With our understanding of the microbiome, and it's impact on mental health and immunity, the ancients' focus on digestive health as key to a long and happy life, is beginning to make sense in the scientific community and in mainstream culture.
Ayurveda has always taught that untreated digestive imbalance eventually moves into the deeper tissues of the body and becomes a root cause of disease. Exactly which kind of disease or which tissue is targeted depends on your personal "weak links" (genetics, past history).
That's why taking pharmaceutical drugs to deal with symptoms of indigestion is not advised, at least not long term. A favorite adage of Ayurveda is, "everything is poison and everything is medicine." It all depends on who is taking the substance and the context. Short term use of pharmaceuticals for digestive distress is surely medicine, but without a deeper understanding of what's causing the distress, and how to remove it, that same medicine will eventually become poison, by compounding the original problem with unwanted side-effects.
Sometimes we've been dealing with indigestion for so long, we don't notice it anymore, or at least we don't register it as a problem. The heartburn after a meal, the gas and bloating during the digestive process, the heaviness in the gut after meals begin to feel normal. What does balanced digestion look like?
Balanced digestion shows up in these ways~
regular hunger that is easily satisfied
ease during the digestive process
regular elimination (formed, complete, unoffensive odor)
a feeling of relaxation and energy after meals
balanced body temperature
good quality tissue formation
lustrous skin and eyes
When digestion is out of balance, Ayurveda sees the imbalance in one of three ways~
Unstable or Variable Digestion—Sometimes hungry, sometimes not. Sometimes can digest food well, and other times it feels like it just sits there. Gas, bloating and constipation are common. Constipation alternating with diarrhea also common. Colic--cramping/pain in gut during digestion. Anxiety, overwhelm, exhaustion. Unwanted weight loss/wasting.
Overly Hot or Sharp Digestion--Appetite is super strong, and it's challenging to miss a meal. Acid indigestion, nausea and loose stools/excess motions are common. Anger and impatience in the mind. Critical/perfectionistic tendencies. Tendency to drive oneself to the point of collapse.
Slow/Sluggish Digestion -- appetite is dulled. Even a little food or water feels like it just sits in the belly. Burping or belching the after taste of the last meal is common. Tired after eating. Elimination is slow and may be sticky, wet or have mucous. Depression and lethargy accompany this pattern. Hoarding and excess attachment. Passive aggression and inertia. Unwanted weight gain.
Most of us have a tendency towards one of these digestive types when we're out of balance, like during times of travel or extra work or relational stress. Sometimes we have symptoms from two categories. Ayurveda is always meant to be tailored to the individual, who never falls conveniently into one category. Still, these classifications can help us begin to see ourselves and our symptoms more clearly, and then to find the way to resolve them.
Over eating, eating at the wrong time, or eating food we can't digest leaves a residue in the body that is toxic. This residue underlies most inflammatory conditions, auto immune diseases and allergies. Gentle seasonal detoxification and healthy daily practices help our body to digest this residue.
In all cases, healthy digestion is supported by:
before meals, and anytime you're cooking, practice gratitude for the gift of food (and access to such amazing food, and to those who may be cooking for us) to support good digestion and happiness too.
finding regular ways to relieve excess stress. If the mind is unable to calm down, we will not be able to bring our digestion into balance. Taking a few breaths before eating, eating in a calm environment, slowing down while eating are simple ways to invoke the relaxation response.
hydrate 30 min before a meal (see how below). A dry gut will not secrete sufficient HCL.
eat until satisfied but not full.
refrain from snacking between meals (wait at least 3 hours, and ideally wait until real hunger returns before eating).
eat larger meal midday and enjoy an earlier, lighter dinner. After dinner, close the kitchen until the first meal the following day. This intermittent fast of 10 - 14 hours a night is medicine for balancing blood sugar, maximizing digestive capacity and function, supporting a healthy liver, improving sleep and weight loss. A key is to pay attention to real hunger in the morning. When you're hungry in the morning, eat. If you're not hungry, wait.
eat freshly prepared food as much as possible.
eat whole foods, and plenty of plant based protein and fats, even if you're not a vegetarian. Plants bring a lovely diversity to the microbiome.
vary your diet with the seasons (eat what's growing in your region now).
The following suggestions are focused on supporting a particular kind of imbalance by removing what may be at the root, and bringing in balancing qualities.
For Unstable Digestion
eat at regular times.
intentionally relax your belly (enteric nervous system) before eating.
eat a sliver or two of fresh ginger, with a little salt and lime juice 15 - 30 minutes before eating. Alternatively sip hot water or hot ginger tea before meals.
eat more warm, spiced foods, especially good are soups, stews and other one pot meals.
eat less cold, raw and light foods (salads, crackers, granola bars).
sweet, sour and salty tastes are especially grounding for you.
after a meal, enjoy sipping hot ginger tea.
yoga practice to include warming up joints; mix of vinyasa with holding standing poses and balances; rest after every practice.
For Sharp Digestion
sip cool water (avoid iced water) 30 min before meals.
minimize or avoid, hot, spicy, fried food.
limit or avoid alcohol and cannabis.
sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes are balancing for you: many foods are sweet. Bitter and astringent are found in leafy greens (think kale and collards; spinach and chard should be eaten in moderation only) sweet and astringent in many fruits.
if you eat animal protein, also have sufficient plant-based protein (legumes (soak before cooking), nuts and seeds--(raw, soaked, rinsed and eaten)
after a meal, enjoy mint tea or chew some fennel seeds.
yoga practice: maintain even rhythmic breathing throughout; balance challenge with rest; do cooling pranayama (mouth breath through puckered lips), twist, forward bend, prone backbends.
For Slow Digestion:
sip hot water or hot ginger tea upon awakening.
exercise until you break a sweat in the first part of the day.
if you are not hungry in the morning, shift to a two meal a day schedule: brunch and dinner.
sip hot ginger tea or hot water 30 min before meals.
enjoy more light, spicy, warm foods
bitter, astringent and pungent tastes are good for you.
enjoy more protein and leafy green vegetables.
enjoy less sweet, sour and salty foods and carbohydrates.
after a meal, sip on tulsi tea or non-dairy, unsweetened chai.
yoga practice: focus on bhastrika pranayama (fast breathing) chest openers, backbends and sun salutations.
The end result of balanced physical digestion is good quality tissue development and strong immunity.
Remember, besides food, we are also digesting our life experience. Regular practice of unburdening your heart and mind are essential to healing digestive disorders. Find friends, loved ones and practitioners to support you. If you are the type that doesn't reach out easily, this is especially important for you. The end result of good mental digestion is peace of mind and wisdom.
Learning to eat differently, and attend to "life digestion," is a process, and you get to start where you are. You don't have to get this all right all at once. Instead, I recommend picking one or two practices, and attending to them over the course of a week to feel the difference. for a while. Find a friend to do this with, and support each other.
Another way to begin is to give yourself a reset. I'll be offering a 9-day Spring Digestive Reset March 23 - 31, 2023. This is an excellent way to be led through a gentle, time tested process of balancing your digestion while getting grounded in some new healthy habits, with the support of a guide and others on the path with you.
Find out about the Reset and sign up here. Q and A session this Friday, March 3rd at 11:30 am. Ping us at Shannon@livingintobalance.com and let us know you'd like to come and we'll send you the Z link.
Here's to healthy, feel good, digestion for all!
In service and love,