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By Nadia Marshall
We don't often see these two words together in articles about food or health? But we should because Anxiety (or Stress) and Digestion have an incredibly intimate relationship.... whatever way you look at it - Eastern or Western Medicine.
I have experienced this relationship my whole life but never truly understood the extent of it until early 2008. I was undergoing a very stressful time in my life.... quitting my secure corporate job that I'd been doing for 7 years to venture into the unknown of self-employment, starting up the Mudita Institute and writing a book. I was very excited... but mostly terrified. To make matters worse, I had to review my job before I left it and make recommendations to Senior Management of how it should be changed... which meant justifying every move or decision I'd made in the last 7 years. It was yukky and I was killer anxious. So anxious that I stopped digesting food altogether.
I was quitting my job to write a book about digestion (The AGNI Course) so suddenly being unable to digest my food was stressful (and embarrassing) to say the least! What do I mean by being 'unable to digest food'? Well, if I ate anything, my stomach would burn and then move into full-scale agonising spasms for 2-3 hours after eating. It was so painful, I couldn't move. I applied all of the antidotes I knew about to be kind to my AGNI but they didn't work. This was something else. And so I became terrified of eating too! Which made it worse...
From an Ayurvedic perspective, I had incredibly aggravated Vata (due to all the anxiety) that, in turn was flaring up my Pitta. As a result, my stomach lining had become inflamed so when I ate, it burned... and then my excess Vata caused the muscles of my digestive system to spasm. The only antidote was Kapha-genic foods that would pacify both Vata and Pitta - warm milk, milky porridges, milky desserts, cheese and pasta with ghee. So that is what I ate for a month, while also drinking a special herbal tea from Kester. From a Western perspective, I had a form of stress-induced gastritis. I had a history of stomach ulcers in my family so thought this was the beginning of something big... BUT...the day after I left my corporate job, it went away. The very next day!! All of the symptoms disappeared. It took me another week or so to re-introduce all the foods I usually ate but before long, I was completely back to normal (well, my normal anyway). Amazing!
Why tell this story? Only to point out that Anxiety and Digestion are directly connected... and that we can do all the wonderful things in the world to help our AGNI, but if we don't address our anxiety (whether obvious or subtle), our digestion will never be optimal. It will never be entirely balanced.
Why? It is all to do with the Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems, both part of our Autonomic Nervous System (which is in charge of the UNCONSCIOUS regulation of our organs and glands). Our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is responsible for our 'rest-and-digest' activities including sexual arousal, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination, digestion and defecation. Our Sympathetic Nervous System, on the other hand, is responsible for our 'fight-or-flight' response. These two systems are naturally opposing or complementary - when one is ON, the other one is OFF (or at least not quite so ON). So, when the SNS is on, Digestion is switched off. When we're being attacked by a bear, we need our blood in other parts of our body to stay alive... we don't need it in our digestive system!
The problem is, with the way we live our lives these days, our SNS is switched ON more often than not. Many of us feel like we're being attacked by bears all the time! Our Vata is aggravated, our Anxiety (or Stress) is constant and our Digestion is shot as a result. We literally can't improve it because our nervous system is unconsciously switching everything off!
So, the last thing we want to do is add more anxiety to our lives by stressing out about food!
Let preparing, eating and enjoying food be a time of relaxation... of celebration... of fun and enjoyment!! A peaceful time. If this means you have to eat out a few times a week to get this feeling, then do it. Just choose a place you love and give yourself enough time to not be rushed through the experience. And when you're at cooking at home, try and channel your inner Stephen Galpin or Jamie Oliver... bring peace, relaxation and joy to your cooking, no matter what you're making....
If you're a nervous or inexperienced cook then choose one easy dish and master it. Keep cooking it until it becomes second nature. Then, choose a second dish and master that. In this way, you can build a small, comfortable, delicious repertoire that you don't have to think or worry about. This is what I've done....
RELAXING and having fun around food, cooking and eating is the best possible thing you can do for your digestion. Start here. Stay here and always come back to here! No matter how much you learn about food, no matter how much you learn about yourself, no matter how much your head gets in the way... when it comes to food, try to experience it from your heart.
This has been a huge lesson for me... I hope you all learn it a little faster than I did xxxx
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