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Ayurveda is an ancient system of healing, possibly the oldest system to which we still have access today. Unlike modern Western medicine, developed over the centuries through careful scientific experimentation and observation, Ayurveda was originally a complete system of healing revealed to the Rishis in ancient India (Sharma, 2019). While some of the subtleties have inevitably been lost through the sands of time or remain within the oral tradition, Ayurveda remains an energetic healing system, where the body is considered as a whole and certain subtle energetic forces, still invisible to the sophisticated technologies of our modern world, are understood to be the higher cause of all physical manifestations of dis-ease and suffering. Thus, as the body of Western medical knowledge continues to grow, we are beginning to develop an understanding that is in line with the ancient texts, but views the functions of the body though a different perspective. One example of this is the digestive system and how it interacts with the rest of the body and we will explore this in more detail in the following paragraphs.

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While Western science prefers to view subjects and parts of the human body in isolation and considers the whole as a collection of many individual parts, Ayurveda takes a more holistic approach and prefers to start from the viewpoint of broader concepts which are then broken down into their specific functions. Two of the most important of these concepts in Ayurveda are Agni and Ama.

Agni is the Sanskrit word for the Fire element. In Ayurveda, as well as other ancient healing systems, elements are not the same as those referred to by modern science. Rather than single building blocks of matter, they should be thought of more as different possible states of matter (Sharma, 2019). The Fire element, Agni, is the state in which matter is transforming. While this state of matter is present throughout creation, it is a vitally important state throughout the human body. The concept of Agni governs a wide range of processes including digestion, absorption, assimilation and metabolism. Agni covers not only the physical processes, but also the transformation and assimilation of sensations, emotions and thoughts. There is hardly a more important concept in Ayurveda. It is even said that a man is as old as his Agni’ (Lad, 2002).

The broad concept of Agni is broken down into 40 primary types, each governing a different process within the body. These encompass the various stages of breaking down food in the digestive system, regulating metabolism and the immune system, detoxification in the liver, assimilation of nutrients into cells and tissues, assimilation of sensory inputs and the processing and elimination of waste products (Sharma, 2019). There are also more minor types of Agni, with a specific type assigned to each and every function, tissue and subtle energy within the human body. While Agni is often simplified into Western terms as the “digestive fire”, it is evident from the above that it is a far broader concept which encompasses functions throughout the body and is not limited to the digestive system.

Agni, as the state of transformation of matter, is itself classified as being in one of four possible states (Lad, 2002, Sharma 2019):

  1. Sama Agni: when the Agni is in a state of equilibrium due to the balance of energies in the body being stable and in balance. As a result, the person’s bodily and mental functions are also healthy and stable.
  2. Vishama Agni: where Agni is erratic and fluctuating due to a disturbed Vata dosha within the body. All of the functions in the body thus become erratic and unstable, with a tendency towards the production of gas, abdominal distention and irregular appetite. Associated emotional states can include anxiety, fear and insecurity.
  3. Tikshna Agni: where the Agni is increased due to an elevated level of the Pitta dosha. This can result in an elevated metabolism, greater appetite, and increased emotions like anger, hate and envy. There is a tendency towards having loose bowel movements.
  4. Manda Agni: where the Agni is suppressed due to an elevated level of the Kapha dosha. This can result in a reduced metabolism, lower appetite, weight gain and oedema. There is a tendency towards constipation, congestion and mucus accumulation.

The most important type of Agni is called Jathari Agni. This is the aforementioned “digestive fire” and resides in the lower part of the stomach and the upper part of the duodenum. In modern Western understanding, Jathari Agni corresponds directly to the hydrochloric acid produced by the stomach. As the gateway to the digestive system and thus the rest of the body, this is the most important type of Agni because all remaining stages of digestion depend on its proper function. If Jathara Agni is low, this will directly lead to the formation of Ama in the body – a concept that we will explore below. In Western terms, low Jathari Agni will result in incomplete digestion of proteins, leading to the growth of toxic putrefactive bacteria in the colon and more pathogenic bacteria passing into the small intestine, potentially leading to SIBO and associated issues. In turn, these bacteria alter their environment and can lead to the proliferation of other pathogens including parasites and yeasts like Candida Albicans which can cause further damage and compromise the integrity of the gut wall (Sharma, 2019). Low Jathari Agni also leads to lower secretions of pancreatic enzymes, reducing the digestion and assimilation of foods, leading to malnutrition and the proliferation of more bacteria which then release further toxins into the intestinal tract.

