Managing indigestion

INDIGESTION can be described as a feeling of heaviness in the abdomen, belching, anorexia and altered bowel conditions. This could be due to a shift in food habits, contamination of food items or a sudden change in the daily routine or the life-style. Ayurveda has described these conditions as Ajeerna.

Ayurveda says that indigestion occurs due to the adoption of “mithya ahar vihar”, which denotes eating a wrong diet and following an improper daily routine.

A wrong diet means to much fried foods, meats, sweets, a wrong combination of foods and of mixing to many foods in a meal. Over-eating and eating before the last meal is fully digested can also cause indigestion. Similarly, taking too much coffee and alcohol and excessive smoking also disturb normal digestive functioning. Staying up late in the night, emotional disturbances like stress, grief and anxiety and taking too much drugs like antibiotics, pain-killers and steroids are the other factors which contribute to the digestive upsets.

In all types of indigestion, fasting for at least one meal-time is necessary. After this when patient feels hungry, he should be given lime water, boiled vegetables or their soup. There are many ayurvedic medicines to treat digestive upsets. But differentiation should be made between acute indigestion and a chronic condition.

Classic ayurvedic medicines used in such conditions include lavanbhaskar churna, hingashtak churna and avipattikar churna. The famous shankh bhasma or the shankh vati, if given with lime water, has also very good results. There are many more effective medicines which are used in stubborn cases of indigestion, but only under the supervision of a physician.

Usually mild cases of indigestion respond to certain home remedies. Here are few tips –

  • Chewing a small piece of fresh ginger with table salt five or 10 minutes before meals is good to stimulate digestion.
  • Take an equal amount of black pepper, dried mint leaves, ginger powder, coriander seeds, cumin (jeera), fennel, anise seeds and asafoetida (hing). Grind them together to make fine powder. Take one teaspoonful of this powder twice a day after meals.
  • Drinking buttermilk after breakfast or lunch improves digestion. Adding roasted cumin seed powder and a little of salt into buttermilk enhances its effectiveness.
  • Taking plain soda water gives immediate relief from symptoms of gas, distended abdomen and acidity.

Precautions: In modern life-style digestive upsets are a very common problem. Ayurvedic classics in general advise a light and easily digestible diet. The most important rule to be followed is that one should not overeat and should also avoid meal until the previous meal is not digested. Sleeping immediately after dinner makes food stay in the stomach for a longer period, thus resulting in early morning digestive distress. Persons prone to frequent indigestion are advised to eat compatible food and should also do a regular morning or evening walk.


The right diet in old age

A man’s dietary needs undergo various changes from childhood to old age. If adequate nutrition and a well-balanced diet is essential in the younger years, old age requires far more care towards dietary matters. Ayurvedic masters maintain that people can live longer, be healthier and ultimately have a better quality of life if their nutritional needs are adequately met.

Elderly people can be categorised in three groups: the working elderly, the frail elderly and those with chronic diseases. Each of these groups has different nutritional needs. The first group requires a balanced diet plan to keep it active and fit whereas in the later groups, though the intake of the quantum of food decreases, the requirement of many nutrients remains unaltered. Therefore, for old people it becomes all the more important to take an adequate amount of all the nutrients within their decreased energy levels.

There are many factors which come in the way of proper nutrition of old persons. This includes the impaired physical status like poor mobility, loss of teeth or non-use of dentures, physiological conditions of malabsorption or maldigestion of food and certain pathological stages like psycho-neuro disorders and wasting diseases. Social factors like poverty, alcoholism and lack of family support also influence the nutritional scenario of the old people.

Elderly persons suffering from chronic ailments should be aware of the fact that it is possible that some of the drugs they take may interfere with the absorption of some of the nutrients in the diet. Regular use of diuretics deplete many of the essential nutrients, which makes them to be supplemented. Prolonged and unsupervised use of hard laxatives, whether herbal or otherwise, also hampers the process of absorption. Continuous use of some of the special or restricted diets can also lead to nutritional problems. For example, a low protein diet may lead to protien malnutrition and muscle wasting, and a low salt diet can result in the poor intake of nutrients secondary to the lack of taste and food apathy.

Ayurveda views that while making a diet plan for the elderly, the foremost point to be kept in mind is that with the advancement of age, the capacity to digest large meals often decreases. Old persons should opt for light and easily digestible food, and if required the number of meals can be increased as per the individual’s acceptance. Since hypertension and cardiovascular problems are present in most of the elderly persons, the intake of heavy and fried items and other energy-rich food and sweets and starches should be minimised.

There is gradual demineralisation of bones in old age. To compensate its losses, an adequate amount of calcium intake should be ensured. Depending upon individual suitability, old people need a reasonable quantity of milk, fresh fruits, green leafy vegetables and a digestible amount of cereals. A balanced diet not only meets their requirement of vitamins and minerals but also helps in maintaining the immunological strength. Many diseases can be managed or reduced in prevalence by eating the right food in right proportions.

