In Ayurveda, there is a concept – ama – that is a metaphor for toxins. It is a kind of “sludge” that accumulates in the body when foods do not completely digest, or we fail to cleanse routinely. Unprocessed emotions and feelings – like food – can turn into mental ama if we do not address and release them.
When your digestion is weak or defective (usually due to improper diet choices over an extended period of time), food sits in your stomach and starts to rot due to fermentation by bacteria. This rotten food is a poison to your whole system because it contains endotoxins produced by the bacteria. Ayurveda calls this poison “ama”.
A negative life experience (e.g., grief, loss, trauma, etc.) can trigger painful memories and release negative emotions (anger, fear, anxiety, depression) that can lead to irrational thinking. Over time, accumulation of mental ama can influence your quality of life. When mental ama is high, life is colorless, exhausting and uninspiring. It clogs up bodily channels and emotions can get trapped and repressed in the mind.
The connection between the brain and the belly is a two-way street. In fact, the gut sends more information to the brain than vice-versa. Many of these messages travel “upstream” along the vagus nerve. The microbes in your digestive system have a direct effect on the brain because they produce certain neurotransmitters. Special cells in the gut also produce hormones and neurochemicals (including serotonin and endorphins) that directly affect mood.
Ama irritates your gut and when it is absorbed into the bloodstream, it irritates your nervous system and makes you feel emotional. When bacteria digest your food instead of your body, they get the nutrients and you don’t. This can leave you feeling depleted and fatigued.
Toxins come from many sources: your body, food, bacteria, and the environment. Cells in your body constantly produce waste that must be filtered and drained. When your lymphatic system is congested or your circulation poor, the natural processes of elimination may be compromised. Similarly, if you are constipated, have trouble sweating, are dehydrated, or your kidneys don’t produce enough urine, toxins may accumulate. Certain foods contain toxins, just like the air we breathe. Most often, the biggest source of toxins from food is indigestion. Undigested food lingers and rots in your intestines due to fermentation by bacteria and gut flora such as clostridia. These bacteria produce waste products such as phenols, indols, and ammonia, from digestion of proteins specifically. The 20th-century Russian scientist and Nobel laureate, Elie Metchnikoff, proposed this process of “intestinal auto-intoxication” was responsible for the aging process. The volume of toxins created from indigestion puts it at the center of an unwell body and mind.
How to Identify the Effects of Ama
Catching the signs of this plaque before it begins to build up and knowing how to remove it properly are often the very first steps an Ayurveda practitioner takes when guiding a client back to health. Begin by identifying the forms of ama you are experiencing and modify your diet according to dosha.
The common early signs of ama in the body include:
- Thick coating on the tongue
- Sluggish, bloated and sleepy feelings, especially after a meal, even though you may have slept well
- Strong cravings for fast foods or junk foods
- Skin breakouts and/or foul breath, sweat, gas and stools
- Gray or luster-less skin, whites of the eyes, or yellow teeth
- Clouded thoughts, inability to focus, or generally unmotivated in life
Treating Mood Disorders Caused by Ama
Let’s take a look at three of the most common mood disorders and how to balance them through the digestive system and food. In Ayurveda, attributes (guna) are used to classify disorders. You can begin to balance a disorder by introducing substances with the opposite attributes.
Depression is a heavy, slow and dull condition. To balance feelings of depression, light and sharp foods should be included in the diet. Heavy, dull depression is most commonly associated with an imbalance in Kapha dosha. People with a predominance of Kapha generally experience excess mucous in the upper gastrointestinal tract, particularly the stomach, which can leave them feeling tired, sluggish, lethargic and depressed after eating. To balance this, Kapha people need the stimulation of pungent and bitter tastes to enhance and balance digestion.
Anger is a hot, sharp and fast condition. To balance an angry disposition, introduce foods with cool and dull attributes. Anger is a typical Pitta disorder, and generally those who are quick to anger often have inflammation, irritation, loose stools and acid reflux in their digestive tract. Sound familiar? Introduce sweet and bitter flavors to cool and cleanse an irritated intestine and to balance Pitta digestion.
