In ayurveda, the term agni is used to describe the quintessence of digestion and metabolism. Agni, in Sanskrit literally translates as fire; it is the component within the body that is responsible for the subtle transformative processes associated with digestion, all the way through to the functions of cellular metabolism.
The concept of agni is not however limited to its role in digestion and metabolism; it also refers to the subtle transformational mechanisms within the mind as well as functions associated with our sense organs such as touch, taste, smell, vision and hearing.
Throughout the day we are constantly absorbing, digesting and assimilating information through our sensory faculties. These neurological pathways also require the intelligence of agni to process information in a similar way to our digestive and metabolic pathways.
There are numerous varieties of agni located throughout the body that are classified by their specific function, however the agni located in the digestive system known as jatharagni is considered to be most important.
Continuity of consciousness, colour, strength, health, enthusiasm, plumpness, complexion, ojas (vital essence), tejas (heat), other varieties of agni and prana (life force) are made possible by jatharagni. Extinction of jatharagni leads to death: its proper maintenance helps a person live a long life, and its impairment give rise to disease. Therefore jatharagni is considered to be the most important sustaining factor of living beings.
(Ca. Chikitsa 15:3-4)
It is the cause of nourishment for the entire body by extracting the nutrients we ingest from food substances. These nutrients are broken down into molecules that can be then absorbed and distributed throughout the body and metabolized to form healthy vital tissues.
In modern science jatharagni relates to the enzymatic component found throughout the digestive system. When food enters the oral cavity the salivary glands release enzymes known as lingual lipase, amylase and lysozyme. These enzymes aid in the initial digestion of fats, carbohydrates and provide a non-specific protection against bacteria and viruses.
When the food reaches the stomach an enzyme known as pepsin is released to aid in the breakdown of protein along with gastric lipase that aids in the further breakdown of fats. Once the semi digested food substances are released into the small intestine, they are then exposed to a wide range of enzymes secreted by the pancreas and the intestinal walls, completing the breakdown of food elements into absorbable nutrients and waste products. This western scientific discovery reflects the function of jatharagni.
The quality and strength of jatharagni determines the quality of nutritional elements that cross the intestinal wall eventually making their way into the body’s channels of circulation.
Thereafter, by virtue of their respective seven categories agni’s associated with the cellular metabolism of plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, marrow and reproductive tissue; the sustainers of the body undergo metabolic transformation in two different ways, viz, transformation of tissue elements and transformation of waste products.
(Ca. Chikitsa 15:15)
If Jatharagni is functioning at optimal capacity, the agni’s responsible for cellular metabolism, sensory perception and inherent cognitive and perceptual faculties of the mind are effectively able to carry out their tasks.
This reasoning in ayurvedic health care is why, when treating specific disease; it is essential to correct digestive function regardless of the nature of the condition. If digestive function is impaired food and medicine will not be as effective in reaching their targeted site.
No doubt, food provides nourishment to the tissues and support the foundations for ojas (vital essence), strength and complexion, but, in effect, it is the agni that plays a vital role in this connection because tissue elements like plasma, blood etc., cannot even originate from undigested food particles.
(Ca. Chikitsa 15:5)
For this very reason ayurveda primarily considers the strength of the individual and their digestive capacity before considering a suitable nutritional or treatment program.
These days we are often distracted by cleverly marketed food supplements, latest eating trends and super foods. Some of these programs and substances may be effective and have potential to promote health however if jatharagni is not functioning normally, more often than not these potentially expensive health alternatives become nothing more than an extravagantly decorated bowel motion.
Sama agni – balanced digestion and metabolism
When jatharagni is balanced it is known as sama agni. People possessing sama agni are described as being calm, having a loving disposition and clarity of mind. They are able to eat almost anything regardless of quality or season without having any adverse effects and their body composition remains consistent. Other signs of balanced jatharagni are timely appetite and elimination of waste, good immunity, complexion, strength, endurance and vitality.
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