Understanding Agni AKA Digestive fire!
Updated: Mar 27
What is your digestive system trying to tell you? Many of us struggle with daily discomforts thinking it is ‘normal’, when in actual fact these are subtle signs of an imbalance that should be corrected in order to avoid further complications.
Unfortunately we tend to ignore these little signs until they start to impact our day to day life, We ignore the occasional bloating, burning, diarrhoea or constipation until it becomes a bigger problem.
Agni is a sankrit word that means 'fire' and in todays post we are going to focus on our digestive fire or metabloism. Agni also has a more subtle counterpart responsible for digesting our thoughts and emotions!
Agni has the qualities of being dynamic, hot, sharp, light, slightly oily and it is responsible for converting the food we eat into nutrients the body can use to build our tissues then eliminate the wastes. You can think of Agni as a process as well digestive enzymes, stomach acids and gut flora. As you can see it plays a vital role in our health, physically and emotionally, and this is why Ayurveda puts so much emphasis on having and supporting a strong Agni or digestive fire.
So start to listen carefully to what your body is saying, pay attention to those subtle signs and start to mindfully address it.
4 Types of Angi
Agni has its optimal normal state called Sama (balanced) Agni and 3 imbalanced states when a particular dosha has accumulated and started to cause disruptions. So before we discuss the imbalance state lets outline the characteristics of Sama (balanced) Agni.
Sama (balanced) Agni is characterised by a regular, consistent appetite before meals, feeling of lightness and energy after eating, good absorption of nutrition and daily (even multiple) eliminations of the stool of a normal well formed stool. There is not discomfort or symptoms as outlined below.
Now for the imbalanced states;
Tikshna (sharp/hot) Agni when Pitta dosha is involved, most common in Pitta constitutions/conditions or during the pitta time of year which is Summer as this is when Pitta is already high in the body and the balance is easily tipped. Some common signs of Tikshna Agni are hyperacidity, acid indigestion, gastritis, heartburn, hot flashes, acidic saliva, and fever, hypoglycaemia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, dysentery, loose stools, pain in the liver, ulcerative colitis, and other inflammatory conditions.
Vishama (variable) Agni when Vata dosha is involved, again more common in Vata constitutions/conditions or during autumn when the dry, cold, mobile qualities of Vata are more prominent. Classified by irregular appetite, variable digestion, indigestion, abdominal distension, gas, gurgling intestines, constipation (or alternating constipation and diarrhea), and colicky pain. Other symptoms may include dry mouth, receding gums, indentations around tongue, dry skin, cracking joints, sciatica, low back ache, haemorrhoids, muscle spasms, and insomnia.
Manda (slow) Agni when Kapha is involved, most common in Kapha constitutions and conditions and late winter and Spring. Kapha is cold, heavy, slow and dense in nature and some common signs are low appetite, lack of interest in food, tiredness after eating and heaviness in the stomach, body and mind. Frequent colds, congestion, coughs, allergies, edema, and lymph congestion. It can also cause excess salivation, nausea, mucoid vomiting, hyperglycaemia, diabetes, hypothyroid, excess weight, and obesity.
And sometime's it is just not that simple, sometimes there are two or even three doshas contributing to the disruption of Agni and which is a more complex situation, generally focus on the most prominent qualities and observe the shifts within your body each step of the way and be ready to make the next adjustment. Consider a Kitcheri Cleanse to reset digestion and consider working with a practitioner.
This is why acting on those first signs of a disturbance is so important, this allows corrections to be made before other Doshas become involved.
Think of your Agni like a fire... if it's slow, low and not very hot you need to kindle it with small twigs and fire starters and gradually build the fire before you overload it with a large logs. Same with digestion, honour it and do not overeat when your appetite and digestion is impaired.
Spices are Agni's friend, almost like fire starters. So if digestion is low and needs support use pungent spices like mustard seeds, cumin, turmeric. If digestion is too hot and sharp minimise pungent spices and opt for cooling spices like coriander. I have listed lots of other tips below!
What can you do to strengthen, balance or support Agni?
OK so no doubt you have read through the points above and you can see one or two signs of disturbed Agni, and as with all Ayurvedic protocol, like increases like and opposites pacify. So its about identifying the cause of the imbalance, what qualities can you see, then adding more of the opposite qualities through food and lifestyle choices as well as herbal support if required.
