Ayurveda, Agni, and the Modern Gut
Many systems of medicine consider the actions of the gut as a key to health. Colonic therapists, nutritionists, and herbalists view the gut as a key to well being. Indeed, even neurologists now suggest the concept of a brain-gut axis that elucidates the digestive tract as a key player in the status of the central nervous system (CNS). Ayurveda, through its concept of agni, also suggests the gut as a central axis in health.
Agni, transformative force, is a broad term in Ayurveda and is used on several levels of the human system. From tissue level (dhatu agni) to liver processing (bhuta agni), from GI (jathara agni) to sensory processing (indriya agni), the quality of health is said to be a function of agni. The strength of this alchemical force mediates the conversion of informational substrate to meaningful product for the body and mind. Thus the quality of both tissue and consciousness are interwoven with agni and the gut.
Current physiology is on the brink of recognizing this effect of the gut and its digestive ability on the broad health of the individual. More specifically, researchers are reaching the conclusion that the physiological state of the gut modulates the metabolic and sensory activity of the organism.9,15,21,23 This would appear to be a direct confirmation of the concepts of dhatu agni and indriya agni.
The Brain-Gut Axis
Acknowledging that the gut interfaces with the external environment, such as food, more than any other tissue implies the gut acts as a central interface of the organism. Notably, the GI tract is beyond CNS control, having its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS).12,22 In fact the gut is capable of performing many of its tasks in the absence of CNS control.7 Structurally and neurochemically, the ENS is actually a brain unto itself; it contains some 100 million neurons.7 Could this be why so many cultures and systems of medicine beyond Ayurveda, view the gut as having a profound role in health and disease?
Current physiology supports this connection to the health of the organism: Many seemingly unrelated disease models suggest a correlation if not a causal connection of the gut to disease.15 Therefore it should be no surprise to suggest what Ayurveda has suggested for 5000 years: The quality of the interface with the external environment is a prediction of health.18 In fact the modern construct of the Brain-Gut Axis would in so many words, suggest this.1,17
At the very least, the interaction of the gut with food (a symbol of our external environment) affects mental conditions as well as tissue specific pathological states.13,16 Food, as just one symbol of our external environment, is actually information, physical information, and as such is the basis for western nutritive therapies.
Equally, since all of matter is actually organized energy (and organized energy is information), food is also energetic information—a basis for oriental nutritive therapies. If we could view the approximately fifty tons of food that we eat in our lifetimes as a form of information would we then eat in the same manner? And in a broader sense, if we understood our interface with our external environment as a form of communication, would we behave as we currently do?
The Gut and the Central Nervous System
The physiological interface of the gut membranes and the psychological interface are dependent and reflective of each other. Recalling that the gut is hard-wired directly to the CNS7 and the extraordinary dynamic informational flow of over some fifty peptides and other molecules between the gut and the CNS,20 the gut seems to be a physical manifestation of the neural facility.
Indeed, researchers confirm the alteration of perception depending on the health of the gut.15,23 Ayurveda very much supports this concept. Agni is said to represent the unification of the body, mind, and consciousness. And indriya agni, the agni of the five senses is essential for a healthy functioning of our perception.
Research does indicate that in some disease states there is little healing until the perception of the external environment is shifted. Stated differently, patients perceiving stress do not improve clinically in some gut conditions.2 And if the gut as a primary information interface is affected by and affects the human web, then we would expect to find not only emotion and gut disturbances associated together but perception of the environment and gut disturbances would need to correlate as well.
This is the case and is supported clinically.3,6,15,23 Irritable bowel patients, like depressed patients, demonstrate a negative bias towards their environment.8 The gut it seems can open, close, or color the doors of perception.
Inversely, the quality of emotional content input to the system would then reflect the integrity of the gut tissue interface. Again this is demonstrated in research; certain personalities have a higher incidence of inflammatory gut conditions.14 Emotion, as with other subtle influences, become another potential nudge towards augmentation or diminishment of the quality of communications within the body/neural web.
Remember that all matter represents energy and vice versa all energy can represent matter. Couple this with complexity theory’s understanding that minor perturbations of a system have potentially profound outcomes. Now apply this in a biological arena and, what was once considered as negligible affects, slight biochemical, emotional, and energetic influences, have the potential of inducing pathology. In other words, minor perturbations are “sensed” by the organism as witnessed in a potential dramatic shift of the organism's coherence. In the words of Ayurveda, these subtle influences would be considered the doshas and agni which profoundly alter a human system.
Indriya—The Doors of Perception
The indriya, Sanskrit for doors of perception, of the organism becomes then not something anatomically defined, but a network of dynamically ordered informational flow. And since this can be shifted by just a slight nudge, as in a biochemical, emotional, or energetic interface with the environment, then a physical exchange of information/energy as well as a sensory/emotional subtle influence could have comparable affect.
As suggested in Ayurveda, there is no difference between body and mind. In current neuroscience the difference between body and mind as viewed through the informational flow of the body, is additionally negligible. Indeed, peptides and their receptors join the gut, brain, glands, and immune system in a network of communication between brain and body.19 Since the substrate of emotions may possibly be represented by neuropeptides20 some suggest that we actually think with our bodies.11
Supporting this is the fact that an emotion always has a corresponding visceral response4 and the messages from the gut to the brain out number the messages from the brain to the gut by approximately nine to one.7 This constantly changing chemical or energetic flow may be more accurately described as the “neural web.” Thus we see the body Ayurvedically, as a constantly adapting web of interaction with the external and internal environment. And minor perturbations of any subtle origin of the neural web can induce dramatic shifts of the tone of the organism.
Minor influences such as meditation, yoga, and herbal therapies hold potential for altering the human web in a beneficial direction. Specifically, herbs, yoga, and meditative exercises affect the dynamic state of the gut and in turn, modulate the metabolic and sensory tone of the organism. Thus the concept of treating agni, keeping it balanced and strong, becomes not some subtle, obscure therapy but a gentle nudge with profound effects on the sensory and metabolic aspects of the organism, affecting both the health of the tissue and the mind.
Herbs Affecting Jathar Agni
- Avipattikar—Tikshna Agni
- Cayenne—Manda Agni
- Ghee—Vishama and Manda Agni
- Ginger—Vishama and Manda Agni
- Kumari—Tikshna Agni
- Licorice—Vishama and Tikshna Agni
- Pippali—Vishama and Manda Agni
- Rock Salt—Vishama and Manda Agni
- Trikatu—Vishama and Manda Agni
- Triphala—Vishama, Manda, and Tikshna Agni
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