Written by Emma Burrell
Agni translates to “fire” or “ignite” in Sanskrit and is used to describe our bodies digestive state or as my teacher describes it, “the creative flame that works behind all life”. Agni digests all that comes into contact with the body, from the food we eat to what comes in through the senses. We have 13 Agni within the body and within the gastrointestinal tract it is known as “Jathara Agni”. Jathara Agni affects and is affected by all aspects of the digestion of food from the digestive acids involved in digesting proteins to the propelling action of peristalsis which is essential in the movement and absorption of the contents within the digestive tract. Our digestive fire might also describe the microbial colonization of the stomach and intestines and the nature of the environment in which they live and grow. The gut microbiome or the Ayurvedic equivalent of “krimi” are directly impacted by our diet, lifestyle and medications such as antibiotics. Taking care of our digestive health is an important measure in preventing imbalance in the body and mind.
How does poor digestion go on to affect the rest of the body?
Following the digestion of food in the stomach and small intestines, the food substance is transported through the ileocecal valve and into a network of pathways in the body known as Srotas (channels) to each bodily tissue (lymph/plasma, blood, fat, muscle, bone, nerve/bone marrow and reproductive tissue). Each tissue takes the nutrients it requires before it is passed onto to the subsequent tissue (another process governed by Agni). Tissue nourishment is determined by the quality of the nutrients that the tissue receives and the tissue Agni’s ability to make it homogeneous or compatible to the cells and to eliminate that which is not needed or might be harmful to the body. When our Agni or tissue intelligence is not able to properly identify and eliminate threat, we become vulnerable to disease from harmful pathogens. Undigested food, waste/toxins and accumulation of Dosha are carried through the channels, causing disorder or “dis-ease” of the tissues and organs. When tissues are not of an ideal state, our overall strength, livelihood and vigor (Ojas) is reduced.
In ancient times (around 2- 5,000 years ago) and without the use of modern technology such as microscopes, Ayurvedic Scholars distinguished between pathogenic and non-pathogenic organisms known as “krimi”. Krimi were the microbes that lived on food, water, soil and the human body. They weren't seen as being "good" or "bad" but as having the potential to be harmful. Ayurvedic Physicians routinely prescribed diet and lifestyle to patients affected by Krimi as they had observed that healthy diet and daily routine elimination Krimi and reduced signs and symptoms of the disease state. Thankfully, modern science supports ancient Ayurvedic wisdom through ongoing investigations into the microbiome, with the largest focus being the microbiome of the gastrointestinal tract.
The microbiome is the ecosystem of microbes (bacteria, archaea, viruses, protozoa and fungi) that we host inside and outside of our body. The microbiome is present throughout the body and in the gut play an important part in immunity, defense against pathogens, production of short-chain fatty acids for energy metabolism and synthesis of vitamins and fat storage. The gastrointestinal tract contains the highest concentration of microbes in the body. Like krimi, the microbiome population fluctuates due to factors such as diet, lifestyle, stress, environment and medicines such as antibiotics.
Studies have identified a difference in the microbiome population present within the gut of people with conditions such as Autistic spectrum disorder, Type one diabetes, Immune disorders, Atopic disorders such as food allergies, asthma and skin disorders as well as inflammatory bowel disease. It has also been linked to the mood due to the pathway of the vagus nerve connecting the brain and gut. Much is still to be discovered as to whether the changes in microbiome are what causes disease or whether they occur secondary to disease. There is also a suggestion of a link between microbial genes and our genetic expression, suggesting that the microbes that are transferred to us from the environment have the potential to alter our genetic expression.
Although research is yet to draw final conclusions, we can observe from a traditional and a modern approach that digestion is not just limited to the gut. Digestion should not be looked at in isolation but as part of a much larger picture. Poor digestion, and an unhealthy digestive tract can be the beginning of health issues affecting both the body and the mind. Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle is a simple and effective way to maintain good digestive health and to boost your overall strength and immunity. See the table on the next page of common signs and symptoms of Agni imbalance and find out what you can do to support good digestive heath. If your digestive issues are long-standing it might be appropriate to consult a Medical Professional or an Ayurvedic Practitioner.
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Signs of a balanced Agni
You feel light and energetic after eating and hungry by the next meal.
There is no discomfort.
Regular and easy elimination of waste.
You have good mental clarity
“There is a promotion of strength, complexion and plumpness”
Causes of Agni imbalance.
-Imbalance of Vata, Pitta and Kapha
-Prolonged fasting or fasting not compatible to your constitution/body type or current state of health
-Over-eating and/or eating large portions
-Eating late at night (after 8pm)
-Eating when you are not hungry/emotional eating
-Eating when the previous meal has not been digested
-Excessive eating and drinking of cold substances
- Poor food choices/Eating food that is heavy and hard to digest
-Emotional factors such as stress, anger, frustration, worries or fears
-Eating a diet high in processed, ready-made and refined foods
-Poor food combinations, food incompatible to constitution or current state of digestion, poor timing of meals (consult your Practitioner for more information)