by Dr Donn Brennan

Digestion in Ayurveda is called Agni or the digestive ‘fire’.  Agni is considered of utmost importance…If working well, it gives good health.  If digestion malfunctions, it gives rise to ‘ama’ or toxins, which cause ill health.  Critical to good digestion is to know when to eat, how much to eat and how to eat.

How you treat digestion is very important.  What you eat is important, but even the best foods are of little value if you cannot digest them.   Ayurveda places great emphasis on your awareness of, and attention to, your digestion.

When you were young you were probably pressurised to eat at certain time, irrespective of your hunger, and to ‘clean your plate’ and you may have learnt to eat as a reward or eat to be sociable.  If so, you may now be out of touch with your body’s needs for food and be eating out of habit, or for emotional reasons.

The only true reason for eating is physical hunger.  In order to be more sensitive and aware of your body’s signals, the following exercise is very useful.  You must start to feel your stomach. 

Allow yourself to get hungry by delaying eating.  When hungry, put your attention on the area of your stomach and see what you feel.  You may feel nothing or you may be aware of an emptiness of hunger there.  Now have a meal.  After the meal, put your attention on your stomach again.  You will now notice a contrast.  From this contrast, you learn the difference between an empty stomach (when hungry) and a full stomach (when satiated).  From now on, always check your stomach before and after eating.

As you do this over days and weeks you become aware of your ‘hunger level’.  Your stomach has two functions – to hold food after a meal and to begin digesting.  As your stomach digests, it slowly empties.  After a meal your stomach should be no more than three quarters full, leaving room for churning the food and for digestive juices.  Two hours later your stomach may be half full and after another few hours, it will be quarter full.  Quarter full is the point at which your stomach is finished digesting the previous meal and is now just emptying.  So now the stomach is ready to digest again.  It is at this point that it sends us signals of hunger.

As you continue to check your stomach, by putting your attention in that area of the body, you become more aware.  You begin to recognise when your stomach is full, three quarters full, half full, quarter full or empty.  As you do so you will even be able to predict your hunger.  When you feel half full it will be up to two hours before you will feel hungry.  When quarter full, you will shortly feel an appetite.

For good digestion, it is most important to eat when hungry.  If you eat before hunger arises you are expecting your stomach to finish digesting the previous meal and yet, at the same time, to start digesting a new meal.  This upsets digestion.  The second most important lesson is to stop eating when three quarters full.  Overeating leaves no room for churning and digestive juices and so digestion is compromised.  It is like putting too much coal on the fire.  A simple question to remember after the meal is:  are you fulfilled or are you filled full?  ‘Fulfilled’ feels  good.  ‘Filled full’ is a heavy discomfort in the stomach and a general feeling of dullness and lethargy.

If you listen to your stomach, you will over time develop better eating habits.  Gradually you will tend to eat at the right time, when hungry, and eat the right amount.  At this point, you will learn from listening to your stomach the amount you should eat for breakfast which satisfies but leaves you hungry for lunch.  Then you will eat appropriately at lunch to leave you with hunger for your evening meal.  Only if hungry should you snack between meals.

Another important consideration for digestion is the way you eat.  Ayurveda considers it essential to sit and relax.  Only when you relax can your body concentrate on digestion.  Therefore, do not watch TV or read the newspaper.  Also do not have an argument or become emotional.  The best scenario is gentle company enjoying a meal together or else eating quietly on your own.