Specific remedies have been suggested by Ayurveda to correct low Agni. These include drinking lemon and ginger tea, the herbal combination trikatu, avoiding faulty food combinations and the use of spices in cooking which help to stimulate Agni (Sharma, 2019). One should also consider the physical and mental environment in which one eats, with calm, warm, happy states being helpful for the kindling of Agni.

Possibly the second most important concept in Ayurveda is Ama. Ama is a toxic substance that harms the body and is considered by Ayurveda to be the beginning of all disease – disease is called maya meaning “that which is born out of ma”. Ama is defined in three ways by the sutras (Lad, 2007):

  1. Undigested or poorly digested food that has not been absorbed in the intestinal tract. This is the type of Ama caused by depleted Jathari Agni.
  2. The accumulation of toxic impurities that should have been eliminated from the body, through one of the three malas (elimination channels) – urine, faeces and sweat.
  3. More localised toxins specific to certain tissues or cells as opposed to being formed or present in the intestinal tract.

Agni and Ama are directly related – as stated above, if Jathari Agni is not functioning fully, food is not properly digested and this leads to the formation of Ama. This is reflected by the qualities attributed to each of the concepts by Ayurveda: Agni is light, sharp, subtle, hot while Ama is heavy, dull, gross and cold – they have exactly the opposite qualities of one another; thus a decrease in Agni increases Ama and vice versa (Lad, 2007). In addition, Ama can also be formed by a range of faulty eating habits like eating processed, hard to digest or cold foods, over eating, eating while under emotional stress and combining foods in the wrong way (Sharma, 2019). Essentially anything that makes life harder for Agni will tend to generate more Ama. Furthermore, Ama can accumulate if the elimination channels of the body are blocked or not functioning optimally or as a result of local infections, nutrient and/or energetic imbalances within the tissues. Finally, a more subtle form of Ama can also be produced by unresolved or repressed emotions (Lad, 2007).

Ama generally begins to accumulate first in the intestinal tract due to faulty digestion (lack of Agni). Once accumulated, it starts to pass into the body and then travels around through the various channels before lodging in weak or damaged tissues in the body. This can then negatively affect the function of these tissues, leading to further local formation of Ama. Ama is thought to be relatively easy to remove when it is still in the intestinal tract, but much harder once it has settled into the tissues of the body (Sharma, 2019).

While low Agni is condition for the formation of Ama, it is also considered to be its best remedy. Ama is thought of as a cold, sticky, cheese-like substance and it is the heat of the transformative fire, Agni, which has the power to mobilise it and move it out of the body. Ayurveda’s process for removing Ama from the body is called Ama Pachana. This is a 1-2 week detoxification regime involving drinking lots of warm water, lemon and ginger teas and eating easy to digest foods like dhals and soups. A primarily liquid diet is followed, with the largest meal at midday when Agni is at its highest. The regime may be assisted with the use of Ayurvedic herbal combinations like triphala and chyawanprash, the use of castor oil as a laxative and self-massage with other oils. This might also be combined with a yoga and pranayama regime (Sharma, 2019).

Just how vital the concepts of Agni and Ama are in Ayurveda and for the maintenance and restoration of the human body is evident from the above. While modern Western science has made great advances in its understanding of how the body operates, its Cartesian viewpoint and vested interests in profit prevent it from being as effective as it could be in helping people to obtain and preserve their optimal state of well-being. Since all disease is thought to begin in the gut, through aggravations of Agni and Ama, more attention to these concepts could bear valuable fruit for all.

Are you struggling with digestive imbalance, toxicity or other related symptoms? I specialise in helping people overcome these problems. Learn more about my programs here.


Lad, V, 2002, Textbook of Ayurveda Volume 1: Fundamental Principles, The Ayurvedic Press, Albuquerque, NM, USA.

Lad, V, 2007, Textbook of Ayurveda Volume 2: A Complete Guide to Clinical Assessment, The Ayurvedic Press, Albuquerque, NM, USA.

Sharma, M, 2019, School of Health Naturopathy Course Notes, Ayurveda, The School of Health, Stroud, UK

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