Gut health is a hot “buzz word” these days. However, what is now at the forefront of modern day scientific research, has actually been discussed in ancient Ayurvedic texts for thousands of years.
The ancient sages that cognized Ayurveda, understood the importance of good digestion in the maintenance of optimal health and happiness. They created guidelines and protocols on how to improve and maintain the digestive system’s balance with Ayurvedic medicine.
Ayurveda looks at digestion like a fire. In fact, digestive strength is referred to as “agni,” or digestive fire. To keep a fire going, wood must be continuously placed on it, however, too much wood all at once or no wood at all, will put it out. If the fire gets out of control, it will burn everything in its way.
Similarly, we can look at our stomach as a fire, which contains extremely hot acid that breaks down the food we eat. Too much food or too little food can eventually dampen agni and weaken digestion, so it is important to create eating habits that help to maintain balance and health.
The role of digestion
Our digestive system breaks down the food we eat into small molecules that provide the nutrients and energy our cells need to carry out everyday processes. In addition, it removes toxins from the air we breathe, food we eat and products we put on our body that otherwise accumulate into ama (toxic buildup) and cause illness and disease.
Modern day medicine agrees that gut health is vital to overall well-being. Doctors and researchers say that 70-80% of your immune system lies in the gut.
Will all that important functions of the gut, chronic digestive issues should always be discussed with a doctor or health practitioner.
What destroys gut function?
A poor diet that consists of processed foods, refined sugars and flours and excess alcohol, as well as poor eating habits can all contribute to digestive problems. In addition, chronic stress has been shown to alter the gut microbiota, destroying healthy bacteria and allowing harmful bacteria to proliferate.
An Ayurvedic approach to digestive health
While there are many different digestive issues, and the causes and symptoms for each individual may vary significantly, that must be treated differently, there are a few practices that improve the digestive system with Ayurvedic medicine.
Eat your main meal during mid-day
Ayurveda teaches that our bodies are directly connected to what happens in nature and the more we can live in tune with nature, the healthier and happier we will be. An example of this is to eat our largest meal during the middle of the day (approximately between 10am and 2pm). It is said that when the sun is at its highest, our digestive fire (agni) is too. Therefore, eat your smallest meal, something easier to digest such as steamed vegetables, stew or soup, in the evening time, when agni is weaker.
Don’t eat 2-3 hours before bedtime
Eating a heavy meal late in the evening when digestion is weak, will cause ama to form. In addition, if your body is trying to digest food, it won’t be able to get as restful sleep, which overtime can lead to many other health issues.
Eat at regular times throughout the day
While this may be difficult with the busy schedules many people have, the more one can stick to a regular eating schedule, the more the body will understand when it is time to eat, when it is time to digest and when it is time to relax.
Don’t eat when not hungry or stressed
While this may contradict the previous principle, there may be instances when digestion is slower, illness comes about and the appetite just is not as strong. In these cases it is important to first address the underlying issue and respect the body’s needs, even if that may be to not eat. Contraindications to this principle are if one has loss of appetite due to weakness or serious illness, in which it is advised to immediately consult a health professional. In addition, emotional stress shuts down digestion, as the body is only concerned with survival and not digesting food. Stress eating is very common these days, so if this is something that you struggle with, begin exploring other ways to manage stress such as meditating, exercising, journaling, spending time with friends or taking a relaxing warm bath.
Eat away from distractions
Ayurveda teaches us to be focused in our daily actions so that we can be fully present and support the mind and body in what it is doing. When eating, the body and mind should be focused on just that. Eating while walking, working on the computer or watching TV creates distractions that prevent us from paying attention to our body’s hunger and satiety signals, so overeating is more likely. In addition, it prevents one from fully tasting their food, which can leave them feeling unsatisfied from their meal and craving more food. Even if it’s just 15 minutes, create some time to just enjoy your meal!
Chew your food
Your mother was right when she told you to “chew your food.” The digestive process begins in the mouth. The more work the mouth does, the easier it is for the rest of the digestive tract to do its work. In addition, the as we taste our food and chew, this activates the body to secrete enzymes that support the digestive process. Chewing slowly also reduces the amount of air taken in while eating, reducing the likelihood of gas.
Eat until 75% full
It takes at least 20 minutes for your brain to signal your stomach that you’ve had enough food. Because many people eat in a rushed manner and while distracted doing other things, overeating is a common issue. When the digestive system has too much food to work through, proper digestion is hindered. Instead eat until 75% full or eat half of your meal, wait 5-10 minutes, check in with your body and see if you are still hungry.
Don’t consume too many cold foods or beverages
Pitta governs digestion and if too many cold foods or beverages are consumed, eventually it will put Agni (digestive fire) out and cause digestive issues, such as bloating, gas and constipation. This doesn’t mean you can never have a salad, smoothie or iced tea. Ayurveda is all about balance and what is happening with the individual during a specific time. In addition, do not drink too much water (especially ice cold water) with your meal as it will interfere with the digestive process.
Cook with spices
Spices such as ginger, turmeric, cumin, fennel, cardamom and coriander (just to name a few) not only give meals delicious color and flavor, but they also have powerful medicinal properties. Among them are helping the body to digest the foods they are eaten with. It is typically suggested to first cook spices with a fat such as coconut oil or ghee as this helps with absorption. Another way to support digestion with spices is to make a thermos of spice tea that you sip throughout the day. Combine ½ tsp each of fennel seeds, coriander seeds and cumin seeds in a 1-quart thermos. Pour boiling water into thermos and let seeds steep for at least 15 minutes (afterwards they can be strained out or left to steep throughout the duration of the day.) Sip this tea every 30 minutes until about 6pm. In addition, Lotus Blooming Herbs Authentic Chyawanprash™ is an excellent tonic that kindles agni and supports digestion and detoxification.
Get regular exercise
According to Ayurveda, the best way to stoke the digestive fire is with exercise. You don’t have to run 5 miles a day or go to high intensity boot camp classes to reap the benefits of exercise. For most people, 30-60 minutes a day of yoga, hiking or brisk walking will be enough to support healthy digestion, detoxification and cardiovascular health. Men and women 30 years of age or older should also begin introducing weight bearing exercise into their routine 2-3 days a week to support bone health.
Ayurveda is the science of life. It teaches us how to not only prolong our life, but create optimal health so that we can enjoy each and every minute of it. Creating good habits around eating and our food choices is one way in which we can do this as our digestive system can either protect our bodies from illness or when weak, allow disease to spread.
Much of what Ayurvedic medicine has taught for thousands of years around improving the digestive system and daily routine is now being recognized by modern day science as more and more research is being done on the how our gut microbiome and circadian rhythms affect health. It is an exciting time when eastern and western medicine, and ancient and modern teachings are merging.
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