Ayurveda believes that good ahara (diet) must fulfil two criteria. First, it should furnish the appropriate levels of all nutrients to meet the physiological and biochemical needs of the body at all stages of life. Secondly, the diet must also be devoid of the excess of any nutrient that increases the risk of disease.

In this regard, old persons always need to remember an ayurvedic dictum: Ko aruk or who is healthy? The brief answer perhaps covers the total concept of the right diet: hit bhuk , mit bhuk , so aruk (he who takes the right and adapted food and does not overeat is healthy).

Overeating leads to many health problems

The quantity of food eaten during any meal is crucial for proper digestion and balanced nutrition. Acharya Charaka has stated that by paying due attention to the time and quantity, a self-controlled man should take such food as is conducive to his internal power of digestion. Most of us stop eating once we feel satisfied. Yet there are those to whom satisfaction comes much after they feel stuffed.

Usually, we find two types of overeating: one is occasional and the other related to compulsive eaters.

Overeating is the root cause of many health problems. While occasional overeating can result in indigestion, distension, acidity and disturbance in the bowel pattern, it is the compulsive or regular overeating which is the cause for far more serious problems like obesity, diabetes, hypertension and strain on all body systems. Ayurveda says that eating less than one’s capacity is always preferable to eating more, because consistently under-eating can only produce a gradual disturbance concerning the “vata”, but overeating certainly plays havoc with the total body physiology by immediately vitiating all the three humors or the “doshas”.

Many times habitual or compulsive overeating is attributed to problems having psychological origin like anxiety, depression, isolation and mentally traumatic conditions. Overeating provides temporary relief, but it is more often followed by a feeling of guilt, shame and disgust, thus resulting in rebound depression. With the excessive consumption of food and associated low physical activity, the compulsive overeater always carries an increased health risk.

Citing the importance of self-discipline to overcome the appalling habit of overeating, ayurvedic texts say that one should take food only when the previous meal is digested. Though deciding the appropriate quantity of food is not easy, adopting moderation in eating is considered the best policy, and it is better to stop when you still have some capacity to eat. The quality of food, whether it is light, heavy or fried, coupled with seasonal considerations, also decides the ultimate course of digestion.

For compulsive overeaters, it is better to first redress their basic ailment whether it is psychological or otherwise. One should slow down while eating and should chew each morsel many times. It is seen that people consume more food while chatting or when they are in hurry. Eating snacks between the meals is an impulsive act, and one should keep the right stuff up-front. While partying one should always remember that the total amount of snacks and the main meal should not exceed the whole of what you normally eat a single time.

If we take food in proper quantity there is no pressure on the stomach and in the sides of the chest, and no excessive heaviness in the abdomen. Besides getting relief from hunger and thirst, one feels comfortable while in breathing, standing, sitting or walking. Ayurvedic masters have given a very simple rule: divide the stomach capacity into three parts. One part of it should be filled with solid food, the second part with liquids and the third part should be left empty for body humours to function normally.

How daily routine can keep you healthy

All of our physiological functions follow a set pattern and seem to be controlled by a biological clock. During the day and night our body temperature, weight and hormones have their well-defined periods of highs and lows, and most obvious of our body functions — the sleep and wake cycle — also follows its own rhythm.

Ayurveda believes that to be optimally healthy, we should tune our bodies to nature’s master cycle which in turn regulates our body functions in a right manner. The right “dincharya” or the balanced daily routine is instrumental in keeping our body in harmony with nature, thus preventing disease and promoting good health.

Of the vast treasure of ayurvedic wisdom, here are a few guidelines regarding the daily routine we should follow:

  • Early morning or the time around dawn is the most pure and fresh time of the day. Getting before sunrise enables us to adopt and enshrine certain subtle qualities of nature. Slowly taking a glass of water kept in a copper vessel in the previous night facilitates the normal bowel movements. Try to establish a routine where bowels are evacuated at the same time every morning.
  • The ayurvedic concept of right daily routine also focuses on maintaining personal hygiene and giving meticulous details like cleansing the mouth and teeth in the morning. It further emphasises that depending upon their endurance, all able-bodied persons should adopt an exercise schedule, which can be as light as simple walking, heavy like jogging or doing aerobics or the balanced one like doing yoga and meditation.
  • Regular bathing with water which is neither too cold nor too hot purifies the body, eliminates fatigue, sweat and dirt and induces freshness. It is better if bathing is preceded by a gentle massage of the body by any of the oils like sesame, mustard or coconut. Breakfast should be light and the ideal time for it is between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. Persons who follow two meals a day pattern can opt for a heavy breakfast around 10 in the morning.
  • As the time around noon is the peak “pitta” period, Ayurveda believes lunch to be the principal meal of the day. Delaying it to later than noon can cause digestive upsets. Eat the conducive, wholesome and right amount of food and that too at the right pace. Day-time sleep is detrimental to good health, but keeping in view the seasonal variations, one can have a brief afternoon nap in summer only.
  • Do not snack between the meals as it makes the appetite erratic. Take adequate amount of fruit and also drink plenty of water. Restrict the intake of tea or coffee to two cups a day. The desirable time for dinner is around 8 pm and it should be lighter than the lunch.
  • To facilitate the proper functioning of the digestive system, there should be a gap of two hours between dinner and sleep. A minimum of six or seven hours sleep is essential for all healthy persons. Ayurvedic texts emphasise that one should obtain sleep at proper time and adequately, neither much nor less. Proper relaxation and leisure relieve stress and strain and restore physical and mental energy.

