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By Nadia Marshall
This is a copy of Nadia’s Nutrition Column for Nova Magazine, published in Jan 2013
January has arrived and along with it, festive season recovery mode.
In all the New Year inspiration you may have made some bold resolutions to ‘get healthy’ or ‘lose weight’…. but as you come down from the holiday high and face real life again, the way forward to achieve these goals may not seem so clear and motivation may be seriously lacking. This is partly because choosing a get healthy/lose weight path when there is so much on offer can be difficult. But it is also because your body and mind are literally in a post-festive fog. And in a fog, nothing is clear!
But my friends, there is no need to panic. All you need to do is lift the fog. From an Ayurvedic perspective, this fog has a name and it is called ‘Ama’. It refers to undigested or poorly digested food waste, accumulated toxins taken in from the environment and waste materials in the body that haven’t been properly eliminated. It is an inevitable visitor at this time of year due to our inability to completely digest the excesses of the festive season!
Ama is not an imaginary substance. It is real and tangible. You can see it, feel it and smell it in your body. It is a thick, heavy, sticky, stinky substance… a little like old mucous or fermented Clag glue (I know because I’ve seen it!). This charming substance accumulates in our digestive tract and is usually burnt up by our digestive fire. But when our digestion is imbalanced or we’ve put it under undue stress for any length of time, our Ama load can become too much to handle. Rather than staying in the digestive tract, it can overflow into the channels and tissues of the body, hampering cellular nutrition and waste disposal and causing blockages and inflammation.
Ayurveda teaches that this accumulation and movement of Ama is the root cause of all disease, from the common cold to cancer. It is also the main cause of weight gain. So developing the skill of noticing when Ama has increased in our bodies and taking measures to help eliminate it is one of the best preventative medicine and weight maintenance techniques we can adopt in our lives. It won’t just lift the fog, it will actually help us achieve those New Year goals and sustain them, so we never have to make them again!
The symptoms of Ama in the body are many but they include:
• a thick coating on your tongue in the mornings
• bad breath
• bad/strong smelling body odour, urine and faeces
• general aches and pains, especially in your joints
• regular symptoms of indigestion (e.g. burning sensations or reflux, heaviness, gas, bloating or pain after eating)
• regular disturbed appetite (e.g. a low/dull appetite or very changeable appetite)
• feeling weak, like all the strength has been sapped out of your muscles and
• feeling tired and lethargic despite plenty of sleep.
But Ama doesn’t just affect the body, it also affects the mind so other symptoms include:
• feeling foggy in the head, particularly behind the eyes
• having difficulty making decisions
• a lack of attention
• a general lack of enthusiasm or mild depression and irritability.
Sound familiar? Although it doesn’t have an exact term for it, modern medicine recognises Ama as well. Excess cholesterol, free radicals, advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), transfatty acids, uric acid and homocystein are all forms of Ama. It also acknowledges accumulated metabolic wastes as the root cause of a number of diseases, including atherosclerosis (blockage of the arteries due to problems with cholesterol metabolism), gallstones (from sludgy bile), gouty arthritis (due to excess uric acid from improper protein metabolism), kidney stones (from a build up of oxalic acid or calcium) and Alzheimer’s (accumulated amyloid plaques are thought to contribute to the degradation of neurons). Western Medicine also credits inflammation as a key underlying factor in many chronic disease but does not, as yet, address what causes the inflammation in the first place. (1)
So what do we do about all this Ama? What we shouldn’t do is give ourselves a hard time or get all anxious about our Ama load. It is an inevitable consequence of all the fun we’ve just had and is reasonably easily antidoted with a little common sense.
Ayurvedic common sense always comes down to one rule, Like Increases Like. This means, if we introduce certain qualities into our body through our senses these qualities will increase in our body. It also means if we have an excess of certain qualities in our body, we simply need to apply the opposite qualities to antidote the situation and return to balance.
Our post festive season Ama fog has come about through three main actions that are harmful to digestion:
• Overeating (and overdrinking): if we overeat at every meal and start eating before our previous meal has been digested, our digestion has a hard time keeping up.
