Ama is a concept unique to Ayurveda. It is recognized as being the underlying cause of many health issues. In fact, the Sanskrit word for disease is amaya, meaning “that which is born from ama”.
Learning to recognise the signs of ama and having the tools for reducing it are key in working towards optimal health.
What is Ama?
As with most Sanskrit words, there is no single definitive translation of ama. It can be summarized by words such as “unripe”, “uncooked”, and “undigested” — or, as my teacher once described it, “toxic sludge”.
In essence, ama is un-metabolized waste that the body cannot process. It is normal for a small amount of ama to be produced during the digestive process, and a healthy body is able to eliminate it efficiently. However, if there is excess ama being produced and it is not regularly eliminated, it begins to sit heavily on the body and can be hugely problematic. It clogs up the body channels, preventing nutrients from being easily distributed and blocking the passage of waste from exiting the body. This build up of waste material is extremely detrimental to our health and is the root cause of many diseases.
The severity of ama accumulation varies. While it is relatively easy to remove congested ama in the digestive tract, once it penetrates deeper into the tissues it becomes significantly more difficult to eliminate. When the body channels (known in Sanskrit as srotamsi) are clogged by ama, the deeper tissues and cells are unable to receive proper nourishment. If ama penetrates even deeper it can disrupt the physiology on a cellular level. When individual cell membranes are coated with layers of ama, the cells are no longer able to effectively communicate with one another, weakening the immune response and ultimately resulting in a loss of cellular intelligence. This is the cause of more serious autoimmune diseases and cancers.
The Relationship between Ama and Agni
Agni is the internal fire. It is the digestive fire, the fire of the intellect, and the brightness behind the eyes. The strength of one’s agni determines one’s overall health. It enables us to digest and process — physically, mentally and emotionally. When agni is weakened or impaired, ama begins to accumulate within the body. The more ama accumulates, the more agni is weakened, and so we can fall into a negative cycle. Ama and agni are the antithesis of one another — the qualities of ama being in direct opposition to those of agni:
Agni: Light, hot, dry, sharp, subtle, clear, spreading, illuminating
Ama: Heavy, dense, cool, sticky, oily, viscous, stagnant, foul-smelling
Symptoms of Ama
There aren’t many directly visual signs of ama. However, in some cases, its presence can be seen from specific symptoms on the tongue or in the stool. Ama appears like a thick and opaque white layer on the tongue, most evident first thing in the morning before brushing the teeth. In the stool, ama appears as a sticky mucous. The other signs and symptoms of ama include:
- Feelings of heaviness and lethargy
- Feeling unclean/sticky
- Clogging of the channels: constipation, sinus/lymph congestion
- Abnormal or decreased ability to taste
- Confusion, forgetfulness
- Sexual debility
- Poor circulation
- Malabsorption of nutrients
- Edema or swelling
- Bad breath
- Lack of energy/enthusiasm, low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression
Types of Ama
Ama interacts with the three doshas in your body to produce unique symptoms. Specific manifestations of ama in the body can give us a clue as to which dosha(s) is involved. This is very helpful in coming up with the most suitable treatment plan, as we can then provide the type of support that is most needed.
Vata ama tends to accumulate mostly around the lower abdomen, pelvis, and in the colon. It can often interfere with the joints and cause generalized body aches and pains. The disturbed agni will often result in symptoms such as constipation, dry skin, and bloating. You may also experience an astringent taste in the mouth. If untreated, vata ama can result in diseases such as arthritis, and sciatica.
Pitta ama is mostly located in the central abdominal region, accumulating in organs such as the liver, small intestine and gall-bladder. It also has the ability to circulate throughout the body via the blood. Pitta ama is very heavy, stagnant, and thick, and it has a particularly potent fleshy or sour odor. It has a yellow or dark green colouration that is present within the stools, urine, and in a coating on the tongue. The inhibited agni results in symptoms such as acid reflux, heartburn, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, feverishness, rashes or skin irritation, and other inflammation. If untreated it can result in stomach ulcers, diseases of the blood and liver disorders.
Kapha ama accumulates in the upper portion of the body: the stomach, chest, lungs and sinuses. It is characterized by a sticky, thick, cloudy, and foul-smelling mucus that is difficult to expectorate. It can create a sweet or salty taste in the mouth and may give you the sense that you need to burp but can’t. Symptoms of kapha ama include sinus congestion, excess mucus, repeated coughs and colds, as well as congestion of the lymphs and feelings of swelling and tenderness.
Causes of Ama accumulation
There are many reasons why ama may begin to accumulate in the body. However, a weakened agni is always a contributing factor. Dietary and lifestyle habits that weaken agni, or put excess strain on the digestive fire, result in an increase of ama.