What constitutes good health

ACCORDING to Ayurveda, like all Indian philosophies, the purpose of life is attaining salvation or unity of the soul with the Absolute. Thus, in the deeper Indian perspective, health is not an end in itself. If the body is looked upon as a vehicle to realise the materialistic pursuits of wealth and ambition, it is the good health of the mind, body and soul which is considered the base for an accomplished and fulfilled life.

Though from time to time various scholars have explained health in their own way, the most popular definition is by the ancient sage and surgeon Sushruta. He describes health as a state of complete homeostasis encompassing a functional cohesiveness of three body humors, well balanced metabolism, the structural integrity of tissues, regularity of excretory functions and harmoniously interacting senses. It goes further to say that a healthy body should be joined by a pacified mind and transcending soul.

In fact, the concept of three “doshas” known as “vata”, “pitta” and “kapha” or the body humors is vital to the ayurvedic philosophy. The body, which is seen as a composite structure made of seven types of tissues called “dhatus”, is governed by these humors. The constant wear and tear of the body require it to be replenished and repaired within the system only. Many times in a short description, good health is correctly portrayed as the structural and functional equilibrium of these humors and tissues.

Ayurveda believes that all changes occurring in the body — from dense to more subtle — are controlled by “agni” or the fire. Of the 13 types of its forms, the main “agni” is the one located in the digestive system. Its functional equilibrium regulates other biochemical processes taking place in various tissues. If a balanced “agni” is vital for health, its vitiation leads to impaired digestion, improper metabolism and accumulation of toxins which ultimately become the reason for a chain of unhealthy reactions in the body.

A well regulated waste system is also equally essential for the total upkeep of a person. Urine, faeces and sweat have been described as the three main excretable products. A proper urinary output regulates the balance of water in the body and the sweat helps maintaining its temperature besides keeping the skin supple and moist. The correct formation of stool and its regular evacuation is believed to be an equally important milestone leading to good health.

The proper equipoise and coordination of the sense organs aiming to help the body to perform its other functions normally are also counted as an important constituent of the well-being of a person. We experience the world through one or more of our senses. As the sensory organs are an interface between the mind and the body and the body and the environment, all our positive or negative perceptions and experiences have good or bad effect on our health.

The psycho-somatic connection, though believed to be a modern concept, was known to the Indians thousands of years ago. Ayurveda considers total health to be much more than the physical health. It describes a healthy and a balanced mind and spiritual well-being as the ultimate standard for good health. “Svastha” the Sanskrit word for health, literally means “to be established in the self”. It denotes that the journey towards perfect health and a purposeful and righteous life includes treading through the same path.

Eat your food and watch the taste

AYURVEDIC philosophy is based on the principle of five primordial elements. These elements are practically represented in the body by three biological humors known as vata, pitta and kapha. The Ayurvedic concept of diet depends upon six rasas (tastes) and these tastes form the basis of adoption of any food or herb. After ingestion and impressing upon the body they replenish and reduce all body tissues and affect their functions. Under normal circumstances, everyone needs certain amount of each of the six tastes, and too much intake of any of them can become harmful, as can too little. Let us briefly go into what are these tastes and what are their inherent properties.

Sweet: Called madhura in Sanskrit, sweet is the foremost of all the tastes. A combination of earth and water elements, the sweet taste aggravates kapha and decreases vata and pitta. It nourishes and exhilarates the body and mind, sooths the mucous membranes and is cooling, heavy and unctuous . Its overuse can result in obesity, diabetes, parasitic manifestation, lethargy, obstructed circulation, gas, respiratory congestion and other kapha type disturbances. Table sugar, milk, rice, wheat, maize, white guard melon (petha) and banana are a few among many edible things having sweet taste.

Sour: Commonly known as amla or khatta, sour taste comprises of earth and fire elements. It increases kapha and pitta and pacifies vata. Generally, sour is hot, heavy and unctuous and is endowed with carminative, stimulant, nourishing and thirst-relieving properties.

