabolism takes over. Vipak or post-digestive effect occurs in the tissue systems. Each dhatu needs to process the nutrients necessary for it’s own growth and that is governed by dhatu agni. There are seven dhatu agnis, one for each dhatu, and their proper functioning is responsible for healthy tissue. When nutrient material enters the dhatus it feeds each dhatu in sequential fashion. First rasa dhatu takes what it needs and then passes it on to rakta dhatu which extracts it’s required nutrients and passes it along to mamsa dhatu. This process continues through the seven dhatus and if the dhatu agni is balanced the end result will be the production of ojas. Ojas is a refined substance that according to Ayurveda, maintains our vitality and governs our immune system. It is actually the final end product of digestion that is critical in maintaining our health.
Due to the sequential nature of the digestive process it is important that we pay attention to each phase. First start by trying to be in a centered, relaxed state before eating. Avoid television and heated debate around eating time. Offer a prayer of reverence and then proceed to eat with your focus on the food. Take time to smell and taste your meals and chew your food properly. Make sure you have sufficient fluid with your meals to allow your food to be homogenized and assimilated. Ayurveda recommends that a balanced meal should be equal parts of food, water and space to allow proper digestion. Also see that your meals consist of fresh organic produce, whenever possible. Choose foods that are appropriate for the season and balancing for your individual doshas. Make sure that you are getting a balanced meal by having adequate amounts of proteins, fats and carbohydrates and see that you get all six tastes with each meal.
The six tastes are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. Rice and mung dal will provide the sweet, bitter and astringent tastes and you can use a variety of vegetables or spices to provide the sour, salty and pungent tastes. Many vegetables are also great sources of bitter and astringent tastes and salads are a nice way to get more of these tastes into your diet as well. The qualities of our food have a profound effect on the digestive process and eating the proper foods are essential if we want to have good digestion.
Of course we can also improve our digestion through the use of herbal supplements. Fresh ginger tea is a fantastic tool for improving and maintaining good jathar agni. Also many herbs designed to be taken before and during meals help improve prapak metabolism. Ayurveda recommends using bitter foods and specific herbs to improve the liver metabolism or bhuta agnis. This will ensure that the dhatus receive the best nutrient material possible in the blood stream. Generally if we can send proper ahar-rasa, or nutrition, to the dhatus, the tissues will maintain their health and vitality. In instances where the dhatu agni is specifically challenged Ayurveda will use various herbal formulas to help improve the agni of whichever dhatu is deficient.
Although the Ayurvedic prospective on digestion is rather complex the methods for assuring it functions well are simple. Manage your lifestyle by reducing stress, eat freshly prepared foods, take your herbal supplements and enjoy life!