Agni (Your Digestive Fire) and the Six Tastes!

ayurveda brain health healthy eating healthy recipes real food sugarfree Oct 23, 2022

We all know by now that our health depends on proper digestion.  Whatever we eat needs to be ingested, digested and absorbed through the lining of the digestive tract into the bloodstream, to be delivered wherever the body needs it.  

And it turns out nutrition is not limited just to what goes in our mouths. In the act of eating, we consume not only the calories, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients of the food, but we are also influenced by our emotional state while we eat, the environment in which we eat, and the manner in which the food is prepared.

The strength of our digestion is the most important factor in determining how well the food we eat will be digested, absorbed, and used by our body.

In Ayurveda, the metabolic power responsible for extracting nourishment and eliminating toxins is known as Agni—a Sanskrit word that means “fire.” Agni is the root of the English words ignition and ignite, and we can think of agni as our digestive fire. Just like a fire in a furnace, our digestive fire is capable of consuming even the heaviest fuel when it is burning brightly. 

When our agni is strong and healthy, we are able to extract the greatest level of nourishment from our diet.

The by-product of healthy digestion is known as Ojas, a Sanskrit word that means “vigour.”  Ojas is the pure substance that’s extracted from food, emotions, and experiences that have been completely digested. It is our life essence that gives us strength and vitality.

When Agni is strong, creating a lot of Ojas, we feel energized and enthusiastic.  Our digestion is strong, without bloating or constipation.  Our mind is clear.  We feel rested when we wake up.  And we rarely get sick.

On the other hand, when the digestive fire is weak or irregular, we are unable to completely digest our food, emotions, experiences, and information. As a result, our body accumulates what is known as Ama, or toxic residue.  Ama blocks the free flow of energy and information throughout our body, weakening our immune system and making us feel lethargic and tired.

Our dosha type influences the power of our agni

Vata types tend to be a little more delicate and are prone to irregular or weak digestion. They may easily lose their appetite or suffer from constipation, gas, or bloating. It’s particularly important for Vata types to pay attention to what they eat and to have meals at regular times each day.

Pitta types, on the other hand, are blessed with a naturally robust agni—the strongest of the three doshas. They have a hearty appetite and are said to be like goats, able to eat anything. However, sometimes a Pitta’s agni can be too strong, which can lead to health issues such as heartburn, loose stools, and acid reflux.

Kapha types tend to have a slow, steady agni and a strong appetite. However, their digestion can become sluggish when they are out of balance, and they can easily become lethargic and gain excess weight.

If you missed taking the Dosha test last week, be sure to check it out here:

And read more about it here: What’s Your Dosha?

Basically, it’s an inquiry into your basic physical characteristics, as well as your mental and emotional tendencies, to assess your respective mind-body constitutions at birth

The Six Tastes

We all know that eating is one of our most vital (and pleasurable) bodily functions. We nourish ourselves by converting the energy and information of our environment into the biological intelligence of our body. To create and maintain a healthy physiology:

  • our food needs to be nourishing,
  • our digestive power strong, and 
  • our elimination efficient. 

In Ayurveda, we cultivate health by eating a variety of fresh, delicious foods and tailoring our diet to balance our dosha type.

And before our eating habits were taken over by the adulterated tastes (too much sugar, salt and fat) of processed food products, we listened to our taste buds to determine which substances were edible and how much of them to consume. 

In her infinite wisdom, Nature has packaged food sources into one or more of six tastes as a way to inform us about the food’s influence on our mind-body physiology.

The six tastes are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent.

Including all six tastes in every meal not only ensures that all major food groups and nutrients are represented, but it also provides us with a feeling of satisfaction.  You have probably had the experience of feeling full but not completely satisfied after eating a portion of food. This is usually due to a failure to include all six tastes in your meal.

Food is made from the same five elements that make up the doshas: space, air, fire, water, and earth.  And each taste has an effect on Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.  When our doshas are out of balance, these six tastes can help repair this imbalance.

So what are the 6 tastes, and what effect do they have on the body?

Sweet is the taste of energy and is made up of the elements of water and earth.

For many of us, the sweet taste is the primary taste we include in our diet.  This includes not only sweet-tasting foods like honey, but also the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats that should always be included in every meal.  They provide lots of nutritional value, to build tissue and provide the energy to run our systems.

Sweet is the main taste in starchy foods like breads, pasta, and rice.  Milk, meat and fats are also sweet, as are sugar, honey, and molasses.  These foods typically have the most calories, and therefore give us energy, bring about satisfaction, and build body mass.  However, too much of the sweet taste can make our agni sluggish and dull.

Sour is the taste of acid and consists of the earth and fire elements.

The sour taste stimulates the production of digestive enzymes, and this is stimulating to the appetite.  It is beneficial for those trying to enhance a sluggish appetite but may be irritating to those suffering from heartburn.  The sour taste is found in foods like citrus fruits, yogurt, cheese, tomatoes, pickles, and vinegar.

Salty is the taste of the ocean and is made up of the water and fire elements.

It stimulates digestive juices, helps us hold onto water in the body, and enhances the other tastes.

The salty taste is found in many seafoods, salted meats, fish, and table salt.

Pungent is the spicy taste made up of the elements of air and fire.

Pungent foods enhance the appetite, improve digestion and encourage detoxification.  The pungent taste also promotes sweating and clears sinus passages.  

It is found in hot peppers, salsa, ginger, radishes, mustard, cloves, horseradish, and many spices.  This taste is helpful to those trying to increase the metabolism, but the heat may aggravate an existing Pitta imbalance.

Bitter consists of the air and space elements.

Bitter foods are detoxifying to the system.  The bitter taste promotes weight loss, but if eaten in excess may cause light-headedness, dryness, and low blood sugar.

It is the taste found in green leafy vegetables, broccoli, kale, sprouts, beets, and celery.

Astringent is made up of the air and earth elements.

It’s that “puckering” taste of tart foods.  It can be healing and drying.

Astringent is the taste found in beans, tea, coffee, tart apples, grape skins, cranberries, pomegranates, and cauliflower.  If eaten in excess, the astringent taste may cause gas or indigestion.

Eat all six tastes in each meal

One of the core lessons in Ayurvedic nutrition is to include all six tastes in every meal.

By including all six in each meal, the body intuitively sends signals to the brain when you're full and it's time to stop eating.  You'll feel more nourished and satisfied, and less likely to feel hungry later.  If your meal doesn't usually include all six tastes, try adding an ingredient or two. If that doesn't work, try to sample some foods with the missing tastes during the rest of your day.

Each of the six tastes provides important nutritional benefits that your body needs. While foods having salty, sour, pungent and astringent tastes may be used more for flavourings and garnishes, sweet (real foods, not those with added sugar) and bitter (remember those veggies!) tastes may make up more of your plate.  And eating a six taste diet replenishes the qualities of all 5 elements in physiology.

Have fun with your meals, and experiment with new and exciting foods and spices to bring in the six tastes! 

Check out the link to the Six Tastes Buddha Bowl recipe!  The ingredients are just suggestions.  Vary them to suit, as the combinations are endless.  Enjoy!

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