However, excessive use of the sour taste can create health problems leading to burning sensation, itching, de-pigmentation, suppuration, premature aging and looseness of the body. Tamarind (imli) is an classic example of the sour taste.

Salty: It is the namkeen or the lavana taste. Composed of water and fire elements, salty taste aggravates kapha and pitta and decreases vata. It is heavy, hot and digestive and helps the elimination of wastes and cleanses the body. In small amount it stimulates the digestion; in moderation it is laxative and in very large dose it causes vomiting. Over and excessive usage can result in problems like edema, inflammation, high blood pressure, easy bleeding, bone and joint diseases, early baldness and wrinkling of the skin. Sea salt and rock salt are of salty taste.

Pungent: Known as katu, pungent taste is comprised of fire and air elements. It increases pitta and vata and pacifies kapha. Food items of pungent taste like chili peppers are hot, light and dry in nature and they improve appetite, counter cold sensation and promote sweating and flush all type of secretions from the body. Overuse of pungent taste can result into debility, emaciation, fever, burning sensation, increased thirst and drying up of sexual and other body secretions.

Bitter: It is the tikta rasa which in Ayurveda is the most important taste after the sweet. Composed of air and ether elements, while aggravating vata it pacifies kapha and pitta. Bitter taste is cooling, light, dry and detoxifying in effect and is a promoter of appetite, reducer of body tissues and counters ill effects of all other tastes.

However, its overuse can result in numbness, emaciation, stiffness, tremors and spurt in other vata diseases. Bitter gourd (karela), turmeric and neem leaves are bitter in taste.

Astringent: Known as kashaya or kasaila , the astringent taste is the combination of air and earth elements. It is cooling, light and dry in effect, and while increasing vata, it reduces pitta and kapha. Astringent heals, purifies and constricts all parts of the body and also acts as anti-aphrodisiac. Its excessive use can cause constipation, dryness, emaciation, fits, distension and reduction of body secretions, including enzymes and hormones. Coriander, jamun and double bean (lobia) are mainly astringent in taste.

The description of six tastes and their effect on the body, though very simple, has a sound scientific base. Barring rare exceptions, where a food item doesn’t work accordingly the ancients have mentioned the word prabhava which is specific to any edible substance to act in a particular situation.

Keep watch on digestion even if you are healthy

Ayurveda views that most of the diseases arise from poor or wrong functioning of the digestive system. Though food is a heterogeneous substance, it is made homogeneous to the body at different stages of the digestion — breaking, absorption and assimilation. The factors responsible for these activities, whether they are in the digestive tract or in the tissue cells, are known as “agnis”. Ancient scholars have written that it is the proper functioning of the digestive fire or the “jatharagni” which is central to good health.

Proper digestion and nourishment promotes adequate energy and strong resistance to disease. To the contrary, undigested or improperly digested food becomes like a pathogen in the body, breeding toxins and upsetting the immune system. If we give due attention to feed and nourish ourselves, it is equally important for us to take care of the digestive system and give it the power to adequately extract and utilise the nourishment.

Digestive fire has four states in ayurveda: high, low, variable and balanced. The first one is a condition which is marked by excessive appetite, where a person digests even large quantities of frequent meals. The second one, called low digestive fire or “mandagni”, denotes a situation when it is difficult to digest or metabolise even a small quantity of otherwise easily digestible food. The variable digestive fire is an erratic state where it sometimes helps the process of complete digestion and at other times produces unsavoury symptoms like distension, colic, constipation and even loose motions.

Ayurveda lays great emphasis on achieving a state where all the body systems are supported by a balanced digestion. Called “samagni’, it is the equilibrated state of the complete digestive process which is marked with normal and regular appetite that is constant and is easily satisfied with normal and natural foods. In other words, it ensures complete digestion of food ingested at the proper time without any irregularity.

Digestion occurs in three stages. The first stage is dominated by “kapha” with alkaline secretions in the mouth and the stomach. Any abnormality here can produce symptoms of nausea, salivation and lack of desire for food. The second stage is dominated by “pitta” with acid secretions in the duodenum and small intestine. Hyper acidity and burning sensation are the result of the vitiation of the digestive process here. With the formation of stool in the large intestine, “vata” dominates the third phase. Symptoms of gas and constipation or erratic bowel pattern arise if digestion is faulty at this stage.

Improper digestion results in the accumulation of undigested and toxic food mass. It is indicated when the stools are not properly formed, breath is unpleasant, appetite is abnormal, a coating appears on the tongue and there is a feeling of heaviness in the body.

Even a person who has no immediate disease problem should keep a watch on his digestion, making sure that digestive impurities do not occur. Ayurveda believes that it is not only easy to stop the disease process at its origin but in treating all the diseases we also must consider first the state of the digestive system.