Why Your Gut Wants You to Discover Your "Digestive Fire"

Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on January 31, 2018Written by Fehmida Zakeer on January 31, 2018
digestive fire

Is your gut burning?

If you’re wondering why you feel hungry in the middle of the night, in spite of a heavy dinner — or feel full at night despite a sparse lunch, then it’s time to look at the state of your gut. Or, if we’re translating that into Ayurvedic terms, the strength of your digestive fire (also known as agni). This is our bodies’ ability to create enzymes that break down what we eat for efficient nutrient absorption (much like the Western explanation of how our gut works).

According to this 3,000-year-old healing Indian practice, this mind-body and gut connection has roots in the three doshas, or energies. While your dominant dosha is uniquely determined at birth through your genetics, your digestive fire is what affects your energy, and can even throw your whole health off-balance. Fortunately, your gut also gives tell-tale signs to what’s wrong. Learn how to counteract those imbalances and get back into tip-top shape.

How does your energy affect your digestion?

Your dosha influences which of the four types of agni you inherit — balanced, slow, sharp, or changeable (irregular), says Acharya Shunya in her book, “Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom: A Complete Prescription to Optimize Your Health, Prevent Disease, and Live with Vitality and Joy.” The difference between the types is the time it takes for your body to digest food.

Digestive Fire

Any imbalances in your agni is thought to cause uncomfortable symptoms, such as changes in your hunger cycle, bowel movements, sleep patterns, and moods. An overactive agni tends to bring on intense hunger, heartburn, and an inability to sleep. Constipation, feelings of fullness, and fitful sleep could stem from an underactive agni.

But your agni is always adapting. Its efficiency and intensity keeps changing, depending on the season, your age, and lifestyle.

Vishama agni

Vishama agni is associated with the vata dosha (wind element, related to motion in the body and mind). Madhavi Rathod, an Ayurveda practitioner based in the San Francisco Bay Area, points out that Vishama agni happens when one’s lifestyle is imbalanced. “The digestive fire is irregular and erratic, it runs high and low. There is a variable pattern. Hunger comes and goes.” This, plus extreme stress, anxiety, lack of exercise, multitasking, and inadequate rest can also make your agni irregular.

Signs and symptoms: gas, distension, bloating, and constipation as the digestive speed changes from fast to slow

To bring back balance: Follow an eating schedule and diet to pacify your vata. Avoid cold and raw foods.

Tikshna agni

Associated with high pitta dosha (fire element, related to metabolism and transformation), Tikshna agni is very sharp and fast. Rathod says, “Those with elevated pitta dosha have voracious appetites and can eat large portions. Tikshna agni runs high during pitta times, particularly 12 to 2 p.m.” When your digestive fire is high, you may feel irritated or angry if you’re unable to eat on time.

Signs and symptoms: diarrhea, heartburn, nausea, and acid indigestion

To bring back balance: When your digestive fire is in this active state, eat cooling foods like fruits, green leafy vegetables, and yogurt. Avoid strong-smelling foods and spicy foods.

Manda agni

Feeling a little sluggish, even without food? Rathod explains that this happens because your “digestion is dull and sluggish” too — a sign of an underactive agni. This signifies an imbalance in your kapha dosha (water element that holds things together, or brings equilibrium). The slow, heavy qualities of kapha create the Manda agni. Those with Manda agni can also be prone to constipation, as the food is not processed fully.

Signs and symptoms: tendency for easy weight gain even when you don’t eat a lot, and constipation, which can also make one feel tired or unmotivated to exercise

To bring back balance: Eat plenty of non-starchy vegetables and avoid fried and protein-rich foods.

Sama agni

Sama agni signifies a balanced metabolism and a balanced state of doshas. It’s the most desirable agni, as you’ll be able to eat all types of food, at any time, without any digestive problems. In this balanced state, food is easily digested.

Rathod provides tips to maintain a balanced agni: “While eating, bear in mind that it takes grains six hours to digest, while it takes fruits one hour to digest. Ayurveda talks about incompatible food combinations which should be avoided — two major food categories that should not be mixed are fruit with grains and fruit with dairy. Combining these items together imbalances agni.”

Keeping up with your digestive fires

Your digestive fire may also vary according to the season. For example, during summer, the increasing heat and dryness in the atmosphere makes the agni in your body reduce in intensity. However, during winter months, which support digestion, your agni increases to counterbalance the cold weather. You may notice an increase in intensity of hunger.

Ayurveda recommends

  • for summer eating: “light and moist” easy-to-digest foods, such as rice, sweet corn, cucumber, and chicken
  • for winter eating: foods that are high in complex carbohydrates, fats, and proteins like nuts, root vegetables, sweet and dairy products
  • eat less sugar and dairy as too much can lead to congestion

Here are some additional tips to treating your agni right, no matter the type you have:

  • Avoid eating right before sleep.
  • Don’t drink too many liquids with meals, or directly before or after meals. Water can dampen your agni.
  • Avoid cold food and beverages as it may cause your agni to work even harder by impairing circulation and proper assimilation of nutrients.
  • Don’t chew too fast as mindful eating helps digestion.

Keep up with your agni by tuning into the signs your gut is giving. After all, it’s fire that turns your food into energy and lets your body maintain its A-game.

Fehmida Zakeer is an independent writer and author based in Chennai, India. Her articles have been published in various Indian and international publications, including The Hindu Literary Review, The Hindu Young World, New Indian Express, Prevention, Better Homes and Garden, Women’s Feature Service, Women’s International Perspective, Azizah, Herbs for Health, and Good Housekeeping.

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