Have you ever had times in your life when you’ve felt tired, sluggish and lacking in energy? You’re not alone – according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, one in five people feel unusually tired at any given time. According to Ayurveda these problems are caused by imbalance in your digestive system. So how do you make sure your digestion is functioning well, and you feel full of energy?
Signs Of Poor Digestion
Signs of poor digestion can be:
- Excess gas
- Abdominal pain
- Poor quality bowel movements i.e. more than twice per day, less than once 1 per day, loose, very hard, strong smell, or not formed
- Acid reflux – this is a burning pain in the mid chest or the sense that food is pushing upwards after eating, a sour or bitter taste (can be similar to vomit) being pushed back up into the mouth
- Lethargy and fatigue
What Can You Do To Make Sure Your Digestive System Functions Correctly?
In Ayurveda your digestion is compared to a real fire. Quite simply, how you look after a real fire can be applied to your digestion. If your digestive fire burns too much or too little, it will lead to imbalance.
So how do you make sure your digestion is functioning well, and you feel full of energy?
Just follow these 8 Principles to improve your digestive health.
1: Understand Time Of Day And Seasonal Influence
When you light a real fire, you know what and how much to put onto it to keep it alight. Paper and cardboard burn quickly, but wood and logs burn for longer. If you put a heavy log straight onto a weak fire, the log is unlikely to burn. Equally if you put cardboard onto a roaring fire it will be burnt in seconds.
Our digestive fire has its own tempo: it is at medium heat in the morning, high heat at lunchtime and low heat at night.
Our digestive fire also varies by season. In summer our bodies need less calories but in winter we need more calories.
These patterns, commonly known as our “biological clock” (or circadian rhythm) are governed by secretions from our hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which are intrinsically linked to light and our environment.
This leads to Principle 1: Choose the right foods – foods appropriate for the time of day and season.
What To Do
As your digestive fire is lowest in the evening, avoid eating heavy meals and food with lots of calories. After all, you wouldn’t try to cook something on a weak fire. Instead choose a lighter meal in the evening such as a soup, and easy to digest foods, for example a vegetable stir-fry or minestrone broth. This will lead to you waking up more refreshed in the morning and hungry for breakfast.
Eat foods that grow at that time of year and in that season. This helps your body naturally match the food to the level of its digestive fire. In summer, the hotter weather and external heat means the body doesn’t need to produce as much energy to keep warm. The fire does not need feeding as much. This means lighter and less calorific meals can be taken. Salads, lighter grains like couscous and basmati rice, sweet soft fruits like plums, strawberries and peaches are all good to eat during summer.
In cold months the digestive fire needs to be stoked so that it can digest more food to provide more fuel for the body to keep it warm. It is best to avoid raw foods such as salads. Salads are cold in nature and do not offer any warmth to the body. It’s like putting wet grass onto a bonfire – the fire will smoulder and takes a long time to burn. Eating salads in such conditions can lead to things like dry skin, feeling the cold and intestinal gas. In cold months it is best to eat soups, stews and well-seasoned tasty foods. Beans, such as butter beans and aduki beans, meat and fish, and grains, such as oats and wheat, can be enjoyed.
A great website that I use to see what fruit, vegetables and herbs are currently in season in the UK is www.eattheseasons.co.uk. It also gives you tips and recipe ideas for in-season produce. Other tasty cooking ideas can be found on The Ayurvedic Institute website.
2: Choose Easily Digestible Foods
Have you ever tried to light a fire with either wet wood or the wrong materials? If you have, your fire probably didn’t get started!
The same goes for your body. If you fill the body with very heavy and hard to digest foods, your fire will dampen and may extinguish.
For example, if you eat a meal full of fried foods and then a cheesecake for dessert, this is very heavy and will be hard to digest. This will dampen your digestive fire, which leads to indigestion, poorly formed stools and general fatigue and lethargy. It can also lead to inflammation as the body fights to respond to the overload of fats.
Symptoms Of Inflammation
- Muscular pain anywhere in the body
- Glandular swellings
- Skin reactions
- Respiratory changes
What To Do
- Avoid heavy and hard to digest foods. Combined with Principle 1, avoid heavy foods, especially in the evening when your digestive fire is naturally lower and in the summer when you need less calories.
- If you are going to indulge in heavy foods then take some precautionary measures to increase the digestive fire. For example, eat some chopped raw ginger or drink a digestive aid tea, such as peppermint tea or dandelion tea, afterwards.
- Include warming spices like pepper, ginger, fresh green herbs and turmeric in your cooking. These spices will help your digestive system digest the meal.
3: Eat 3 Regular Meals Per Day
This Principle is simple – if you don’t add fuel to an already lit fire, it will go out!
For you, this means feeding yourself regularly. If we don’t feed the body when it is ready to have food, the digestive fire goes down and we lose appetite.
