Ayurveda is one of the oldest medical approaches in the world, with roots on the Indian continent.
Today, it is practiced all over the world, being appreciated for the numerous health benefits it has to offer. Holistic principles from Ayurveda meld into other holistic practices including Functional Integrative Nutrition and graduate programs in Dietetics (1)(2). The practice of Ayurveda can help us deal with the digestive problems caused by the modern diet, such as bloating, constipation and heartburn.
Such holistic practices help us bring balance back to the body and, thus, improve our well-being. Keep on reading and discover more information on the connection between Ayurveda and healthy digestion.
What is Ayurveda?
According to Ayurveda, there are three elemental substances in the body, known as humors or dosas (Sanskrit). Wind (vāta), bile (pitta) and phlegm (kapha) represent these substances. In order to maintain an excellent state of health, one requires equality of the dosas. When inequality is present, disease occurs.
The Ayurvedic system of medicine encourages the idea of balance. It considers how unhealthy it is to suppress one’s natural urges and how such actions can contribute to illness. The idea that there is a strong connection between the physical, mental and personality dimensions, makes a strong impact on Ayurvedic principles. One’s capacity to influence others is a good example of the personality dimension.
This holistic approach promotes the vitality concept, attainable by maintaining a good digestion and building a healthy metabolic system. Ayurvedic practices can improve digestion and general well-being. Life balance and a healthy diet represent two significant concepts proposed by Ayurveda. Certain factors can disturb the balance of the body, causing both physical and emotional stress—diet is one of those factors.
The Sanskrit word “agni” means fire, representing one of the essential concepts of the Ayurvedic tradition. It is the source of life and, upon it being impaired, imbalances and diseases occur. Agni also refers to the digestive fire, being responsible for the coordination of digestion as a process (as well as absorption and assimilation of food). The food that we eat is an offering to agni, which demonstrates the connection between digestive health and the practice of Ayurveda.
Root causes of Digestive Problems:
The food that we eat should provide us with energy. However, by making poor food choices, we can end up feeling sluggish. The modern diet, or ‘Western Diet,” is heavily based on refined foods, sugars, animal products, and other substances with inflammatory properties. All of which have a negative effect on the digestive fire.
When toxins accumulate in excess, symptoms of the digestive tract begin to appear. Heartburn, constipation, flatulence and bloating are just a few of the signs that our diet is not what it should be.
Apart from the actual food choices, we should also pay attention to our dietary habits. We have become used to eating on the run, without looking at our food or giving our digestive tract the proper time to go through its normal processes. Ayurveda encourages a return to simple eating, helping you get to the root causes of digestive problems and work on them, one by one.
It is important to be aware of the fact that not all foods are good for the body. By eating the wrong foods on a regular basis, you will end up disrupting the health of the gut flora and suffer from digestive problems. Extreme emotions during a meal, such as anxiety and stress, can make matters worse, as well as eating right before going to bed or having irregular eating habits.
Ayurveda practices to Improve Digestion:
When we strive for good digestion, we are also striving to maintain good health and general well-being. Ayurveda teaches us to follow a number of steps in order to improve digestion and feel better overall.
According to Ayurveda, if you want to improve digestion, you have to give up the modern diet and everything it entails (refined & processed foods, sugar, additives, preservatives, etc.). Instead, you should opt for fresh whole foods, whose ingredients are highly nutritious and appetizing.
A balanced diet should include foods that contain all six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. You can organize a list of foods that have a predominant taste and combine them in your meals accordingly. For example, when it comes to sweet, you can opt for milk, pumpkin or rice.
Citrus fruits provide a sour taste, while soy sauce or olives easily provide a salty taste. Spices give the pungent taste, while dark greens and dandelions can offer a bitter flavor. Last, but not least, cranberries, pomegranates, and unripe bananas are perfect for the astringent taste.
The basic idea is that all foods – vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, etc. – have a particular taste. Some have a combination of all these tastes. What matters is that you prepare meals that include the six tastes, while offering a rainbow of colors at the same time.
While raw food is recommended because of its rich content in beneficial vitamins and minerals, its excess consumption can do more harm than good. Heavy foods, as well as those that are fried, should be excluded from the diet. You should also pay close attention to the food combinations you are making. For example, you should never eat bread with potatoes, or potatoes with meat, as you will have a hard time digesting both.
- Return to a simple diet, with fresh food
- Balance diet to cover all six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent)
- Moderate consumption of raw food
- No heavy or fried foods
- Attention to food combinations.
Ayurveda teaches us about moderation and the return to healthier eating habits. According to Ayurveda, you should always avoid eating heavy meals in the evenings, as this will place an extra strain on the digestive system. Circadian cycles of sleep and body temperature support this idea. Eating heavy meals during late hours disrupts these cycles.
Cold beverages and foods are not to be consumed, as this can have a negative influence on the health of the gastrointestinal tract. It is recommended to eat only when you are hungry, and lightly if you are feeling very stressed or emotional. The more you focus on these intense feelings, the less attention you will pay to the food you are eating. This can cause you to choose the wrong foods, eating compulsively and in large quantities. Poor digestion and dissatisfaction are highly likely to follow. The best thing you can do is wait until you feel better, before eating your meals.
