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In Ayurveda, kapha is the the term used to describe an excess of the water and earth elements. As such, it is a problem rather than a constitutional type, but people who are low in fire would have a tendency towards this condition, one that is characterized by slow digestion and excess ama, a word that can be broadly interpreted to mean phlegm or mucus.

Going back thousands of years, the great sages of India taught that disease begins in the stomach with bad digestion. While modern medicine probably wouldn't concur, similar thoughts were held by the Iroquois and many other traditional cultures.

According to the theory, each individual is born with a particular constitutional type and all the idiosyncrasies and management challenges of that type. So, if one is born without enough fire—what is called agni in India—there will not be enough gastric secretions to metabolize food. Fire governs the caustic chemicals that are needed to transform food from culinary delight into nutritional substances that the body can use. These juices include hydrochloric acid, bile, enzymes, and probably also insulin.

As a starter, let's say that the pH of the stomach acids ranges from 1.0 to 2.0 though I'm sure some people are outside this range at times. Obviously, those with more acid are able to break food down more easily. Those who are deficient usually do not digest food normally. Instead of separating the food into assimilable nutrients and bulk, food sits in the stomach and is broken down by fermentation. The evidence for this is bloating, distention, abdominal rumblings, and gas. Headaches and muscle spasms as well as heartburn. Food that is not metabolized becomes a residual and is usually stored in the body as some form of congestion: fat and sugar in the liver, deposits in the joints, and phlegm in the lungs and sinuses and usually also in the intestines and even the brain.

A medical doctor told me once that mucus has the same molecular structure as sugar. I have never seen this in print, but it conforms to the Ayurvedic teaching that food is 93% "sweet," not "sugar" but comprised of the sweet taste. The main characteristics of this taste are: coldness, dampness, and heaviness. Eaten in excess, these properties tend to congest and thereby impair circulation and the supply of nutrients to the body.

As anyone who has read the Kamasutra knows, Indians value the water type above all others. They do so because it is the most fertile and, all other things equal, has the best longevity. The fine line is somewhere between water and excess water. Having a stuffy head is no fun and while such a condition is not really a clue to intelligence, duh and huh tend to give the impression of less acuity.

My Ayurvedic teacher taught us that mucus has the consistency of wax and that when it is heated, it melts and comes out of the body. According to this system of medicine, it is normal to accumulate phlegm in the winter and to discharge it in spring. When this happens, we say we have a cold, but unless the color of the discharge suggests infection, Ayurveda says this is a completely normal occurence when the weather becomes warm enough to melt the accumulations of winter. They even promote the discharge by drinking hot, spicy concoctions. My teacher gave us a recipe:

1 t. black peppercorns
3-5 whole cloves
1 inch ginger root

Shyam, my teacher, said one could boil these spices in water and just drink the liquid. Most people I know can't stand the taste unless they add a bouillon cube or soup stock. In any event, when you drink this, your sinuses really run, this whether it is flu season or not, winter or summer, proof positive that one does not need a cold in order to decongest. In fact, there is a term for this therapy: errhine.


To compensate for lack of digestive secretions, one has a few options:

  1. eat food that is easier to digest
  2. eat less frequently
  3. reduce the quantity of what is consumed
  4. make the food more digestible by cooking with spices
  5. stimulate the appetite and output of juices with exercise and aroma
  6. take supplements, hydrochloric acid and/or enzymes
  7. use carminative bitters post-digestively

Of all of these, understanding that appetite is a clue to the availability of digestive power is the most important. This is the best protection against injudicious consumption. The next is knowing what can be safely consumed and what will constitute excess for any given meal.

Kapha DoshaAyurveda is adamant that when the digestive power is weak, one should never eat food that has been reheated. Not only is this food harder to digest, but the oils have been rendered unsafe. In this age of fast foods, very few people recognize that most of our foods presented at the table are not really wholesome. Foods cooked in microwave ovens are very hard to digest and probably aggravate most of the problems associated with kapha. Speaking for myself—and I'm a fire type—I always have a gallbladder attack after eating something prepared in a microwave oven. I have been trying to think of ways to dispose of these creatures without creating bad karma. Oh, one can remove them from the home, but giving them to a friend or adding them to a landfill is not good karma!


One of the interesting features of fire is that it destroys many unwelcome pathogens and parasites. Ergo, when digestive fire is low, not only is digestion impacted but immunity can be compromised as well. Generally, water has good immunity in the form of abundant white blood cells and thicker cell membranes (to rebuff intruders); so while these assets are not compromised by low fire, fire destroys microorganisms and thereby reduces the work of water.

Water types can use foods that are spicy to increase fire. The sweet taste and pungent taste are opposites:


Since, of the six tastes, the spicy is the only hot one, it is needed in our diets. Some cultures use spices liberally, but some do not. India uses an enormous variety of spices in savory combinations that I personally love. However, in Japan, wasabi and ginger are the only two major spices used in cooking. In the Southwest, chili is the only traditional spice; and in ordinary European cuisine, spices are considered to be exotic almost all were imported, this going back to the early days when Islamic influences in medicine and cuisine were seen throughout the Mediterranean.The way I try to explain this to students is that a sausage is a nearly impossible challenge to the gastrointestinal system. It is heavy, fatty, and usually made in such a way as to revolt. However, if the sausage is consumed with heaps of sauerkraut and bitter beer, there is a chance of digesting it. If it is also made with spices, the chances are better. What has happened in America is that sauerkraut is not usually served with sausages and the beer is not bitter. Very few people have enough gastric secretions to knock off a sausage, even if they add a picante sauce.The best way to address low fire is to cook with spices, not just any spices: use non-irradiated, organic spices that have lovely aroma. If you grind fresh cinnamon bark in a coffee mill, there will be a coating of oil on the inside of the grinder. If you rub this off with your fingers, the oil will burn your skin. You only need the smallest amount of this quality cinnamon to perk up digestion and knock off bacteria; but if you use that dreadful stuff in cans from the supermarket, the once proud cinnamon has become an irritant, thanks to massive amounts of irradiation and improper handling and storage. It's the same with black pepper. Making a nice curry with peppercorns bubbly around in the sauce is different from shaking some pepper onto some lettuce leaves. When food is cooked with spices, the spices are absorbed by the foods and the foods themselves are easier to digest.Ayurveda offers lots of remedies for low fire. The most basic of these is Trikatu, a formula whose name means three peppers. We have it in our online store. It can be taken before meals to excite gastric secretion. HingaShtak is more for complaints that arise from meals that have not been digested. Sweet Ease aids sugar metabolism and then there are a host of products such a Triphala to help peristalsis (which is usually slow when there is not enough digestive power); Guggul for fat metabolism; Blood Cleanse to detoxify; and on it goes.I will try to keep adding to this so people can get a feel for how to manage their agni.

Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2002

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Kitchen Doctor
Taste and the Elements The Ayurvedic system of taste and the elements is presented in a way that anyone interested can immediately begin applying the ideas so as to further constitutional balance through diet. In Ayurveda, taste is considered to be a clue to the pharmacology of food.

Four 90-minute audio cassettes, $


Introduction to Ayurveda

Digestion, Ayurvedic Concept of Digestive Fire || Parasites

Chyawanprash || Hinga Shtak, Digestive Formula || Kicharee Recipe

Kapha Dosha || Vata Dosha || Churnas

Taste and the Elements || Smell || Ayurvedic Toothpastes

Ingrid's First Exposure to Ayurveda

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