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The Stages of Digestion

Initially, I became interested in Ayurveda because of some health issues and as a professionally trained chef I was amazed to learn how the six tastes found in all the foods, herbs, spices and beverages we consume have the same energetics (Physical Gunas) that surround us in nature. By understanding our inherent natures and what we put in our body we can affect our physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual bodies (Koshas).

According to Ayurveda the three doshas govern all aspects of our existence; body, mind and spirit and are understood the energetics of the time of day, season of the year and stages throughout our lives.

From a digestive perspective the Kapha (water and earth) dosha is responsible for the mouth and upper stomach actions, which includes salvia and initial digestive juices. Pitta (fire and water) dosha brings transformation and assimilation and handles all transformation of nutrients in the lower stomach, small intestine and liver digestion, and finally Vata (ether and air) dosha is responsible for drying and moving wastes out of the body.

The process starts when what we consumed interacts with the taste buds on the tongue. The taste buds are connected to the six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent and in turn to the different stages of our digestion, assimilation and elimination processes. The complete digestive process takes approximately one hour per stage or a total of six hours.

So here is how it works, although not official I believe the first stage of digestion really starts with smell. Digestion starts with the aroma of food which starts the process of salivation and salvia (kapha-water) production, moistening and preparing the mouth for chewing and the breakdown of food. This initial stage invigorates the six tastes on the tongue, which are connected to our taste buds sending a message down the digestive, assimilation and elimination line that the process is starting.

The first stage of digestion is when the sweet taste in predominant. Sweet is composed of Water and Earth, and so the secretions are Kapha in nature creating the necessary salvia for lubrication and beginning of the breakdown of food. This stage is when sugar is broken down and moves into our circulation, increasing blood sugar levels and bringing a sense of satisfactions and fullness.

FYI- Ayurveda states that we should consume sweets/desserts in the beginning of a meal or away from other foods because when you have dessert after your meal the other foods in your stomach are dormant in the digestive process while the sweets digested first.

The second stage is the sour stage of digestion, during this stage, Earth and Fire are predominating and food is broken into even smaller pieces. In this stage the stomach begins to be lighter due to the Fire element. Food becomes sour because of the Hydrochloric Acid is released and the Pitta dosha is active and heartburn and gastritis are possible. The Kapha in the stomach is in charge of protecting the stomach from the acids. The digestive fire (agni) secretes the sour and the Pitta dosha can be aggravated.

The third stage is the salty (fire and water elements) stage of digestion. Salt improves the taste of foods, stimulates digestion, helps maintain proper electrolyte balance, lubricate the tissues and is mildly laxative and helps in the digestion of proteins and fats. As food enters the duodenum the water and fire create emulsification and the gallbladder releases bile. At the same time the pancreas releases pancreatic enzymes, which are mixed with the food, and these secretions become alkaline becoming sour and acidic and ultimately salty.

The fourth stage is the pungent (air and fire elements) stage and occurs in the in the second part of the small intestine called the jejunum. At this stage the qualities are hot, sharp and subtle and causes increases heat and circulation and assimilation occurs in the ileum and large intestine. This is where the air element makes the bones porous and helps in the absorption of nutrients and assists with peristalsis and production of gas. If there is high pitta there is a possibility of skin rashes, bleeding disorders and hemorrhoids.

The fifth stage is the bitter (air and ether) stage. The bitter taste brings out the flavor of food and is a powerful detoxification agent, antibiotic, ant parasitic and antiseptic as well as helping with weight reduction, water retention, rashes, fever and nausea. This stage takes place in the longest and final portion of the small intestine where the most absorption occurs thru the villi and where peristalsis in stimulated.

The final stage is the astringent (air and ether elements) stage. Air element helps in furthering absorption of vitamins, minerals and water and dries the fecal matter out getting it ready for elimination. The Earth element gives bulk to the stools and stimulated mass peristalsis while facilitating the movement of liquids to the kidneys and bladder as urine.

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