Ayurveda Day 21: Digestion Pt.2 – Signs of Poor Digestion

In Ayurveda we have one very clear way to tell when someone is suffering from poor digestion. We use amas to tell us their digestive story.

What is Ama?

It literally translates from sanskrit as “That which harms or weakens or impure and uncooked”. Basically amas are tangible toxins in the body created in the digestive system. You can see them, detect them, measure them. These toxins build up in the body as a consequence of poor digestive processes. If your digestion is too fast, too sluggish, or too variable, your body will produce this gunk, this ama, from the sum total of all the toxic effects from poor digestion. It is not one thing! And just as the food we eat becomes the cells and tissues of our body, if we eat unhealthy foods and our digestion is not optimal, these amas get absorbed and mixed into our cells and tissues as well. It goes both ways. You literally are what you eat!

The easiest ways to detect Ama are as follows:

– coated tongue
– bad breath
– excessive body odour

These three are the body’s way of trying to get the amas out. But we also need to feed our body with proper fuel (healthy foods) that won’t produce ama in the body.

There are also two other ways to detect amas – indigestion and fatigue. Although these two signs also could be indicative of something other than amas in the body.

When we digest food, our body absorbs what it needs and sends it via channels to where it needs to go. There are 7 main body systems that need what’s in our food:

– The lymphatic system (Rasavaha Srota)
– The circulatory system (Raktavaha Srota)
– The muscular system (Mamsavaha Srota)
– The adipose system (Medovaha Srota)
– The skeletal system (Asthivaha Srota)
– The nervous system (Majjavaha Srota)
– The reproductive system (Shukravaha Srota)

(Side note – 5000 years ago before written language and technology in India the Rishis were able to figure out we had complex systems in our body and how they work and function best. They must have been extremely intelligent to come up with such a thorough understanding without all the tools we have at our disposal today)

The food we eat takes time to get absorbed by the body. Ayurveda teaches that it takes around 5 days for each system in succession to absorb what it needs. The whole cycle for all the nutrients from the food we eat to be completely processed by all 7 systems takes a total of 35 days or so (5 at each level). Anything that is left over at the end of this process, if any at all, becomes our reserves or our storehouse of energy. These storehouses are called Ojas, and are a topic unto themselves.

When we eat food that carries toxins in it or has very little nutritional value – popcorn, soda, fast food, processed foods, etc, our body doesn’t always know what to do with it. If our digestion is already poor, as most of our digestion is, then we create a buildup of ama in our body at a cellular level. At each level, the body tries to absorb what it can from the foods, but because our digestion isn’t optimal, we accumulate more and more toxins from these foods. Instead of building up a storehouse of ojas, we bog down the system with amas.

If it takes 35 days for all these systems in our body to get what they need, imagine how it must be for our bodies when we eat bad food. We aren’t just putting it through the ringer for one bad night on the toilet. Our body is making that food into us! For a month it suffers with this process. Now imagine making bad choices in food isn’t just a blip in your routine, but indeed it is the routine, and healthy choices are the blip. How could the body possibly create anything but amas? When does it have time to create reserves of energy for you?

We are constantly told that we need to eat healthy, avoid fast foods, blah blah blah. I know, we’ve been told it so many times. And every time we hear it, we know it’s true but we believe that we are the exception to the rule and are going to be just fine because we are aware of it. We tell ourselves it won’t cause that much a problem. We deny that we are addicted to these quick and easy ways of eating. These excuses carry a high price.

If we make eating healthier the routine, and have blips of unhealthy eating along the way, our body has more reserves to use to combat the amas in our body. If you are showing any of the signs of ama that I stated above, maybe it’s time to start making some healthier choices. Start small. Be forgiving of yourself. Try to make a manageable goal. Maybe for you that means eating 1 meal a day healthy. Or it could mean eating one snack a day that’s healthy. Wherever you choose to begin, be thankful to yourself for taking the time to intentionally support your health. As time goes on, the bad habit will diminish and the good habit you are slowly replacing it with will take over.

Trust yourself! You can do it! Get rid of those amas!

With gratitude,

S

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Ayurveda Day 20: Digestion Pt.1 – Appetite

There is so much to know about digestion it is actually astounding. The complexity of the science of digestion alone in Ayurveda boggles my mind. The fact they knew all of this information 5000 years ago is baffling. Even today, as medical facts are uncovered, it is found in the ancient study of Ayurveda. It really feels like playing catchup in many ways. Like throwing out a textbook to write your own just because its from another culture that you don’t understand.

There was a court case recently in Canada that gave a first nation mother the right to choose their traditional medicines over modern medicine for her daughter who had been diagnosed with cancer. Medical doctors tried to intervene, but the courts ruled in the mother’s favour. This precedent will be one I will be watching closely.

