How Healthy Digestion Supports the Immune System
Ayurveda considers strong digestion to be the foundation of one’s overall health. Optimal wellness is experienced when a variety of factors come together in a harmonious, interdependent bodily system that directly impacts the way we feel and the way we experience life. Though each of the factors that contribute to health are dependent on each other, the digestive system is the cornerstone of overall health. Strong digestion nourishes our tissues, which then cultivates ojas (or immunity) in the body so that we can experience wholeness. The journey to uncover one’s intrinsic health is best begun by honing in on the digestive system.
The Digestive Process
A strong digestive system thoroughly absorbs the available nutrients from food and properly and consistently eliminates waste and ama (toxic buildup) from the body. Healthy digestion is rhythmic – it brings harmony and balance to the mind and body.
The digestive process begins with the food we put into our mouths. From there, food follows the esophagus where it arrives in the stomach and moves on into the small intestine. Then, digestion enters the post-digestive process where nutrients from the digested food are absorbed into the bloodstream and then distributed amongst the seven dhatus.
The 7 Dhatus
- Plasma (Rasa)
- 2. Blood (Rakta)
- Muscle (Mamsa)
- Fat (Meda)
- Bone (Asthi)
- Bone marrow and nerve (Majja)
- Reproductive fluid (Shukra)
These dhatus refer to the different layers of tissues in the body, all of which nourish each other and together contribute to the body’s immunity and vitality. The best way to keep the dhatus healthy is to maintain balance of the doshas in the body, and that balance is greatly impacted by the strength of one’s digestion.
As you can see, different components of the body rely on each other like a series of dominoes–the quality of one affects the quality of the rest. Similarly, each phase of the digestive process functions in a sequential order. The overall quality of the digestive system depends on the quality of one’s digestive fire. Called agni in Ayurveda, the quality of the fire sets the stage for either a thorough or disruptive digestive process.
Agni – Digestive Fire
Each of the 5 main elements (air, wind, fire, ether, and water) play an important role in the overall functioning of the body. Fire’s primary role is to transform, assimilate, and metabolize, and that process is most prevalent in the digestive process. Agni is the fire of the digestive system and is the primary inner flame of the body.
Among other things, its main responsibility is to break down and absorb the nutrition available in the foods we eat. Our digestive flame can be weak and ineffective, overly active and destructive, or it can be strong and balanced. The condition of agni impacts its ability to support the health of the body.
Factors that influence the strength of agni:
- Quality of food: Many aspects influence the quality of the food we consume including its origins (how far has the food traveled?), the methods used to grow it (organic versus chemical agriculture), whole versus processed foods, and fresh versus leftover foods. Ayurveda also suggests eating warm and cooked foods because they are easier for the body to digest than cold or raw foods.
- Eating habits: The frequency in which we consume food and the reasons for doing so impact agni. Snacking is discouraged in Ayurveda, especially when it’s fueled by an emotional desire, boredom, or pleasure. The primary role of food is to nourish and sustain the body rather than to treat stress or fulfill an underlying need. Strong agni is built by eating full meals and at regular times in the day so that the digestive system can function routinely.
- Environment: Ayurveda believes that digestion is affected by our external environment while eating a meal. Engaging in a heated or stressful conversation while eating, or mindlessly watching TV while we spoon food into our mouths will negatively impact the quality of digestion. Conversely, expressing gratitude before eating and taking time to enjoy one’s meal will support digestion.
The body is unable to fully absorb nutrients if the digestive fire is weak. This impacts the nourishment of the seven tissues of the body which ultimately diminishes the quality of ojas, the force that maintains vitality and governs the immune system.
Ojas and Immunity
Ojas is the treasure that comes at the end of a harmonious and strong digestive process. It has been described as a fluid that is white, soft, and sweet, and has been compared in texture to honey. Ojas is the essence that nourishes the tissues, maintains vitality, and protects the body from disease. It also supports agni and the digestive process, which in turn produces ojas, forming a symbiotic relationship.
In Ayurveda, ojas is so closely connected to immunity that the two are nearly synonymous. Similar to the kapha dosha, ojas cultivates strength, nourishment, and regeneration, all of which protect and sustain the body through stress and illness.
In Western society we tend to turn our focus outward when it comes to health and immunity. Gloves, facemasks, and hand-sanitizer may make us feel more protected from pathogenic threats; however, an authentic and robust immunity, developed within ourselves, is our true first line of defense. Our vulnerability to poor health, and our susceptibility to illness is directly impacted by the health of our internal environment. The more we cultivate ojas, the more protected we are from poor health.
Whole body digestion refers to the body’s exposure to and processing of everything it comes into contact with, internally and externally. Food therefore isn’t the only thing that impacts the digestive system and cultivates ojas. The energy of ojas is impacted by the quality of our relationships, our daily habits, our sleep patterns, the amount of joy versus stress in our lives, and even the extent to which we feel aligned with our life’s purpose. Even the mind affects ojas. The more ease and joy we have in the mind, the stronger our ojas.
There are a number of ways to produce ojas in the body, including:
- Eat a nourishing diet. Eliminate unwholesome foods, incompatible foods, processed and junk foods, and replace them with plant based and organic foods.
- Abhyanga or self-massage. Spend time daily or weekly massaging and nurturing your skin, tissues, and organs.
- Relax. Don’t be constantly preoccupied or overexert yourself. Create space in your day to slow down and be present in the moment.
- Align yourself with love and compassion by developing supportive thought patterns and behaviors.
- Make it a priority to get enough sleep each night.
- Build healthy habits into your life and reduce unhealthy habits, like the intake of excessive alcohol, smoking, and overuse of recreational drugs.
- Practice yoga and pranayama regularly.
- Get enough exercise or physical movement (at least twenty minutes) each day or at least several days per week.
- Prioritize your community and focus on developing positive relationships in your life. It’s especially beneficial to spend time simply laughing and connecting with others.
If this list makes you feel overwhelmed, then simply relax and prioritize one thing at a time. Health is not something to chase after with urgency but to patiently and consistently uncover layer by layer. One small action at a time will lead to long-term change in your life.
Maintaining a strong digestive system is critical to our health and immunity. Ojas can’t be swallowed in pill form or injected into us; it can only be individually and internally produced. To do this, we must first focus on strengthening our agni, our digestive fire. Only then will we thoroughly nourish our tissues, increasing our ojas, and forever protecting and supporting us through life.
The overall health of mind, body, and spirit is the result of a harmonious system that either stays in balance, or falls out of balance, depending on the choices we make. Knowing this, we become empowered with the ability to make choices that will lead to wellbeing and vitality.