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Stages of Digestion

Ayurveda, and other eastern wellness philosophy have emphasized for centuries, Gut Health, as the lynch pin for overall health. In Ayurveda, gut health is directly tied to the strength and balance of your digestive agni (fire).  One of Ayurveda’s teachings is that we are not what we eat, but rather what we digest. The digestive process starts at the mouth and ends at the rectum and the whole process can take up to 6 hours or more. The timing of digestion depends on the strength of the digestive agni, the individual’s constitution and the type or qualities of food that has been consumed.

Ayurvedic take on digestion include the idea that the whole process happens in three stages, that digestion happens on a subtle level as well as a gross physical one, and that it takes a full 36 days to complete the digestive process. There are 3 stages involved in gross digestion:

  • Stage 1 – Sweet stage or Madhura that starts with the mouth and upper part of the stomach. This stage takes about 1 ½–2 hours and is associated with Kapha, or the Earth and Water elements. The sole objective of this stage is to liquify the foods for digestion in the next stage.
  • Stage 2 – Sour stage or Amla occurs in the lower part of the stomach and small intestines. This stage takes about 2–3 hours and is associated with pitta, or the Fire and Water elements. During this stage the food interacts with the digestive enzymes in the lower stomach.
  • Stage 3 – Pungent stage or Katu occurs in the large intestine with the colon being the final seed. This stage takes about 1 ½–2 hours and is related to Vata, which is the Air and Space elements.  

Most people are aware of the “gross” digestive process in which food travels through the GI tract, separating nutrients from waste. However, we are generally unaware that once this process is finished, the body continues on with the “subtle” digestive process. Subtle digestion is the process of nourishing each tissue layer of the body in turn.

Once food has completed the gross digestive process, the nutrient fluid is then carried to each of the tissue layers, there are seven tissues (more on this in a later post).  The entire process of digestion takes about 36 days, ending with the creation of ojas—the most refined by-product of digestion. Ojas is the prime energy reserve of the body and the seat of our immune system. It protects life, gives us strength, controls our heartbeats, and maintains the balance of all of our tissues.

Ayurveda teaches us that the digestive process is complex, and undoubtedly crucial to our health and well-being. So, tend to your fire.

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