Breathing exercises can help you deal with negative emotions and calm yourself in an efficient manner. Deep breathing, with practiced inhaling and exhaling, can be useful in overcoming feelings of anxiety. Enjoy your meals only after you feel calm, relaxed and at peace.
While eating, you should consume fluids, following your needs (small sips are recommended). It is for the best to organize a meal schedule and follow it every day, trying to maintain the same meal hours. Take time to properly chew your food, savoring the blend of flavors. The same goes for any beverage that might accompany your meals.
Chewing is how the whole digestion process begins. In contact with the food, the salivary glands produce the first digestive enzymes. The longer you will chew your food, the easier it will be for the stomach to digest the food. This will also give the brain the signal that you are full, preventing you from excess eating. Do not be in a hurry to swallow your food, as this will only force the stomach to spend a longer period of time digesting.
As any Ayurvedic practitioner will tell you, if you want to improve your digestion, you have to be present when eating. Sharing food with company often makes the eating experience even more exciting. When sharing a meal, do not be in a hurry and sit down, enjoying yourself and the presence of others. You can also begin your meals with grace or by stating the reasons for which you are grateful (for example, for the food present in front of you).
Moderation is a key concept in the practice of Ayurveda, including when it comes to maintaining a healthy digestion. No matter how hungry you are, you should never eat until you are full. The idea is to get up from the table while you are still hungry. You can also consider taking a short walk after each meal, as this will facilitate the digestion process.
For proper digestion, it is advisable that you should eat every four to six hours. Snacks are not recommended, as these can place an additional burden on the digestive system. The largest meal should be eaten for lunch when the sun is up in the sky.
All meals should be eaten while relaxed, preferably in a soothing environment. Avoid watching television or using the computer while eating. Instead, concentrate on the taste and flavor of your food, paying attention to textures and colors. Be thankful for your meals and enjoy every bite. For breakfast and dinner, you should eat less, as smaller quantities of food will be easier to digest.
In terms of beverages, you should consider drinking warm water, as well as ginger tea. Keep in mind that cold beverages can prevent the proper digestion process. On the other hand, by drinking warm water or ginger tea throughout the day, you will actually stimulate digestion and increase the digestive fire (agni). You can drink several cups of tea per day, taking your time to enjoy each cup.
- Eat in moderation and never in a hurry
- Sit down while eating and enjoy the food, as well as the presence of others
- Light meals in the evening
- Same meal schedule every day
- Between 4 – 6 hours between meals, no snacks
- No cold beverages; instead – warm water & ginger tea
- Begin each meal with grace/expressing your gratitude
- Do not eat until you are full
- Short walks after each meal can do wonders for the digestion.
- Food cravings vs. ethical eating
The modern diet is one that encourages food cravings, increasing the risk for obesity and subsequent health problems. Emotional eating is common, with dietary habits being driven by negative emotions, as well as anxiety, sadness, and anger. We become accustomed to patterns of eating, without being aware that these are damaging for the digestion and general health.
Ayurveda is based on the principle of ethical eating, with foods that are nutritious and suited to the demands of healthy living. You are recommended to eat fruits and vegetables that are fresh and in season, to cook your own meals and use spices, as well as pickles to stimulate the digestion.
Ayurvedic practitioners often recommend the usage of spices to maintain a healthy digestion. You can use turmeric, the golden spice, to stimulate the digestion and prevent inflammation. Ginger can reduce excess mucus, while fennel is an excellent remedy for bloating and flatulence. Fenugreek can reduce gut inflammation, helping with the elimination of harmful toxins. Other recommended spices include coriander, mustard, cinnamon, and cayenne.
Ayurvedic practices are useful for improving your health, including when it comes to one of the gastrointestinal tracts. The most important thing is committing yourself to making a change, giving all of these practices a try.
Tongue Scraping :
If you want to remove the toxins accumulated on the surface of your tongue, this is the ideal practice to try out. Why is it important? Well, the accumulation of bacteria, as well as plaque on the tongue can prevent you from properly tasting the food.
When you are unable to taste the food, it is highly likely you will use more salt and sugar. Such dietary habits favor excess eating, having a negative impact on digestion and the metabolism in general.
What you want to do is take a tongue scraper and use it to scrape your tongue, starting at the back and going towards the tip. The process should be repeated several times until the tongue is completely clean.
Also known as basti, this Ayurvedic practice is often performed with herbal oils and it serves the purpose of eliminating harmful toxins from the intestinal system. The herbal oil enema is part of Ayurvedic cleansing programs and it offers positive results in a short period of time. Keep in mind that the accumulation of toxins can impair gut health, leading to additional health problems.
Can Ayurveda practices really improve digestion? The answer is yes! As you have seen, Ayurveda teaches us to return to healthy eating, saying no to many of the foods that are part of the modern diet.
We are taught to eat and appreciate every meal, to pay attention to textures and colors. Fresh food is recommended, as well as warm water and tea. We need to pay attention to mindful eating, taking the necessary amount of time to chew the food. Last, but not least, the practice of Ayurveda encourages ethical eating, with attention to the environment and the meal preparation.
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Noland, Diana. Dietetics and Integrative Medicine: Curriculum Development Model. University of Kansas Medical Center, 2016.
Rosenthal, Joshua. Integrative Nutrition: a Whole-Life Approach to Health and Happiness. Institute for Integrative Nutrition, 2018.