Digestive health may just be the most addressed topic in the wellness world right now. Chances are yourself or someone you know suffers from some form of digestive discomfort. The way we eat and how we eat have transformed dramatically in a very short space of time. Moving away from food grown in nature, prepared with care and eaten mindfully without distraction has given way to processed and fast foods, meals cooked in a microwave, and eaten in a rush or in front of a screen. In Ayurveda, the foods that we eat are just as important as how they are prepared and consumed. This is particularly important seeing that in Ayurveda the quality of your digestion is the biggest key to your overall health.
“Agni” is the Sanskrit term for the digestive fire that breaks down the food we eat, assimilating what is useful, and eliminating the rest. Ayurveda teaches us that impaired agni is at the root of every imbalance in the body. Agni coordinates countless physiological processes—including the digestion, absorption, and assimilation of foods, sensations, and experiences into energy. If our agni is weakened, our digestion is hampered and we produce toxins. According to Ayurveda, this toxic residue, known as “ama,” is the root cause of all disease.
Ayurveda recommends a variety of very practical and simple techniques for keeping your digestive fire strong. Incorporating these practices into your daily life can strengthen agni, ward off ama, and in turn not only improve digestion but create balance in the body, boost immunity and help you to function at an optimal level right through your lifespan.
10 Ayurveda Tips for Optimal Digestion
1: Stimulate Your Digestive System Before You Eat
There are many simple ways to kindle agni immediately before you eat so that the digestive fire is strong and can effectively process your food. One easy option is to take a short walk just prior to eating. Another simple agni kindling technique is to drink a large glass of warm or room temperature water 20–30 minutes before your meals. These tactics not only help to cleanse the inner organs, they also awaken the digestive capacity. The digestive system also loves to be stimulated by twists. Simple yoga twists are ideal to get your gastric juices flowing and help the digestive system prepare for food. Before you eat, also take a moment to be grateful for the food you are about to eat. Be as mindful in the preparation of your meals as you are when you eat them. The digestive process actually begins long before your first mouthful! Strengthening your agni through mindful emotions before you eat can go a long way in making the entire digestive process smooth and effective.
2: Be Mindful of Food Combining
Combining foods is treated seriously in Ayurveda. There are a few basic rules to follow to avoid gas, bloating and digestive discomfort. First, try to eat protein before anything else. The stomach only produces a certain amount of hydrochloric acid at a time. Protein is the only food that requires hydrochloric to digest, so it’s best eaten first while you have an abundant supply. Secondly, try to avoid eating fruit after a meal. Fruit digests faster than other food, which means the body will break this down first and not do a complete a job breaking down anything consumed prior. Bear in mind that papaya and pineapple contain enzymes that can actually assist digestion, making them a great option for post-meal treats.
3: Switch Your Icy Drinks for Warm Tea
Drinking cold water or iced drinks with a meal is considered a no-no in Ayurveda as it can be disastrous for your digestive fire. Having cold drinks while eating essentially ‘extinguishes’ this fire and makes digestion that much more challenging. It is far kinder to your stomach and more effective for digestion to sip warm water or herbal tea during your meal instead. Warm water kindles digestive fire, supporting elimination. Ginger tea is also very popular in Ayurveda. It speeds up the movement of food from the stomach into the small intestine and relaxes the smooth muscles of the intestines, thereby relieving symptoms of gas, bloating and cramping. Warm water or tea can be enjoyed any time of the day to keep your digestive fire alight and strong.
4: Rest & Digest
All too often we leap up straight after we eat without any time to rest and digest. While you don’t have to schedule in a siesta after every meal (although, that would be nice!), taking just a few moments to breathe and allow your body to assimilate can be very helpful. You can also take a gentle walk or do a few moments of meditation. Meditation and breathing, in particular, can help switch on the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. This is the state the body needs to be in to digest and assimilate food. If you immediately switch back to work or any action that activates the sympathetic nervous system, you halt the blood flow in the stomach and your digestion will immediately be impaired. Even just a few deep breaths can help you to retain a helpful level of mindfulness as you transition away from eating.