What truly bothered me about this case (besides that we still feel as a society that we can decide what’s best for the first nations peoples after the cultural genocide we have inflicted upon them) was the deep lack of respect for their medical science. Whatever works, works. That’s it. Facts are indisputable. But if you suppress a culture who’s ways have worked for generations simply because they don’t have some pharmaceutical company paying for trials and research, then you really need to check your arrogance. You may have western medical knowledge and that’s great. It has it’s place. But don’t throw out any other treatment methods that may be available simply because you don’t understand them. We will only ever grow to understand them if we actually put funding into doing trials with other traditions of medicine. The system is skewed to benefit a western model (and fuels insurance and pharmaceutical companies in the process). What should matter is helping people, period.

When the British invaded India, they committed acts of cultural suppression as well upon it’s citizens. Among the things they outlawed was Ayurveda. And what an unfortunate mistake that was for all of us in humanity. If it had been adopted by the British instead of almost eradicated, it would be more widely used today and a lot of our daily suffering would be much more manageable and maintained.

A large part of that management is in the health of our digestion. Digestion is a broad and far reaching topic, filled with information. I struggle even to translate it’s sanskrit roots into western terms here because for many of it’s findings, modern medical science has no words that translate (In fact, many of it’s findings haven’t even been discovered yet by modern science). I’m not trying to bash medical science. As I’ve said in the past, the two are complimentary. So long as we care about keeping people healthy, they will always both work towards that same goal. But to understand digestion from an Ayurvedic perspective will take more than just me blogging. Still, a good place to start today will be with what makes us eat, and ultimately digest, in the first place:

Appetite.

Appetite is reflective of the energy we spend. The thing is, people spend their energy differently. In Ayurveda, we can look at this through the lens of the doshas (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha – remember the Winnie the Pooh analogy).

As you all know, I work with kids. When I was a kid we had maybe 30 mins to eat our lunch and then they rushed us outside to run around (which is already bad for digestion in and of itself as the body has to divert energy towards our exercise while it is trying to simultaneously digest). Nowadays? The kids are lucky if they get 10 minutes. It’s astounding. And they don’t get to snack every hour or so. They get a quick recess where they are forced outside before lunch. They are also expected to eat these huge lunches because they are growing and need more food to sustain that growth. It’s really actually quite dumb. They need more time to eat. But still, this doesn’t go far enough. The three meals a day model works for almost no one. Not only do the kids need more time to eat, but they need to have the freedom to eat according to their nature:

If your appetite is of a Vata nature, your appetite is variable. You may go the whole day preferring to snack and eat more often. You may even skip meals and not be aware of it. It is hard to pin your appetite down at a strict time. A healthy appetite for you will mean having smaller meals and snack more throughout the day to satisfy that appetite. When your digestion is off, you will commonly experience gas, bloating, and pain. You seem underweight for your frame.

If your appetite is of a Pitta nature, your appetite is strong. You feel hungry and burn through that fuel quickly. You tend to eat a large meal which will satisfy you until the next meal, eat another meal that satisfies you, and so on. You will never forget to eat a meal, but may choose to skip a meal because you are focused on something else. When your digestion is off, you will commonly experience burning digestive symptoms. You have a low weight for your frame and have difficulty maintaining your weight.

If your appetite is of a Kapha nature, your appetite is low. You often feel you have to force yourself to eat simply because “it’s time to eat”, though you feel satisfied often only eating one or two meals a day. You will never forget to eat, but may choose not to eat because you are not hungry. When your digestion is off, it is sluggish. You put on weight easily and may have excess weight for your frame. It is difficult for you to lose weight.

When asking yourself which of these three you fall into, try to think of what it’s most commonly been like in your life. It can fluctuate between these three at times, but remembering what your body naturally tends towards will tell you which dosha your appetite is in (but paying an Ayurvedic Practitioner to assess you is far better of course). We often blame ourselves for forgetting meals, being too skinny, being too fat…But it’s not just because of the food choices you make. Yes, that plays a large part in nutrition for your body, but eating right for your nature is fundamental.

Forcing kids at a young age to eat on our time sets them up for a lifetime of failure. Some kids may not finish their lunch, but just need opportunities to eat smaller portions throughout the day. Some kids may be like a garburator devouring everything. Others may only want to eat a couple of meals. Don’t force them to eat or to not eat! Spread it out. If they take forever to eat it is because they are not hungry. Leave them be. If they need to eat all the time, let them! Try to establish a routine that works best for them, so they feel hungry at appropriate times. Don’t force them into some wonky appetite pattern with no regard for their nature. I know we do this because it’s how we were taught. Break the cycle! Start with yourself. Recognize how your appetite is, and adjust your eating patterns to match it. If I can give you any good rule of thumb to follow, it will be to try and make lunchtime your biggest meal of the day, and have lighter meals if any in the morning and afternoon. Kindle that fire of your appetite properly to work towards this. You don’t want to start heavy or end heavy in your day. Midday is optimal for digestion.

