Before I found Ayurveda, I had no idea why my body felt so heavy all the time (especially after eating).
In fact, I thought that the whole experience of having a low appetite was just “normal” for me. I have come to realize that I am not alone in this – most people experience digestive discomfort EVERY single day and assume that this is just how it is, or how it has to be. Little do they know that by integrating a few simple Ayurvedic principles of proper food combining they can easily experience a life of balanced appetite, free of gas, bloating and acidity. And, the very best part is that balanced digestion leads to balanced elimination!
Ayurveda has known for centuries what Western medicine is just beginning to articulate: healthy digestion is the foundation of deep, satisfying wellness.
Your agni, or digestive fire, is responsible for transforming the food and beverages that you take in to your body into the sustenance that supports your thriving existence. Think of it like your metabolism. When agni is burning steadily, digestion is comfortable, your cells are nourished and damaging toxins are prevented from building up in your body. Keeping agni healthy is important because it helps ensure disease cannot manifest, and that you feel light, bright and energized.
If you’re really honest with yourself, how does your digestive system feel every day? Do you feel like you digest quickly, easily and without any discomfort? Or do you experience gas, bloating, burping, acidity, slow digestion or poor appetite? Did you know that what people often consider to be ‘routine’ digestive discomforts like these are actually early signs of imbalance?
Fortunately, I’m here to tell you that these discomforts do not have to be a part of your daily experience and ensuring that they are taken care of not only helps you feel great each day, it helps ensure that you are warding off any future disease.
Agni is named for the Vedic god of fire, and in Ayurvedic medicine, Agni is synonymous with digestive fire or metabolic activity. Fire exemplifies the energy of transformation, and just as a flame transforms wood into heat, agni transforms food into energy. When used properly, both can lead to deeper nourishment.
In your body, the primary functions of agni are digestion, absorption and assimilation. In addition to these processes, healthy agni unlocks the nutrients that enable bodily tissues to mature and develop for optimal function. For a more literal translation, you can think of agni as digestive enzymes and amino acids.
When it comes to true nourishment, perhaps one of the most overlooked but vitally important principles for nutrition is the idea of appropriate food combining.
Basically, the idea is that given their different qualities (also known as gunas), different foods digest at different rates. Additionally, the different nutritional compositions of foods can result in varying chemical reactions inside your digestive system. When the wrong foods are combined, the result is imbalanced agni, and is often experienced as gas, bloating or slow digestion.
Let’s dive in to a deeper understanding of how Ayurvedic food combing actually works.
Fruit digests very quickly and, when consumed with other foods that are slower to break down (especially dairy), can aggravate the digestive process. Ideally, when eating fruit, we want to give one hour before and after consuming other foods. When eating sour fruits, like berries, try to combine with sweet fruits (like mango and dates) for a more balanced effect. Melon does not combine well with other fruit because it digests the most quickly.
Additionally, try to avoid eating too many proteins at once (i.e. nuts and cheese, meat and cheese, seeds and yogurt) because this heaviness can also be dampening to the digestive process. Especially avoid combining protein with fruit, because, light fruit digests must slower than dense protein and may begin to ferment in the gut while the protein is still being processed.
Salads are particularly difficult to digest, and while many perceive them to be the ultimately healthy meal, often people feel bloated after consuming them and don’t understand why. This is due to the dry, cold and rough quality of the lettuce and other uncooked vegetables, often combined with a protein and income cases, even fruit! The reality is that, from an Ayurvedic perspective, salads easily become food combining nightmare. If you are drawn toward simple raw salad in the summer, do your best to combine it with at least 50% cooked food.
Similarly, smoothies are another popular health food that are difficult for your body to process. Smoothies generally combine fruits, vegetables and protein into one cold, heavy beverage. Not only do the cold, heavy qualities of the smoothie itself dampen agni and slow down digestion all together, the combination of fruit, vegetables and protein is likely to promptly lead to gas and bloating.
In addition to the general experience of indigestion that often results from eating too many cold salads and smoothies, these combinations often weaken digestive fire through their predominately cool, damp and heavy qualities. Low agni (digestive fire) is a common cause of toxic buildup (or ama) in the body. Let me explain.
By putting too much dense and complex fuel on a weak flame, we dampen an already fragile digestive fire even more.
In this all too common scenario, the weak agni is unable to fully process all that has been placed upon it, leading to malabsorption and the internal buildup of partially digested food particles. This toxic buildup is also referred to as ama. One way to monitor your own ama first thing in the morning is to inspect the tongue for a thick coating. If you are noticing this symptom of ama due to the undigested toxic buildup of weak agni, here a few things you can try: scrape your tongue, drink warm lime water with honey and fast until hunger returns.
In general, the best way to support healthy digestive fire is to emphasize more warm, cooked and spiced foods in your digest. Try adding cumin, coriander, fennel or ginger to you next home cooked meal and your agni will thank you! You are absolutely capable of feeling better all the time, and it really starts with digestion. Use these food combining reminders to make more mindful choices that support your thriving existence.
To learn more about your unique digestive imbalances (or agni type) and what to do about them, take the quiz What’s up With My Digestion?. Then learn how to restore digestive balance, clear toxins and heal your gut with The Art of Ayurveda: Nourishment for Vitality.
Self care is a radical act — when you are vibrant and awake, you have the clarity and energy to show up for what you believe in. Cultivate Balance provides Ayurvedic consultations, Goodness Guides, and online wellness courses that support you to nurture yourself so you can nurture the world. Dive in with our FREE mini-course, The Basic Balance Challenge!