Types and Management of Digestive Disturbance

Ayurveda recognizes that it is not enough to eat wholesome foods in proper quantity and combination at appropriate times. The qualities of the food we eat have a strong bearing on the balance of Doshas, and on the quality of our tissues and consciousness. Moreover, if the digestive fire known as Agni is not strong and balanced, we are unable to properly process that food. The result can be that, instead of producing healthy tissues (Dhatus) and Ojas (the essence of the tissues which promotes strength, vitality, immunity from disease, and the growth of consciousness), the digestive system produces Ama (toxic products that clog the channels of the body and sow the seeds of disease).

There are three main types of digestive disturbances. They correspond to the qualities of the primary Dosha associated with the disturbance: Vata, Pitta or Kapha. Disturbed digestion often causes Ama. Ama can also cause disturbed digestion, leading to a vicious cycle. Digestive disturbance and/or Ama are contributory to many chronic conditions. It is not wise to allow digestive problems to persist.

In practice, emotional stress, alcohol, drugs, faulty dietary habits and faulty habits of daily routine are the factors most likely to give rise to digestive disturbance. For this reason, much can be accomplished simply by shifting to a diet that is lighter in quality and quantity while attending to the basic Ayurvedic guidelines.

Infections are not typically the inciting factor, though they may unmask pre-existing imbalances. Parasites are uncommon in western societies, but can be avoided by following Ayurvedic practices. Stomach flu or "food poisoning" is much more common, but is generally self-limited. Normal appetite and elimination should return relatively quickly if one starts with a liquid diet like kanji and then gradually progresses as symptoms subside.

Food allergies and intolerances are a more complex story. They can be a sign of Ama or Dosha imbalance. I find that they frequently arise from improper dietary habits. While it's a good idea to avoid food that "talks back" to you, if the food is sattvic, nourishing and otherwise suitable to your constitution, then it's better to get to the root of the problem. To give a personal example, I don't do well with bell peppers, so I just avoid them. Nothing much is lost. On the other hand, many years ago, I thought that I had lactose intolerance. So, I gave up milk for yogurt which I mixed with granola for breakfast, often with a banana. On my first encounter with a Vaidya (an Ayurvedic physician), I was advised to try boiling my milk with cardamom and to stop combining bananas with yogurt (or milk for that matter). To my surprise and delight, I enjoyed the milk without any side-effects and my chronic nasal congestion disappeared.

Vata Digestive Disturbance: Irregularity

Vata represents movement. When Vata imbalance disturbs the digestive tract, appetite can become variable as can elimination. Thus, constipation, gas, cramps, bloating and irregular hunger may become problematic.

Treatment

Vata digestive disturbance generally responds to a Vata-pacifying diet and basic Ayurvedic guidelines. Because Vata is lean and dry, it needs to be balanced with liberal amounts of dietary fat. Sesame oil is the most Vata balancing, but ghee, coconut oil and olive oil are also good.

Be cautious with beans. While everyone needs as balance of all six tastes including the astringency of beans, Vata only needs a little bit. When taken in excess, inadequately cooked, without spices or without oil and salt, they can casue gas, bloating and constipation. For red lentils, mung beans or French lentils, two tablespoons per person is about the right amount to measure for cooking. Avoid the larger beans like black beans, chick peas, pinto beans, etc. Cook French lentils until they are very soft. Cook mung beans and red lentils until they break up. Spice with fresh ginger, cumin, coriander, fennel, ajwain, hing (asafoetida) and black pepper.

For constipation, soak a handful of organic raisins overnight in water and have them for breakfast with cereal or cooked fruit. Psyllium husk can be sprinkled into main dishes. Flax seed is also beneficial. Take 2-4 Digestone tablets at bedtime with warm water or boiled milk on a regular basis. Digestone can be taken long term for Rasayana benefit.

For irregular appetite, gas, cramps or bloating, in addition to Digestone, you can try 1-2 tablets of Herbal Digest with warm water before lunch and dinner for 1-2 months, while attending to opportunities for improvement in diet and daily routine.

Pitta Digestive Disturbance: Acidity

Pitta represents metabolism and the digestive fire. When Pitta is aggravated, that fire burns too hot giving rise to problems with acidity and sometimes diarrhea

Treatment

Pitta digestive disturbance generally responds to a Pitta-pacifying diet and basic Ayurvedic guidelines. Ghee (clarified butter) is particularly balancing for Pitta. So is milk if properly prepared and consumed. Before bed, have some milk previously boiled with a little ghee, saffron, cardamom and sugar, once cooled to a comfortable temperature. Beware that coffee and alcohol are highly toxic in this situation. Peppermint tea would be a better beverage. Dilute lassi (see Yogurt and Cheese) with lunch is excellent too. Also attend to my general recommendations for balancing Pitta Dosha.

Western medicine often offers acid-blocking drugs. These drugs have their value, but do not correct the underlying imbalance and may give rise to problems if taken long term. Those wishing an Ayurvedic alternative might want to take 1-2 Aci-Balance tablets after meals for several months.

Kapha Digestive Disturbance: Dullness

Kapha represents structure. When Kapha imbalance disturbs the digestive tract, appetite becomes weak and food just sits there, creating a feeling of heaviness, sleepiness and dullness. The stool may become sticky and pass with mucous. This situation is frequently associated with Ama.

Treatment

Kapha is by nature slow, sweet, unctuous, cold and heavy and, therefore, needs a light, bitter, astringent, spicy diet. Think beans and greens. Kapha digestive disturbance generally responds to a Kapha-pacifying diet, basic Ayurvedic guidelines, steps to re-kindle the digestive fire and increased physical activity.

To stimulate digestion, each morning boil one quart of water for 10 minutes with 1 tsp. each cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, 1/2 tsp. fenugreek seeds, 1/2 tsp. lemon juice, 1 tsp. of chopped fresh ginger, and a couple of pinches each of black pepper and black salt (or pink mineral salt). Strain the decoction into a thermos and sip small amounts frequently during the day. If you are diligent with diet modification, the guidelines and the decoction, you should see marked improvement within a week or two. If not or if your situation is more complicated, consider a consultation.