The digestive system is known as Pachan Tantra in Ayurveda . From anatomy point of view, it is defined as the gastrointestinal system. The digestive system mainly consists of the digestive-tract and of accessory organs, playing a role in the process of digestion. Digestion initiates in the buccal-cavity and is a continuous affair in the intestine. Every component of the digestive system has a significant role in the process of digestion.
From Anatomical point of view, the digestive tract has following components
- Mouth (Mukha)
- Pharynx (Gras-nali)
- Stomach (Amashya)
- Small Intestine (Kshudrantra)
- Large Intestine (Vrtahtantra)
- Organ playing accessory role in digestion includes the liver (Ykrit), digestive-glands and exocrine part of the pancreas (Agnaysha).
In Ayurvedic anatomy, the stomach has been included among 5 major-viscera of the human-body. If we see the perspective of stomach from Ayurvedic point of view, why it has been addressed Amashya? In fact, Amashya is the seat for ama, the toxic culprit behind diseases. As per Ayurvedic nidan (diagnosis), jihva (tongue) is seen as the mirror-image of the digestive system.
Some important ailments of the digestive system along with Ayurvedic perspective are explained below:
Constipation is defined as irregular or inadequate defecation. It is caused when movement of waste materials through the large intestine is slow and too much water is absorbed. According to experts one should pass stools twice a day in order to ensure smooth function of the digestive tract.
Ayurvedic physicians see constipation as the major cause of the digestive system diseases. In urban areas, constipation has become major problem. Sedentary life, lack of exercise and poor eating habits are main causes of constipation. People having non-vegetarian diet pass stool once in three or four days.
Some people suffer from regular constipation (obstinate constipation). If constipation persists for longer period, it can lead to various discomforts like headache, tympanites (abdominal distension), and loss of appetite, pain in the abdomen, lethargy and above all haemorrhoids (piles).
Agnimandya or Indigestion (Dyspepsia)
Dyspepsia is one of the commonest digestive disorders. The aggravated humours (vata, pitta and kapha) lead to this disease. Poor digestion and irregular eating habits lead to the incidence of indigestion. In some cases indigestion is caused by excess hydrochloric acid secretion.
There is abdominal discomfort and belching (gas). Actually poor digestion leads to delayed digestion of food and the consequence of this is putrefaction (foul smell). In extreme cases abdominal pain and vomiting can be encountered.
Atisara or Loose motions (Diarrhoea)
The common cause for diarrhoea is bacterial or viral infection. Sometimes diarrhoea is induced by antibiotics like ampicillin due to killing of bacteria living in the gut. Diarrhoea and vomiting are main features of food poisoning. Some people present diarrhoea as malabsorption, in which they are not able to tolerate fat in the diet.
Diarrhoea induced by dreadful diseases like cholera and tuberculosis is uncommon today, largely due to effective treatments available today. Travelling to hilly areas can lead to a condition known as traveller’s diarrhoea. Irritable bowel syndrome (spastic colon) is another important cause of diarrhoea. Passing of watery stools is frequent. It is very important to find the cause of diarrhoea as it can lead to dehydration (loss of fluid).
Diarrhoea associated with blood and mucus is known as dysentery. Unhygienic vegetables and fruits are major cause of dysentery. Dysentery is of two types: Amoebic and Bacillary. Abdominal pain and tenesmus (pressure) are common in amoebic and bacillary dysentery. Basic cause is the inflammation (swelling) of small intestine. Burning sensation in the rectum and anus is common. In chronic amoebic dysentery, pain may start from upper right abdomen and there is radiation to the shoulder. In bacillary dysentery, abdominal pain, fever, dehydration and blood in stool are main features.
Worm infestation or Krimi (Helmenthiasis)
Light infection has no major hazard. The clinical symptom ranges from mild itching to massive bleeding. Abdominal pain, increased appetite, anemia, headache and diarrhoea are other clinical features. Stool examination gives clue to the diagnosis.
Grahani (Sprue or Malabsorption)
In Ayurveda first part of small intestine is known as grahani (duodenum). Most probably the disease has got its name from grahani as it is the site of absorption of food. Some Ayurvedic texts have called it as sangrahani. According to Ayurvedic concept, irregular dietary habits and continuous exposure to stress are contributing factors of the disease. Today we call this disorder as malabsorption as process of absorption is impaired in the small intestine. According to modern medicine, the exact cause of the disease is not known.
The clinical features encountered in malabsorption are
- Diarrhoea with fatty stools.
- Loss of weight.
- Abdominal pain.
In Ayurveda, improper dietary habits are considered to be the cause of ulcers. Irritation of the mucosa by coffee, cigarette, alcohol, and drugs like corticosteroids and pain killers lead to ulcer formation. Recurrent attacks of hyperacidity (gaseous eructation) after consumption of spicy foods are linked to ulcer formation.
Infection with bacterium is considered to be the cause of recurrent attacks of hyperacidity and ulcers. Above all, modern lifestyle is blamed for the increasing incidence of ulcer. Stress and anxiety are linked to increased acid secretion and result is ulcer.
Pain in the chest is the main complaint. The major complication of ulcer is heamatemesis (vomiting of blood). It is a serious condition and is treated under expert supervision.
Piles or Arsha-roga (Haemorrhoids)
Veins (blood vessels carrying impure blood) in the anal region are longitudinal and have no valves (normally valves maintain unilateral flow of blood). As a result the veins are prone to blood congestion. More so these veins are comparatively superficial. Piles are basically varicosity (torturous) of the rectal veins. This varicosity forms a swelling of variable size within the anus.
Habitual constipation is the most common cause of piles. It causes rectal congestion (collection of blood) and piles protrude from original position. Alcohol is known to cause piles as it leads to portal congestion (portal vein supplies the liver). Sedentary occupation and lack of exercise are predisposing factors in causing piles. In addition pregnancy, uterine displacement or carcinoma of the rectum or pelvic region may cause piles.
- External piles are characterised by pain and inflammation. Pain is severe at the time of passing stools. Itching is very common.
- Internal piles are characterised by bleeding from the anal canal. It can lead to anaemia (low levels of haemoglobin).
Diet and precautions
- The patients suffering for chronic constipation should be advised to take plenty of green fruits and leafy-vegetables.
- Fresh bran of rice and wheat are very useful in preventing constipation. Polished rice should not be used if patient has constipation.
- Papaya is the best fruit for digestion. Papain (enzyme) present in the fruit has excellent digestive power. Sugarcane and carrot juice should be taken in abundance.
- Pineapple contains Bromelain which is a protein-digesting enzyme that promotes digestion and assists absorption of nutrients from foods and supplements.
- Fried things and pulses are harmful particularly for patients having history of chronic constipation.
- One should not suppress natural urges.
- Regular exercise is nature’s gift for maintaining the tone of the digestive system. Excess coffee and tea intake and smoking should be avoided.
As per Ayurvedic philosophy, constipation is the root cause of all the diseases. Treating the constipation is the thumb-rule of keeping the digestive tract working in a smooth fashion. Proper diet and regular-exercise are vital for maintaining the gut-tonicity.
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Rang HP, Dale MM, Ritter JM, Moore PK (2003). Diseases of the Stomach and Duodenum. In: Pharmacology. Edn. 5th, Churchill Livingstone Publication, Philadelphia, pp. 368-372.
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