Knowing you have a natural way your appetite operates can hopefully trigger a sort of “Duh! Of course!” moment in you. Your problems with your weight start here. Many people in today’s society struggle with their weight and ultimately their concept of their self image through their weight. I am telling you right now that you have been set up to fail from the get go, and realizing that there’s a way that works best for you is paramount. This is why diets don’t work; they don’t assess your appetite pattern. This is a great place to start if you are worried about weight in any way. So don’t beat yourself up! Ayurveda can teach you to play to your strengths. It creates the space you need to foster that change towards better health.

We will continue to visit other aspects of digestion as time goes on. Until tomorrow!

With gratitude,

S

Ayurveda Class 19: Borrowing Time

It’s so easy in today’s fast paced world to want the easy fix. We look to the quickest ways possible to do things because we have this belief that we should spend every waking moment doing things as fast as we can so we can do even more things.

We let the most basic and fundamental aspects of our health suffer to make time to do things that pay for us to fix the very problems we are creating by working so much!

It’s why we feel like we don’t have time to eat and drive through McDonald’s. It’s why we don’t just take a few breaths and slow down before heading out the door to work. It’s why we don’t go to bed early enough and use coffee every single morning to wake up. The expectation has become for everyone to work like crazy and sacrifice their bodies to do it. There are so many quick “fixes” to any problems that could arise from this excessive work that we just assume we can toughen up and it will be okay. In the long run however, it will not be okay. It will be very un-okay actually.

We as a society want the symptom masked, the pain relieved. We want it done now, this minute, this second. We are constantly told through media and culture that there’s an easier and quicker way to cure the many faults we didn’t even know we had.

How often do we stop to ask what we can do in our lives, not just to mask or treat a symptom, but to actually address the cause of the disease in the first place?

What can we change in our lifestyle to help our body find it’s natural balance?

If we continually look for a magic button to fix all our problems, we are borrowing time. We are sacrificing time from our future for time this minute. And what’s even being accomplished in that minute? Are we moving towards better health and peace in that moment? Or are we just working, working, working? It’s not rocket or even new science: A steady and healthy diet combined with proper exercise and rest are fundamental to our health.

From an Ayurvedic standpoint, these two factors (eating and sleeping) belong to the three pillars of health. Too much or too little or improper management of these factors leads us to disease.

We have not been taught as a society to address the cause of our imbalances. We know that our imbalances manifest as symptoms. But we do not trace the symptom back to its source.

Maybe you’re one to push yourself hard everyday, not getting enough sleep. You have chronic headaches. Rather than focus on proper rest, you pop a couple of pills and continue on indefinitely. It masks the pain but never stops the cause of the disease. You just accept it as a chronic condition or the way it is and change nothing.

This is no way to live!

It’s not easy taking responsibility for our lives. It’s so easy to get stuck in our ways. It’s so easy to lean into our tendencies, supporting the habits that have gotten us to where we are, even if those habits are destructive. Often the treatments we take to mask or treat our symptoms don’t even work all that effectively and we lose faith in our ability to be healthier. We accept it is our fate to just be in whatever pain we are in. We all do this and it deeply saddens me. Mostly because it is all so unnecessary.

I have said again and again that Ayurveda is a science of personal responsibility. Many people only go to a doctor when a symptom manifests. Of course this is normal; symptoms are the body’s way of communicating to us that there is something wrong. But we as people need to adjust our mindset. It’s not enough to walk into a clinic and expect a solution. Sometimes, the solution may be really simple and treatment can be prescribed. But even in the simplest treatments, there is always an underlying cause as to why that symptom manifested in the first place. Ayurveda helps us to get to the root of the problem. The root of that problem lies in our own lifestyle.

I don’t say this to point blame. In fact, I say it because it is liberating. You are in control of your own health! What an amazing revelation to know that you can heal, and that the ability to do so is already within you (even if you don’t know how yet)! But you have to be willing to change. This is unavoidable. We can’t keep doing things the same way and expect different results. So lets change the way we approach our own personal healthcare needs:

The next time you get disease, and go to someone who you think can help you to heal, you will walk in to inevitably ask them:
“What can you do to treat this symptom?”
But then, go deeper. Ask:
“What can I do in my life differently to be healthier?”

Regardless of whether or not you visit an Ayurvedic Practitioner to heal, you will still be following Ayurveda if you can ask that one simple question. Be brave, take that personal responsibility! You can do it! Your life will be so much better for it. Healing cannot truly occur without the participation of the patient.

Tomorrow we will talk about undoubtedly one of the most critical pieces to manage for optimal health:

Digestion.

Until tomorrow!

With gratitude,

S