Did you see Sharp Objects (HBO)? That show is probably an example of disturbing media that I shouldn’t subject my psyche to, but it’s wicked good! Don’t tell Momma! Anyway, this post is not about the character Amma, but rather about another friendly Ayurvedic term, ama.
What is Ama?
No matter how healthfully we try to conduct our lives, we all accumulate at least some toxins in our bodies. The word ama in Ayurveda is the term used to describe the end result of these toxic substances (which is basically sludge, both gross and subtle).
Ama is a combination of free radical-damaged physio-chemical and cellular material. It blocks our body from communicating with itself. Our bodies need to be able to “talk” between systems in order to self-regulate. When we are not able to send and receive signals about what is needed, all systems go wonky.
Food that has not been digested properly will result in a thick, slimy build-up on the walls of the intestine – this is ama. This sludge build-up will interfere with our system’s ability to absorb and digest nutrients – we won’t be able to get the nutrients from the food we eat into our bodies.
So we can eat vegetables all day long but not digest them well. I mean, why the f*&k would I eat kale if my body can’t absorb it’s goodies?! That’s why prevention and elimination of ama is so important.
Ama literally means immature; undigested. I think of ama as a bunch of teenagers running around wreaking havoc in our bodies, leaving their wet towels and their drama for us to slog through.
To add insult to injury, ama might be viewed as a “foreign substance” to the body (just like teenagers can seem like aliens to grown-ups), causing the body to attack, or react to it. This can manifest as inflammation. The immune system kicks on, and auto-immune disorders can result.
Where Does Ama Come From?
Ama forms when we are overloaded with toxins like pesticides, herbicides, drugs (medicine or otherwise), cleaning products, stress, air quality, etc. Ama in the blood vessels results in the blockage of the vessels, making one susceptible to heart disease. Too much ama in the joints can lead to arthritis.
Ama can damage our cells in a myriad of ways (myriad is a favorite word as it takes me back to the 1988 movie Heathers, which I watched every day after school). It can mess up the membrane, obstructing the ability of the cell to take in nutrients. Also, the cell receptors can become impaired, hindering hormonal secretion/control. The endocrine system is a delicate flower, and to debilitate it has far-reaching consequences.
Wait there’s more: when the mitochondria (mitochondria make me think of the A Wrinkle in Time series, and my intense longing to be a part of that crew) are damaged, energy production is interrupted at the cellular level. And finally, damage to DNA causes mutation of the cell and can lead to the development of cancer cells.
When our cells are functioning at a subpar level, we could be looking at disease development.
Why Does Ama Build Up?
Ama happens when our agni, or digestive fire, isn’t functioning optimally. There are many, many toxins that we come across in the course of daily living; it’s just part of being human. When we can’t process all that we are taking in, ama will form.
If we are experiencing a build-up of ama, it may be because we are consuming too much. Too much food, too much activity, too much News or Drama. Too many chemicals for the lawn, for the face (cosmetics, lotions, potions), for the clean home.
A telltale sign of ama is a thick, sticky white coating on the tongue.
Quiz to Assess Ama Level
Adapted from Ayurvedic Healing: Contemporary Maharishi Ayurveda Medicine and Science, by Sharma and Clark (2012).
For each statement, evaluate how true it is and rate it from 1-5: 1 being “not at all me” and 5 being “majorly me right now” – add up score.
- I tend to be “clogged” – constipated, head congestion, unclear of mind
- It takes me a long time to fully wake up in the morning
- I tend to feel physically weak for no apparent reason
- I get a cold or mild illness several times per year
- My body tends to feel heavy
- I often have indigestion
- I tend to feel like some system of my body is not working right: breathing, digestion, elimination, mental clarity
- I tend to feel inert
- I tend to have to spit (???)
- Often I have no taste for food or no appetite
- I tend to feel tired/exhausted, mentally or physically
- 11-25 Minimal Ama
- 25-35 Mild
- 35-45 Moderate
- 45-55 Severe
No need to panic if your score is high, there is plenty we can do to reduce our toxic loads.
Ways To Prevent Ama
- Identify the causes of ama build-up (Sleep deprivation? Stress? Unhealthy food choices? Over-scheduling? What’cha been up to?) When we know why ama is building up, we can take specific measures to correct the issue. Go to bed earlier, get a babysitter, try to meal plan. Etc. Ayurveda = Individual Solutions.
- Work to bring the doshas into balance, taking your TYPE (vata, pitta, kapha), your EXISTING IMBALANCES (of vata, pitta, or kapha), and the SEASON (spring, summer, fall, winter) all into account when making a plan. For example, if you are a vata type, you will always need to work to balance vata. But if you have been extremely sluggish lately, you may need to balance the doldrums with some kapha-reducing activities. And as we are going into summer, pitta season, measures should be taken to pacify the pitta in us all. It’s confusing! But learning to listen to our bodies as we consider how to balance our doshas will be invaluable. And as we pay attention, certain practices may stick out as something we need. We underestimate our own wisdom.
- Eat for your dosha. Simple, whole, easily digested foods (whole grains, lightly cooked vegetables)
- Herbs – see an Ayurvedic Practitioner
- Oil massage (abyhanga)
- Eating antioxidants in our food to get rid of free radicals (which damage the cells in those nasty ways we discussed): Polyphenols (found in cloves, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, berries, apples, beans, almonds, walnuts, spinach, tofu), Bioflavinoids (broccoli, kale, red onions, hot peppers, spinach), Catechins (apples, blueberries, kiwis, strawberries, green tea) Carotenoids (yams, cantaloupe, kale, spinach, watermelon, carrots, tomatoes), Vitamin C (thyme, brussels sprouts, lemons, guavas, parsley) Riboflavin (eggs, lean meats, milk, asparagus), Vitamin E (almonds, pumpkin, peanuts, sunflower seeds, collard greens). There are many overlaps in foods containing all this good stuff. Rather that stress about which ‘noids were ingested for the day, focus on getting a good variety of fresh food daily, and all will be well. Side Note: Many of these compounds can be found as supplements, but studies have shown vitamin supplements to be less effective than deriving the Good Stuff from whole foods, and in some cases, downright harmful. Get medical advice.
- Probiotics (good bacteria) can help the gut stay healthy.
Ama may seem like a nebulous Ayurvedic term, but basically it’s just the concept of toxic sludge build-up that doesn’t allow our bodies to perform as well as it could. It’s the gunk that hinders communication within the endocrine (hormonal) system. It’s the slime in our gut blocking the wonderful kale nutrients. And it’s the icky crap that can cause our body to fight itself (auto-immune style).
Too much ama will eventually lead to disease. (Don’t tell Momma!)
Parting Thought: If we find ourselves or a loved one in a place of disease, we should never blame ourselves. This is an easy trap to fall into. But we all do the best we can and we all have our own path. Sometimes illness and disease can serve a purpose in a life (which may be hidden). Nothing is black-and-white. Thanks for reading.