What is the gut-mind axis and how does my digestion work?
Food is a very hot topic; the hot potato! It has been forever, to the point where it has become difficult to know whose advice to take. A good place to start, therefore, and with a statement that I hope most will agree with is that ‘food is medicine’, or at least it should be. If it is not, it can be with a few adjustments. All food and medicine is more effective if consumed orally, but the next and most critical point to food being medicine is the importance of how it is digested. This happens via one of the body’s digestive fires (agni). Therein lies the reason why the body will sometimes reject IV or injected medicines.
Long story short; good digestion is key.
In Ayurveda, the three dosha, Vata, Pitta and Kapha contain different combinations of the five elements: Vata comprises air and ether, Pitta brings heat with fire and water whereas Kapha is the cooler partnership of water and earth. All foods contain all the five elements but in different amounts and combinations.
Take an apple as an example; its predominant elements are air and water. These elements would therefore impact on all of the three dosha but other factors now come into the picture such as the consumer’s power of digestion and how the apple has been prepared. The preparation will increase or decrease the qualities of the apple, which in turn do the same to the body’s elemental balances.
A few years ago I made a new friend across the pond in America. We had a really animated Facetime chat about diet and health, and shared our own experiences of illness and the road to recovery. I am sure that in any discipline, whether old or new, all would agree that good digestion is the key to wellness. My new friend Kelly was particularly interested in the gut-brain axis as this aspect of health formed part of her PHD. I could relate to this from an Ayurvedic perspective as the Prana Vayu, the brain’s hunger centre, is directly linked to the stimulation of the stomach agni.
Of the forty agni, this one in the stomach is the main one. In Ayurveda it is called the jatharagni. If this fire is not properly stoked and tended to, it won’t function well and, in turn, this will affect the rest of the process. With reference to the five elements previously mentioned, the liver is the seat of the digestion of the five elements known as the bhuta agni. The bhuta agni powers the elemental metabolism of what we eat. It yields the twenty qualities or gunas of our food. These gunas are what nourish the body and mind. At this point we can refer back to the gut-mind axis and to draw some similarities between the various approaches to good eating and how the mind-body or gut-brain axis is so pivotal (not literally!) to our good health.
Each of the Bhuta agnis process their respective element from the food consumed. The Bhuta agni nourishes the dhatu in each of the seven stages of digestion. The way this works is that the Bhuta agnis act upon an element, which then feeds a dhatu via a specific digestive process. At this stage digestion happens on a cellular level. The thyroid is the bridge between the Bhuta agnis and the 7 dhatu and so becomes a critical link in the digestive process and in good health. So if your thyroid is not performing at its best, this may affect the process.
On a cellular level pilu and pithara agnis process and digest food. Pithara agni nourishes the mind and consciousness (according to the prakruti). The mind and senses are nourished by both pila and pithara agnis. The link between the mind and gut must be considered before consumption of the food! All foods fall into one of three categories: Sattvic, Rajasic or Tamasic. The nature of the foods feeds the mind and will cause mental or mano ama if not correctly chosen.
Indriya agni is the gateway to nourishment of the senses; ‘the doors of perception’. The journey is as follows: Bhuta agni, indriya agni, 5 tanmantras of the mind and sadhaka Pitta.
In Ayurveda, the ether element corresponds to consciousness and it occupies the space around the cells as well as in them. It is also said that thoughts, feelings and emotions are passed on genetically. This genetic memory of the majja dhatu can date back various generations.