Anxiety is a dry, light and mobile condition. To calm the mind and stabilize the nervous system, it is important to emphasize comfort foods with oily and heavy attributes. Generally, those experiencing anxiety have a predominance of Vata in the digestive system, which can often lead to dryness and constipation. IBS is a typically Vata digestive disorder that has been closely linked to anxiety. Because of Vata’s dryness, enzyme output is also generally low in Vata types which means they struggle to digest complex meals. If this sounds like you, enjoy simple, easy-to-digest meals and start incorporating some of the following techniques to balance Vata digestion.
Non-Toxic Eating to Avoid Ama
If boosting your mood, feeling joyful, and healing the gut is a priority for you, eat a diet of easy-to-digest food. A complex meal with many different ingredients requires far more energy to digest and will slow the digestive process. Your belly and brain thrive off easy-to-digest foods. Also, don’t forget to sip hot water throughout the day. This will keep your body hydrated and mind refreshed, while also stimulating and supporting the digestive system. Make sure to avoid iced drinks at all times, as they shock the body and increase digestive toxins.
Maintaining and supporting strong digestion through your food choices is vital. The proper functioning of the digestive system is essential to fueling the rest of the body. The relationship between body and mind has always been emphasized in Ayurveda. For example, agni (digestive strength) not only breaks down the food you ingest at mealtimes, but it is also responsible for how you metabolize daily experiences and information. The strength of your agni is directly related to your ability to understand and comprehend knowledge and process emotions and sensory experiences. It is the governing force in your body and source of good health.
A strong digestive system leads to a strong and capable mind. Therefore, the foods you eat have a significant impact on mood, how you feel each day and how you handle difficult times. Learn to eat for digestion and you’ll find yourself processing emotions more efficiently, feeling lighter, brighter and more enthusiastic about life. Of course, in modern life there are many stressors that can leave you feeling despondent such as career pressures, relationship troubles, financial worries or lack of fulfillment. A healthy digestive system is not going to magically take these problems away, but it will boost your physical and emotional strength and put you in a better position to cope with tough times.
Releasing Mental Ama
The following lifestyle tips are meant to support the release of mental ama:
1. Meditation: Mindfulness Meditation is a simple technique anyone can do and doesn’t even require sitting still. Being mindful simply requires focusing on the present moment and can be done while walking or doing the dishes. Being present requires focus and helps prevent the mind from wandering. This technique is perfect for a person who tends to let the mind ruminate on worries or future tasks.
2. Connect with Others: Feeling connected can help reduce stress and also improve success rates with goals. If a person feels isolated and lonely, perhaps finding a group meditation class instead of trying to do it alone at home would help.
3. Creating a good routine can help with both stress and inflammation. Therefore, making an effort to get up, go to bed and eat meals at the same time every day would be the way to create a habitual routine.
4. Mindset is very important. We all need to slow down by simplifying wherever possible. Remove unnecessary activities whenever possible and don’t over-commit/set too-high goals.
5. Adding coconut oil to the diet is anti-inflammatory and good for the nerves. Coconut oil can be applied directly to the skin as a moisturizer and enjoyed with meals. For Vata, this can be especially helpful as this dosha is dry and airy. The lubricating effect will be noticed immediately, especially in the mouth and on the lips.
6. Practicing Yoga can really make a difference. Yoga reduces inflammation and oxidative stress, boosts “feel-good” chemicals in the brain, strengthens immunity, improves posture, combats depression and increases energy levels. The most soothing yoga practices for stress reduction would be Gentle Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Yin Yoga and Hatha Yoga. Taking 10 full abdominal breaths (Belly Breathing) and then resting a few minutes in Savasana (relaxation posture) is a particularly helpful pranayama yoga technique.
7. Follow a doshic-balancing diet for your particular constitution.
Written by Vinita Puri, MSW, RSW, M.Phil., F.M.
Vinita Puri is a Registered Clinical Social Worker with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW). Over the past 15 years, she has worked with disadvantaged populations in a variety of community-based settings, including hospitals, prisons and schools.
Currently, Vinita has been Elected as Council Member for the OCSWSSW. She is also a Member with the Ontario Association of Social Workers, Ontario Association of Family Mediators (OAFM) and the Canadian Mental Health Association. Vinita owns and operates her own psychotherapy and consulting practice in which she provides a range of services to individuals, couples and families.
Vinita possesses an Honours B.A. from York University, a MSW from Wilfrid Laurier University and a Masters in Criminological Research from the University of Cambridge (UK). Most recently, Vinita completed a Masters in Ayurvedic Digestion and Nutrition and will be registering with the Ayurveda Association of Canada.