The following article was first published in One Great Gut.
Ayurvedic Medicine offers many easy and natural ways to improve your digestion. Ayurveda is the traditional system of medicine originally from India and now practiced worldwide both traditionally and in Integrative Medicine. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit term meaning the ‘Science of Perfect Health’ and literally translates as ‘Knowledge of Life’. Ayurveda seeks to bring us back into balance by providing guidelines for living in harmony with nature’s rhythms so that the underlying wisdom of the body can naturally promote the reestablishment of health and homeostasis. Ayurveda helps us move from disharmony, dysbiosis, and disease to harmony, homeostasis, and health.
Most Americans suffer from mild digestive disturbances such as constipation, gas, bloating, diarrhea, heartburn, and heaviness after eating, and many endure more serious conditions. Ayurvedic Medicine interprets the mild digestive disturbances as warning signs from the body that imbalance has begun and thus seeks to intervene at this very early stage of disease to prevent the manifestation of disease. Ayurveda offers simple remedies that are healthy lifestyle changes to be easily practiced at home. Ayurveda focuses on what food is eaten, when food is eaten, and how food is eaten.
Both what we eat and what we actually digest are equally important. Those suffering from digestive disturbances are not obtaining the full benefit of the nutrients in the food that they are eating, new bodily tissues are built less strong and healthy, and undigested food particles can lead to inflammation and gut dysbiosis, which is an imbalance in the ratio of health-promoting bacteria to unbeneficial bacteria living in the gut. In terms of what you eat, care should also be taken to eat fresh, whole, and, if possible, organic foods. Importantly, how you eat also plays a key role in determining what you will digest and assimilate.
The act of eating is both spiritual and life sustaining. The food we take into our bodies will be broken down and used as building blocks for new parts of our bodies. It is a spiritual process in that the molecules in the food have been around since the beginning of time, recycling, and thus connecting us to all that ever was, is, and will be. From this perspective, we can begin to perceive eating as a meditative or contemplative experience, which also calms the body to ensure healthy digestion.
Here are some Ayurvedic Guidelines for Healthy Eating to help improve your digestion, absorption of nutrients, and elimination:
1. Eat only when you are hungry. This ensures that your prior meals have digested so that your new meal will be digested and absorbed without the formation of any toxins from undigested food particles.
2. Eat food in a calm setting. Your environment can help or interfere with your digestion, especially if eating on the go, standing up, in the car, or in a chaotic environment. Ideally, find a calm space that is free of clutter and contains some beauty. Some ideas include clearing the table of items and adding some fresh wildflowers or a colorful table runner. Sit down to eat.
3. Eat free from distractions. When the mind is distracted, food is often chewed improperly. If you must eat in the car, pull over to eat. Put your devices away and shift your focus to the experience of eating and chewing thoroughly to support digestion.
4. Take 3 deep breaths before you eat. This time allows you to stop your activity which interferes with digestion, relax, and connect mindfully to your food. This can also serve as an opportunity to say a prayer, affirmation or take some additional moments of silence in gratitude for the food itself and those that brought it to you.
5. Eat with a peaceful mind frame. It is best to be in a peaceful mind frame for optimal digestion. If you choose to speak with others, keep the conversation light and avoid heated topics such as politics. Feeling very stressed, angry or otherwise disturbed while eating will interfere with key digestive processes. Thus, skip the meal or meditate first if you are feeling very agitated during a mealtime.
6. Food should be eaten warm. Ayurveda recommends that most of your food be served warm since cooking renders food more easily digested and absorbed. Cold foods weaken the digestive fire which can lead to the formation of toxins from undigested food. A Western scientific interpretation of this concept relates to the fact that enzymes such as digestive enzymes tend to be more efficient at warmer temperatures.
7. Do not drink cold beverages and take only little liquid with meals. As mentioned, temperature matters in terms of the efficiency of digestive enzymes so be sure to steer clear of cold drinks or ice with meals. Ideally, do not eat or drink anything straight out of the refrigerator. Drinks also weaken the digestive fire by diluting the digestive enzymes with liquid. Taking ½ cup warm or room temperature water with meals, if needed, is ideal. Wait at least ½ hour after eating before drinking larger quantities.
8. Chew, chew, chew. Chew food to an even consistency. Digestion begins in your mouth as salivary enzymes are released. Ayurveda also teaches that the six tastes are important for balancing our health and interestingly Western science has discovered taste receptors similar to those on the tongue within our gastrointestinal tract.
9. Eat food that is oily or moist. Oily and moist foods provide more nourishment to the body compared to dry foods, which are difficult to digest and eliminate. Food that is overly oily is also difficult to digest, thus food should be moderately oily or moist.
10. Eat only until you are 75% full. This one can be quite a challenge especially when delicious food is in front of you but is worth practicing. Overeating overwhelms the digestive system and enzymes and leads to poorly digested food and toxicity. Ayurveda suggests eating until no longer hungry but satisfied. Anti Aging science also tells us that an easy way to extend our lives and promote healthy aging is to eat less. Another major benefit is that the mind and body will feel much lighter after eating.
11. Rest after meals. It is common to go right back to activity after eating. However, this productivity and movement interferes with digestion and our bodies’ ability to stay in the ‘rest and digest’ mode. We want to rest for at least a few minutes after eating for maximum absorption of nutrients. One hour is ideal according to Ayurveda; however, even 15 minutes of rest will provide much benefit. Another trick is to lie on your left side for 15 minutes to allow your digestive juices to pool and increase the rate of digestion.
Your Ayurvedic Practitioner can also prescribe digestive herbs and diet per your unique constitution in a personalized way to target your unique digestive make-up as well as any imbalances. In addition to how to eat, when to eat and not to eat is also vital for digestive health, and your practitioner can also advise you on this aspect of eating.
For best results, slowly incorporate 1 or 2 changes at a time into your daily regimen. This will prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by change and ensure that the changes you make are sustainable. My patients often report significant improvements in digestion and elimination after incorporating even one of these changes consistently. For example, some patients report less bloating after giving up cold drinks while others report less constipation after eating until 75% full. It is well worth slowly working towards eating in this way given the abundant returns.
When food is eaten properly, the body, mind and spirit enjoy balance and ease of well-being. Enjoy these simple tips to enjoy your optimal health and well-being today!