If this happens again and again, the body won’t release the right amount of enzymes, bile and acids when they are needed at mealtimes. The enzymes, bile and acids are needed to help digest food. Without them our digestive functioning is impaired.
What To Do
- Breakfast should always be consumed in order to stoke the fire for the day ahead. Consuming breakfast stimulates the digestive system and provides fuel for the day. If the correct type of food is eaten at breakfast, hunger will not arise until lunchtime. At lunchtime, the fire will be ready to be fed again, ensuring really good conversion of the food consumed.
- Stick to regular meal times – the body works like an automated machine and responds well to regular meal times.
4: Avoid Snacking Between Meals
Over eating can put too much fuel on your fire and lead to your fire being dampened.
If you eat too many snacks between meals, when the next meal approaches, your snacks will still be being digested, and the body won’t be properly hungry for the next meal. This means when the meal is consumed it will be poorly digested. This can lead to lethargy and IBS type symptoms, coughs and colds as well as weight gain.
What To Do
- Avoid snacking between meals. The exception is if you have already burnt a lot of your fuel during the day and feel the next mealtime is too far away. In this instance, have a light snack like some fresh fruit, dates or oat cake with a light spreading of nut butter. This will keep the fire going but won’t over burden it.
5: Monitor Your Water Intake
If you want your fire to keep going, don’t pour too much water on it!
Drinking the right amount of water is important. Too much can put the fire out. If you have too much liquid and your body is trying to digest a meal, your digestion will be affected – there is no space for the fire to breathe. Fires need an element of air in order to burn properly; the same is true in the stomach.
What To Do
- Drink 5-8 glasses of water/herbal tea. This is on average the right amount per day.
- Don’t have large amounts of water or liquids straight after a meal, this can put the fire out. (It’s fine to drink some water just before and during a meal.)
- The stomach should be 2/3rds full with food and liquid at the end of a meal. This leaves the right balance left in the stomach for the food to be properly digested.
- Wait around an hour before drinking after a meal to allow the process of digestion to happen properly.
6: Sit, Be Still And Engage With Your Food
Blowing on a fire while it is burning makes the wood burn much faster. The same is true in the body – if you take in lots of excess air while eating, for example by using your phone, standing up whilst eating, the food can be burnt up too quickly. This leads to health conditions such as having excessive bowel movements, hiccups and excessive flatulence or bloating.
What To Do
- Try to eat each meal seated and concentrating on the food, this is to avoid taking in a lot of excess air, leading to excess gas.
- Avoid being engaged with electronic devices or concentrating on anything other than your food. Otherwise blood flow to the stomach is compromised and thus digestion can be impaired. You may even find you appreciate the taste and experience of eating more!
- Avoid excessive talking. Again this can lead to excessive amounts of air being swallowed which can lead to indigestion.
- Further develop a healthy attitude to eating – start by reading Dr. Albers’ 3 ways to start eating more mindfully.
7: How To Kindle Your Digestive Fire
Hot spices, salt and sour foods can act like paraffin. Adding vinegar, recommended amounts of salt or ginger to the digestive system can spark it into life. Caution though, as too much spice and heat can cause the flames to erupt, burning surrounding tissues and leading to much digestive discomfort. This is common in conditions such as heartburn, loose bowels and feelings of aggression.
What To Do
- To kindle a sluggish digestive fire eat a pinch of diced fresh ginger, a tiny pinch of rock salt and a drop of maple syrup before each meal.
- Reboot the natural strength of the digestive system with these five kitchen cupboard spices.
8: How To Keep Your Digestive Fire Going
If you have not been in the habit of looking after your digestive fire it can start to extinguish prematurely, even when it still has work to do. You may find that this leads to mal-absorption or IBS type symptoms.
What To Do
Drink a digestive tea. You’ll need:
- 1/4tsp fennel seeds
- 1/4tsp coriander seeds
- 1/4tsp cumin seeds
Steep these in a small mug of hot water for 5 minutes, discard the seeds and sip after a lunch, which should ideally be your largest meal of the day.
- Enjoy three meals a day at regular timings.
- Where possible, stick to freshly home cooked, warm and well balanced meals.
- Travelling a lot? Apply the principles of home cooked food to the choices you make towards bought food. For example, in a cold climate try to find porridge for breakfast, or if it is unavailable pour some boiling hot water onto some muesli and allow it to soak for 5 minutes before consuming. Or in a hot climate enjoy fresh seasonal fruits for breakfast.
- Consume meals while seated and concentrating on the food, not while on the phone, watching TV or standing up.
- Avoid snacking.
- Drink when you are thirsty throughout the day between 5 and 8 glasses water/herbal tea.
Most importantly – food is a gift of nature. It should be revered, celebrated and enjoyed!