Here are the generic points that everyone can benefit from regardless of the imbalance;
eat only when hungry, some people say breakfast is the most important meal of the day which is not the case for everyone, in fact Kapha types do better with an extended fast and may prefer to have two meals a day being a larger early lunch and light early dinner. Also before you eat check in with yourself and establish is it really hunger or are you bored or needing food for comfort? Go for a walk, occupy yourself for a few minutes and see if it passes... true hunger will intensity and you then know its time for a meal.
aim for lunch to be you main meal of the day and include your protein at this time as this is when your digestion is strongest
eat at the same time each day, this is part of an Ayurvedic Dinacharya (Daily Routine)
eat your last meal at least four hours before bedtime. If you are hungry before bed consider something light, like a warm spiced milk for Vata or Pitta constitutions
eat fresh, preferably local, seasonal, organic foods as it is full of Prana or life force and nature always provides the antidote for the season. Avoid GMO and processed foods
eat food suitable for you constitution, that is Vata, Pitta or Kapha
aim to half fill your stomach with food, quarter of liquid and a quarter left empty when eating, do not overeat
do not drink large volumes of liquid just before or after the meal as this dampens the digestive power. It is best to sip water throughout the meal. Ginger tea or CCF (cumin, corriander and fennel) tea are great to sip throughout the day to kindle digestion
home cooked meals are best as you control what goes into them and they can be prepared fresh with the right intention. Did you know your feelings during cooking are infused in the food? Food prepared lovingly with the right intention is always more delicious, nourishing and healing
aim to finish your meal within 20mins of starting to eat
eat in a relaxed atmosphere with no distractions
eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly, good digestion starts in the mouth
eat mindfully - consider each time you eat as sacred offering to the fire that sustains your life because a healthy Agni means a well nourished body, mind and strong immune system
Other digestive support
Manda Agni is influenced by the Kapha dosha which is cool, slow heavy and dense. This means your digestive power is low and you need to add small twigs and gradually build the fire before you throw a big log on. If you just throw the log on, the fire will be snuffed out and we don't want that. This is why fasting, small meals, vegetable soups and broths with warming spices (like fire starters) are helpful with Manda Agni. Foods that are easier to digest that have a light warming effect on the body. Meat, dairy, fats/oils and wheat are generally very heavy and harder on the digestion. Trikatu is an Ayurvedic spice mix that contains three pungent spices (Long Pepper, Ginger, Black Pepper) which may be helpful to strengthen Agni and digest food.
Vishama Agni is influenced by Vata the wind, so if we go back to the actual fire we are kindling, gusts of wind cause the fire to flux... sometimes a gentle breeze feeds the fire and it starts to roar but a large gust can almost extinguish it! If your appetite is variable and you have wind, pain, bloating then Vata is impacting your Agni. You will need to establish your appetite and hunger at each meal and satisfy your hunger without overeating and putting too much strain on the fire. You may have a tendency to feel really hungry but once you start eating you feel full. Vata needs a routine and this is balancing in itself, so make sure you eat at regular times, vata is cold and dry so warm foods are essential as are some good quality fats and warming digestive spices. Light, dry, cold foods will aggravate these conditions as will wind causing foods like cruciferous vegetables and some legumes. Vata digest contains a classical formula, Hingvastak (a blend of eight spices), to add warmth and ease any discomfort associated with Vata imbalance.
Tikshna Agni is when the fire is really strong and roaring out of control, classified by an insatiable appetite that burns through food quickly and elimination may also be quick and a tendency to be loose. Its is best not to skip meals and make sure you you are satisfied when you eat. Tikshna Agni responds well to a Pitta a pacifying daily routine, choosing cooling activities, yoga and pranayama (breathing practices). Minimise Pungent spices, acidic foods and salt. Add think foods such as corriander, coconut, fennel, mint, mangos and Ghee. Consider a cooling soothing herbal blend such as Pitta Digest may support.
I also love using my essential oils, they are my go to for everything in my home and digestion is no exception. Digize and Peppermint are always in my handbag, I simply rub on my tummy after I have eaten. Digize contains lots of spices and peppermint is very cooling and refreshing.
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