5: Eat Only When You’re Hungry & Don’t Overeat
These days we eat for a myriad of reasons- we are bored, tired, stressed or we allow our emotions to dictate what and when we eat rather than hunger. The problem with eating when you’re not hungry is that it leaves you feeling bloated and uncomfortable. Only when the stomach is truly empty the digestive enzymes are strong enough to thoroughly break down food. Ayurveda suggests leaving at least 3-4 hours between meals. Equally as important is not to overeat at any single meal. When we eat more food than our stomach can accommodate, we cannot properly break the food down or assimilate the nutrients properly which leads to gas formation, discomfort or bloating. We also tend to produce more acid, thus causing reflux and indigestion. Ayurveda recommends that you leave at least one-quarter of the stomach empty to allow space for the body to easily digest each meal.
6: Eat in a Calm Environment at a Moderate Pace
Are you picking up on the theme of mindfulness?! For many of us, eating is something that we simply need to fit into the day. Downing a smoothie on the way to work, eating lunch at the computer, or stopping for takeout on the way home are all common scenarios. Even if we do go to the trouble to cook a wholesome meal it is often eaten in front of the television where we pay little attention to the process of eating. Eating well is a skill, and in Ayurveda, it is a skill worth developing! Sitting down to eat, chewing thoroughly, appreciating the flavours and paying attention to the sensory details of your food matters! When we take time to eat mindfully we feel more satisfied, we register when we are full, and our body has a much better chance of really benefiting from the meal. Ayurveda teaches that how you eat is even more important than what you eat- so start becoming mindful of the process of eating.
8: Eat Your Biggest Meal at Lunch
Ayurveda believes that when the sun is at its highest point of the day, our digestive fire is at its strongest. Eating your biggest meal at lunchtime gives your body plenty of time to fully digest before going to bed, which is when the digestive system effectively shuts down. Studies have also found that our digestive system secretes the highest concentration of digestive juices around noon. If we eat our biggest meal at dinner when our digestive fire is weaker, we will feel not only feel heavy and bloated, but our sleep can also be negatively affected. Preparing ahead by cooking a large dahl or curry can mean you easily have delicious a healthy and satisfying meal on hand at lunchtime if you don’t have time to cook in the middle of the day.
9: Check Your Emotions
Our emotions influence our digestion, especially as women. A growing body of research has found that the stress associated with unprocessed negative emotions can inhibit the natural digestive process and lead to gut issues. There is an intimate relationship between our brain and our gut, and our digestion responds to all of our thoughts and emotions. With extreme stress, the brain sends signals to the gut that releases chemicals that can lead to malabsorption, inflammation and food sensitivities. By learning how to manage stress and release emotional turbulence, you can help your digestive tract to work naturally and efficiently. Make sure that when you sit down to eat you feel balanced and your emotions are in check as best as possible.
10: Prioritise Cooked, Warming Foods & Fresh, Local Foods
Ayurveda prioritises cooked, warming foods over cold and raw foods. Cold foods such as salads and smoothies can actually disturb the elimination process for many people with compromised digestion. Just like drinking cold water extinguishes the digestive fire, eating cool, raw, uncooked foods can be difficult for the digestive system to tackle. The science of Ayurveda recommends eating warm cooked which supports agni and the digestive process. This differs a little for each Ayurveda dosha (or body type). For example, Pita types can benefit from more cooling foods, while Vata types are far better off with warm, spicy and more oily type foods. As a general rule of thumb though, raw foods are commonly minimised in Ayurveda cuisine. While cooking and heating meals is important, so too are the quality of the ingredients. Making sure that the ingredients are fresh, ideally prioritising local and organic fruits and vegetables, is important in Ayurveda as these foods contain more prana or “ life force.” So less food from a box and more from the earth!
Proper digestion plays a central role in our physical and emotional wellbeing. In Ayurveda when we mindfully strengthen and support our agni and digestive system, we form the foundation for good health and vitality right through our life. While what we eat is incredibly important, how we eat and our emotions around eating are equally, if not more so, important. Try incorporating even a handful of these tips into your day to day life and see how different you feel.
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