Dietary causes of ama:
- Heavy, fried, sugary, or highly processed foods
- Too much raw and cold foods
- Excess of sweet, sour, or salty tastes
- Adverse food combinations
- Overeating, emotional eating, binging
Lifestyle habits contributing to ama:
- High stress levels, too much work, or burn out
- A lack of routine
- Poor sleep habits: not getting enough sleep; sleeping during the day; sleeping before food has sufficiently digested
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Irregular meal times
- Eating when not hungry (before the previous meal has digested)
- Repressed emotions
How to Clear Ama & Stimulate Agni
Diet is one of the key means of reducing ama in the body and stimulating the digestive fire. A lot can be achieved just by making some simple dietary adjustments.
- Favour pungent, bitter and astringent taste, minimising your intake of sweet, sour and salty flavours.
- Sour fruits such as cranberries and citrus should be favoured over any sweet fruits.
- Eat plenty of freshly prepared vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables. Avoid any very heavy, dense or naturally sweet vegetables such as roots.
- All animal products should be avoided
- Soaked and freshly prepared whole grains, e.g. basmati rice, barley, quinoa, millet, rye, and buckwheat
- Avoid any processed or starchy grains, e.g. white bread, pasta, and oats
- Avoid nuts and seeds — a small quantity of sunflower seeds is fine
- Reduce the amount of oil you cook or garnish with, favouring organic ghee and flax oil over any other oils
- Avoid all sugars or sweeteners (except a small amount of raw honey daily)
- Avoid chilled or carbonated drinks
- Drink lots and lots of warm or hot water and herbal teas made with digestive spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander and fennel
How you eat almost as important as what you eat. A few eating practices to incorporate are:
- Set regular meal times every day
- Eat in a quiet, calm environment without distraction
- Eat slowly, chewing thoroughly, and really taking the time to experience the food
- Take a little time after eating to recline on your left hand side or take a gentle short walk to support agni in the process of digesting ama.
Fasting can be an excellent way of rebooting agni and supporting the elimination of ama. However, fasting can aggravate certain doshas, so you should proceed with care. Vata dosha is best suited to a short fast that incorporates some thicker liquids, such as pureed soups, for sustenance. Pitta is more tolerant of more intense fasts, such as juice fasting, especially during the summer months. Kapha people are the best suited dosha for fasting, even though they tend to be the most resistant to it. Kapha benefits from brief periods of water-only fasting.
All doshas respond well to drinking plenty of warm fluids. Herbal teas incorporating digestive spices — such a black pepper, cinnamon, and cardamom — are great as they help clear toxins while simultaneously settling hunger pangs during fasts.
A kitchari cleanse or similar mono-diet can also help to clear out ama without completely abstaining from food altogether.
Ayurveda suggests several therapeutic herbs to support the healthy functioning of agni and the subsequent digestion of ama. Bitter- and astringent-tasting herbs dry and drain, while pungent-flavored herbs destroy and digest the ama.
Many of the herbs recommended for clearing ama are the same herbs that are recommended for stimulating the digestive system before a meal. The difference is that when taken for digestive purposes, the herbs should be consumed prior to the meal, whereas when taken for tackling ama, the herbs are taken after the meal and in a much larger dosage.
Of course, it is always important to be careful when adding herbs to the diet. Specific doshas or symptoms may be aggravated by certain herbs and combinations, therefore if you are unclear or dealing with any specific symptoms, it is always best to consult your doctor or an ayurvedic practitioner before proceeding.
Many of the recommended herbs for processing ama are everyday spices that you probably have in your kitchen already, for example:
- Black pepper
- Ginger (dried or fresh)
- Mustard seeds
Other medicinal herbs are more dosha specific (see ‘types of ama’ above):
Vata Ama Herbs
Pitta Ama Herbs
Kapha Ama Herbs
Warming the body and promoting a gentle sweat is effective in thinning ama and loosening its grip on the tissues, making it easier to eliminate. Sweating can be induced in various ways, such as:
- Hot bath or shower
- Rigorous exercise
Sun-bathing has the added benefits of kindling agni and being good for certain types of eczema, psoriasis, arthritis and depression. Of course it is important to be cautious with exposure to the sun, avoiding direct sunlight at the hottest time of the day, and not sitting out for too long.
Pranayama & Yoga
Both pranayama and yoga practices are very effective in promoting the digestion of ama by stimulating agni, invigorating the internal systems and raising body temperature.
Garshana: Dry Massage
Garshana is an Ayurvedic practice of dry massage to stimulate the removal of ama. Traditionally the massage is done by vigorously rubbing the skin while wearing moderately textured raw silk gloves to create friction and heat. It has similar benefits to dry-brushing — stimulating the flow of blood and lymphatic fluid, removing blockages and invigorating the nervous system.
Garshana is practiced with long swift strokes on the limbs, and a circular motion at the joints. It can also be followed by a quick oil massage for those with drier skin.
For those who are experiencing excessively high levels of ama and suffering intense symptoms, the most effective way of clearing the ama is by undergoing a more intensive form of cleanse. Panchakarma is a specified and very rigorous cleanse program taken under the supervision of a vaidya (Ayurvedic doctor) in a residential facility.