Written by John Immel,
IntroductionAre you lethargic, sluggish, and heavy throughout the day? Do you feel like there is a food bomb lodged in your belly after meals, that makes you feel sleepy? If so, food stagnation may be the source of your discomfort. This article will outline what food stagnation is, how it could be weighing you down, and most importantly, how to clear it so you can return to feeling fresh, light, and energetic as you go about your day.
Food stagnation occurs when your digestive strength (agni) is so weak, that food sits in your gut, waiting to be digested. This undigested food can linger stagnant for hours, or even days, leading to a heavy feeling in the stomach, burping, and toxic accumulation (ama). There are several types of food stagnation, each of which will be discussed shortly.
Food stagnation can be temporary, say following a birthday celebration or a Thanksgiving feast. A bout of overindulgence puts excess strain on the digestive system, causing discomfort and nausea. This tends to pass within a day once you manage to digest the meal. However, food stagnation can become chronic to the point that every meal, no matter the size, makes it feel like there is a lead weight stuck in your gut. Food stagnation can be remedied with an Ayurvedic diet and digestive herbs, and this article will show you how.
What is Food Stagnation?Food stagnation occurs when a meal remains static in the digestive tract. This happens when there is delayed gastric emptying, a condition known as gastroparesis. Digestive organs tend to hold on to food until it is prepared for the next step of digestion. For example, the stomach doesn't want to let go of its contents until proteins have been broken down and food has been turned into a partially digested liquid called chyme.
If a person has weak digestion, or naturally slow digestion (mandagni), their stomach acids may not be strong enough to break down more difficult to digest foods like protein. A diet rich in sweet foods and dairy products tends to create more mucus accumulation in the stomach (kledaka kapha). This mucus slows digestion because stomach acids cannot penetrate the mucus. Dehydration, poor circulation, or deficient blood may also lead to food stagnation, as digestion requires a steady supply of fluids and strong blood. Low metabolism, secondary to hypothyroid, may also slacken the digestive rate.
Food Stagnation & OvereatingThere are three main types of food stagnation in Ayurveda. The most common type of food stagnation is caused by overeating, or eating excessive amounts of gooey, sweet, rich, oily, and cold food. These foods, such as wheat, cheese, and ice cream, are all heavy, cold, and difficult to digest. They lead to excess mucus production, and this mucus obstructs the action of stomach acids, further weakening digestion. It starts to feel like there is a heavy bomb in the stomach that can linger for days.
This type of food stagnation is related to Kapha dosha. When severe, you make wake up with no appetite and feelings of nausea the next day, a sign you have not fully digested your meal from the previous evening. This is also why if you've eaten too close to bedtime, you may feel sick at the sight of breakfast. In this case, it is essential to stop eating at least three hours before bed to ensure the digestive system has enough time to break down the meal.
Food Stagnation & DeficiencyIt is not just overeating or over indulging that leads to food stagnation. If a person has weak digestive strength, they will also not be able to fully digest their food. The food will linger in the digestive tract and start to ferment, creating gas and bloating. This type of food stagnation is due to dryness in the digestive tract, which usually occurs as a result of dehydration. Digestive organs need adequate fluids to break down food, and a dry digestive tract tends to lack sufficient secretions of digestive enzymes. Dry type of food stagnation occurs most often in Vata predominant individuals. If a person tends towards cold conditions, such as anemia (Vata), poor circulation (Vata), and low metabolism (Kapha), they are more likely to experience food stagnation. Cold or deficient blood lacks energy. So, even if blood flow is normal, the reduced energy in the blood is insufficient to power the digestive organs. Food stagnation may also be linked with feelings of stress and anxiety too. When you are feeling anxious, the sympathetic nervous system, or "fight or flight" mode, is activated. In this stage, blood flow is redirected away from digestive organs and into the limbs. Without ample blood flow, digestive strength is depleted, leading to undigested food and stagnation in the gut.
