Posted on: by Alistair
Perhaps the most misunderstood concept in the health field today is that of toxins, particularly as they apply to the human body.
In Ayurveda, toxins are known as Ama. Ama is a sanskrit word that translates literally as “unidgested food”. According to Ayurveda, Ama forms in the body when our Agni (a sankrit term meaning “digestive fire”) is impaired and we are unable to fully digest the food we eat. This undigested food, rather than being excreted as waste, is absorbed into the bloodstream through the intestinal wall and travels around the body accumulating in places of congenital or acquired weakness.
The qualities of Ama are cold, damp, heavy, thick and sticky – much like the qualities of Kapha, however, where Kapha has an intelligent function, Ama is turbid, tends to ferment and brings about suppression of the Agni. When the Agni is affected, more Ama forms and its accumulation in the body disrupts the regular function of the Doshas ultimately manifesting in the form of a disease.
For a practical example of how Ama becomes a problem, let’s assume a fictitious person with an average digestion. They don’t pay attention to the order of eating, they eat late at night, exercise on a full stomach, etc. Despite their lack of attention to eating, this person produces only a single drop of Ama with each meal. Over the course of a year, this person will accumulate over 50ml of undigested food in their body and in ten years the Ama will amount to a highly significant volume: half a litre.
And this is where problems arise, when Ama reaches levels where the body can no longer function effectively. This is a slow process, disease does not arrive in our body overnight, there are warning signs and we ignore them at our peril. Constant headaches, dry and itchy skin, persistent joint aches, pain in the muscles – these are not signs of aging, these are signs of impending disease. When Ama has disrupted the regular function of the body for a long enough period, we fall “ill”.
So, how can we work to reduce the level of toxins we have in our body? How can we “detox”?
Extreme fasting, raw food diets, single food diets, gluten free diets – these are some of the suggestions put forth as a means to “detox” and restore our health. We are encouraged to follow these diets a couple of times a year, believing that the retox/detox cycle isn’t going to cause us health problems later in life. Ayurveda is clear on many of these options: they may reduce Ama in the short term but the longer term effects on Agni will lead to an increase of Ama in the body.
Confused? Given the amount and degree of misinformation regarding detoxing it’s not surprising.
Let’s take fasting as an example. In popular media this is often considered an ideal method to quickly detoxify the body, however, from an Ayurvedic perspective this method generally fails to produce the desired results. Fasting, or even undereating, for longer periods causes us to develop a Tikshna (meaning “sharp”) Agni. This Agni is useful for the removal of Ama from the body and this is the motivation behind many of the popular detox regimes. However, this action sets up an imbalance which persists long after the fast has come to an end. It is this imbalance which leads to an net increase in the amount of Ama in our system.
Fasting is used in Ayurveda to improve a person’s Agni when it has become Manda, meaning dull. In this instance, a day of fasting will clear away any stagnancy in the digestive tract and kindle the Agni so as to improve the efficiency and strength of digestion. This practice, performed intermittently, will do wonders for reducing the amount of Ama in the body over the long term.
In order to restore balance in the body there is little need to adopt a fad diet, take medication, or deprive the body of nourishment. By following Ayurveda’s principles of eating we can truly understand how our everyday habits and patterns affect our digestion.
Detoxing is not a singular exercise to be practiced in isolation. Embrace the holistic nature of living and eat today how you want to eat for the rest of your life. Make the right choices and a balanced Agni will have you detoxing – removing Ama – right up until your last day, without ever having to follow another fruitless fad eating regime.