Excerpt from What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen (copyright Rizzoli, 2017)
The mechanics of the initial stage of our digestion are very similar to cooking food in a pot. Imagine that your stomach is a pot cooking on the stove of your digestive system. Strategically placed in the center of our body, the stomach is one of the main transformers and distributors of the energy we receive through food. Just like a gas burner is connected to pipes supplying fuel and has gaps allowing a flame to go through, the stomach is connected to channels or “pipes” that carry the fuel (Pitta) produced from the food we ate yesterday. When we eat, the food goes into that stomach pot, the metabolic fire composed of various acids and enzymes turns up, and your meal starts cooking. The gastric juice is the liquid that prevents the food from burning, and the air in the stomach helps with peristalsis, moving the food around to break it down. The innate intelligence of the body regulates the strength of the flame in the same way that we constantly adjust a stove’s heat depending on what we are cooking.
We all digest food differently. As we’ve discussed earlier, the strength of your digestive fire is one of the most important factors in determining what foods are healthy for you. Ayurveda describes four main types of digestion: balanced, irregular (Airy), sharp (Fiery), and slow (Earthy).
In a balanced state, your flame burns neither too high nor too low, and you enjoy a healthy appetite; after a meal, you feel satiated and blissful. Your optimal digestion, absorption, and elimination are attuned with the needs of your body. It’s like cooking your food to perfection.
Unfortunately, stress, processed foods, leftovers, bad food combinations, and unhealthy eating habits can take our digestion off balance. Irregular digestion usually occurs when too much air in the stomach makes the digestive fire sometimes high, sometimes low, and appetite fluctuates. It’s like cooking on a gas stove with a fan blowing into the flame and making it waver too much—your food will end up unevenly cooked. Irregular digestion often produces Airy-type reactions such as flatulence, bloating, constipation, dryness, and belching without acidity. (These symptoms can also appear due to insufficient friendly bacteria in the gut.) The toxic residue from the semi-digested food can potentially make us experience fatigue, stiffness, and poor circulation.
Sharp digestion occurs when the fire in the stomach is turned up too high. Imagine sautéing vegetables in a pan with barely any water on the highest heat without stirring. Gradually the food will dry and burn, making it inedible. Similarly too high “fire” can reduce moisture in your stomach, causing some nutrients and friendly bacteria to burn before they reach the state of absorption—you end up always feeling hungry, craving more food, especially sweets, but losing weight and experiencing nutrient deficiency. Eating a lot of Fiery foods when you have sharp Fiery digestion may result in burning reactions such as hyperacidity, heartburn, dryness, bad breath, gastritis, and ulcers. Fiery digestion often produces hot, acidic toxicity that can potentially trigger inflammation of the skin, eyes, liver, or small intestine, or erupt as the hot type of emotions.
Slow digestion is just the opposite of the Fiery—it occurs when the digestive flame is too low and there is more dampness in your stomach. It’s like trying to boil food in a lot of water on the lowest heat—it takes forever. Slow digestion is often caused by eating food without spices or by blockages in some of the “gaps” of the stomach—flame simply does not come through. As such, your stomach cannot fully break down the food you eat. With slow (Earthy) digestion you may experience the heavy type of digestive problems: sluggishness, fatigue after eating, loss of appetite, congestion, lack of circulation, weight gain.
Seasons also affect our capacity to break down food completely. It is quite likely that many of us will experience irregular Airy digestion during late fall and early winter, sharp Fiery or irregular Airy digestion during late winter and summer, and slow Earthy digestion during spring. Understanding how the seasonal changes affect our bodies will help us make balancing food choices.
Optimal health is only possible when we enjoy balanced digestion consistently. My seasonal recipes with variations according to digestion are designed to make it easier for you to restore yourself to balanced digestion.