Food Stagnation & Hot ClimatesAnother type of food stagnation occurs in hot climates. You may notice if you vacation to a warmer location, your appetite can be lower than normal. This also tends to happen after a session in a sauna, or a hot yoga class. When the weather is warmer, blood vessels near the surface of the skin dilate. This brings body heat close to the skin where it radiates out of the body. As the largest organ in your body, the movement of blood to the skin causes a loss of blood flow to digestive organs, depressing agni.
With all of the heat and energy at your skin instead of digestive organs, your digestive strength is actually weaker than normal. When it's hot out, people love to eat ice cream. But ice cream is difficult to digest, and makes the symptoms of food stagnation worse. If you ignore the sensations of lower appetite and continue to eat as normal, your stomach will be overwhelmed with too much food, not enough blood. It will be unable to break down the food, and will lead to food stagnation. This type of food stagnation is more common in Pitta types.
How to Clear Food StagnationSo now you know the different types of food stagnation, but how do you go about combating this unwanted digestive sluggishness? Aromatics are considered the most effective remedy in Ayurveda for clearing food stagnation. Aromatic herbs and spices, such as cardamom and hing, stimulate gastric emptying and propell stagnant food from the stomach into the small intestine.
Spices stimulate digestion and encourage the movement of food through the digestive tract. Both cardamom and hing also clear excess cold, damp mucus in the stomach that may be leading to food stagnation. Pungent, spices like black pepper, and herbal digestives like trikatu also clear out a cold, stagnant digestive tract and stimulate digestive secretions. Pungent spices can also help stimulate circulation that can become thick and sluggish in food stagnation.
Heating blood thinners and circulatory stimulants, like turmeric and cloves, help liquefy and circulate thick, sweet blood, encouraging blood flow to digestive organs. In slow digestion, there may also be low bowel motility. Herbs that are bitter in taste, like bitter orange peel and Joyful Belly's custom formula Digestive Bitters, help stimulate peristalsis. Avoid heavy foods that aggravate Kapha, and favor a lighter diet in this type of food stagnation.
If food stagnation is caused by dryness or deficiency in the digestive tract, rehydrate with warm water, a pinch of mineral salt, and a squeeze of lime juice. When digestive strength is weak or lacking sufficient secretion of enzymes, hingvastak churna may be appropriate. If stress or anxiety is disrupting digestive function, learn how to belly breathe to switch the body into "rest and digest" mode which increases digestive secretions. Avoid difficult to digest foods, and instead favor easy foods that balance Vata.
If blood is deficient or anemic, increase strength with blood builders such as chyavanprash, and stimulate more blood flow to the GI tract with pungent spices.
In food stagnation caused by hot climates, mild digestives such as avipattikar churna will keep digestion strong without overheating the body, as will adding cilantro and fennel seeds to your food. Stay hydrated with coconut water, and eliminate excessively oily or heavy foods that aggravate Pitta. Eat lightly until appetite your returns.
SummaryIf your appetite is low and you feel heavy, bogged down, and sluggish after eating, it is very possibly that food stagnation is at the root of your problems. Clearing food stagnation is crucial, as it can lead to a number of other digestive problems such as poor absorption of nutrients, ama accumulation, and intense feelings of nausea. While food stagnation comes in many forms, it is most often a result of a rich diet, or eating beyond your body's needs.
In all types of food stagnation, eat lightly until that heavy feeling in the stomach subsides and practice these 10 habits to improve digestion. By continuing to eat your normal diet or eating heavy, difficult to digest foods, you will only add more strain on your stomach and worsen food stagnation. Favor easy to digest meals such as grandma's chicken soup or kitchari for a few days. Learning to eat more mindfully will also help you tune in to the signals your body is sending you.
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About the AuthorJohn Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda. His approach to Ayurveda exudes a certain ease, which many find enjoyable and insightful. His online course Balance Your Ayurvedic Diet in a Week provides tools for gracefully healing with Ayurveda to thousands. John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda , which specializes in digestive tract pathology & Ayurvedic nutrition. John and his wife Natalie recently published Explore Your Hunger: A Guide to Hunger, Appetite & Food.
John's interest in Ayurveda and digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, including his public service work in South Asia. John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion. John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing. In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.
John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots, and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church. Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick. That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well.
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