• Eating too much heavy food: meat, eggs, bread, pasta, milk, cheese, cream, icecream and nuts are all heavy and difficult to digest and, when eaten in excess, put a big strain on our digestion.
• Eating too many different foods at once: our digestion prefers simplicity and can be overwhelmed by smorgasbord, cocktail party or three course meal situations where we’re eating loads of different foods at once.
To break this down further, the three qualities we are suffering from at this time of year are EXCESS, HEAVINESS and COMPLEXITY. What are the opposite qualities to these? MODERATION, LIGHTNESS and SIMPLICITY. So this is the medicine. Makes sense, right?!
Rather than going on some chemist-bought detox program, cabbage soup diet, juice fast or colonic irrigation extravaganza (or whatever other extreme approaches are out there), you just need to eat moderate amounts of light, simple foods for a few weeks and you’ll burn up some excess Ama, rekindle your digestive fire and feel better again in no time. If you need to, you’ll probably also lose a little weight.
The problem with more extreme approaches is that although they may detox your system, they also generally disrupt your digestion. And an imbalanced digestive fire soon leads to the creation of more Ama. So you want to gently detox while looking after your Agni at the same time, not thrashing it further.
Below are ten simple dietary and lifestyle guidelines you can follow to reduce Ama in your body and rekindle your digestive fire.
Happy New Year!
Guidelines for Reducing Ama & Improving Digestion
1. Relax as much as possible when eating. Choosing a pleasant environment and taking three deep breaths at the beginning of the meal can help.
2. Try to eat meals at a similar time each day; your digestive fire is strengthened by regularity and weakened by irregularity.
3. Begin the day with a ginger, lemon and honey tea before eating breakfast; add ¼ tsp fresh grated ginger to boiled water along with a squeeze of lemon and a tsp of good quality honey.
4. Gently scrape the Ama from your tongue each morning with a tongue scraper or the back of a teaspoon before brushing your teeth.
5. Sip hot water throughout the day (add some lemon if you don’t like the taste) and avoid cold food and drinks; this has a huge impact on your Ama load.
6. Exercise every day for 20-30 minutes (walking, yoga and swimming are great) to help generate warmth and circulation in the body and relax the mind.
7. Only eat fresh fruit on its own, between meals as a snack. Eaten with other foods (especially dairy products) can lead fruit to ferment in your belly, creating Ama.
8. Favour warm, cooked, unprocessed, simple vegetarian meals. If you want to eat a salad, have it as part of a meal rather than the whole meal.
9. Cook with fresh herbs and organic spices to aid digestion such as ginger, turmeric, cumin, fennel, cinnamon, basil, coriander and parsley.
10. Have a heavier lunch (if you want to eat meat, this is the time to have it) and a lighter vegetarian dinner; soups or daals are great.
If you are in any doubt about your health please be sure to consult an Ayurvedic Practitioner or your local health physician.
Lifting The Festive Fog
Agni - the digestive fire.
Ama or Aama - undigested food waste, toxins.
Ojas- the foundation of our immune system and longevity.
Dhatus - the tissues of the body.
Srotas - the channels of the body.
Vata - the air/ether
intelligence in the body.
Pitta- the fire/water
intelligence in the body.
Kapha- the water/earth intelligence in the body.
Sattva- the quality of purity, intelligence, peace and love.
Rajas- the quality of
turbulence and activity.
Tamas- the quality of
dullness, darkness and inertia.
Rasa - the taste of a food (Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, Astringent)
Virya - second level of digestion (either Heating or Cooling)
Vipaka - third level of digestion, the deep taste of a food (can be Sweet, Sour or Pungent)
Prabhav - the 'special effect' of a food or herb/spice
Rasa - also the name for plasma tissue
Rakta - blood tissue
Mamsa - muscle tissue
Meda - fat tissue
Asthi - bone tissue
Majja - nerve & bone marrow tissue
Shukra - sexual reproductive tissue