According to recent statistics, around 40% of us are suffering with at least one digestive complaint at any one time. Common symptoms like abdominal pain, indigestion and heartburn are often a bi- product of modern day living, so it’s no surprise us city dwellers are among the worst affected.
Whereas Western medicine only tends to look at what type of foods we are eating, or more often just what type of medication we can take to mask the symptoms, the healing science of Ayurveda (translated directly as the ‘science of life’) take another view.
Ayurvedic principles teach us that strengthening our digestive fire, or ‘agni’, to cope with the foods we eat is what holds the key to good health. When our agni is strong we feeling light, clear headed and energetic, however a weakened digestive system produces toxic build up known as ‘ama’ – which in Ayurveda is linked not just to weight gain and tummy trouble but is said to be the root cause of all disease.
So with that in mind, what are the ways we can strengthen our all- important agni?
. Only eat when you are hungry - It makes sense but eating when we’re not hungry puts a strain on our system as our digestive enzymes have only built up enough to break down food properly on an empty stomach. Food manufacturers have conditioned us to believe snacking is a healthy habit over recent years, however digestion- wise it is much better to leave at least 3-4 hours between meals. Asking yourself ‘why’ you are eating something is often enough to indicate whether it’s out of necessity or habit; so can be a useful strategy for curbing excess munching.
. Eat your largest meal at lunchtime – Our digestive fire is strongest around midday when we are active, and grows weaker in the evening as our bodies prepare for rest. Eating a large meal at night can hamper our ability to get a good night’s sleep and make us feel sluggish in the morning, which is a sure sign of undigested food still being in the system. Therefore it's best to keep evening meals lighter in favour of a more substantial lunch.
. Eat mindfully in a relaxed environment - Hit and run eaters take note; having our largest meal at lunchtime will only benefit us if we take a proper break to eat it. Eating on the move or in front of a computer screen does no favours for our agni, which is much stronger when we eat in a relaxed, seated posture. This allows us to really focus on what we are eating and notice when we are satisfied; which is much easier (and more pleasurable!) when are taking in all the tastes, textures and aromas of our food.
. Avoid overeating – Our stomachs are surprisingly small, around the size of a fist, and so are not designed to accommodate nearly as much food as we think. The bloating and indigestion that plagues us after those second helpings is a result of us not having enough agni to cope with the volume of food, which often also results in the production of excess stomach acid. It is best to aim for around 80% fullness, always remembering the Japanese saying; "eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor"!
. Mind your liquids – Many of us think that drinking a lot of water will 'flush out' our systems, but taking in too much liquid when we’re eating can dilute the gastic juices which break down our food. Keeping hydrated between meals is important, though ice cold water too is said to be harsh on digestion as the body has to work hard to heat it, so only drink liquids at room temperature, and only when you are thirsty.
. Make time to move – Not only does exercising every day reduce our stress levels and increase our happiness, but also seriously boosts our agni. This doesn’t have to mean sweating it out in the gym for hours, but can be something as simple and enjoyable as doing little yoga in the morning and taking an afternoon stroll. And FYI, doing former before eating and the latter after is seriously good for our digestion.
. Be aware of what else you are digesting – Ayurveda looks not only at how our food affects us but at what we take in from our environment as a whole. For example constantly digesting bad news from the media will have a subliminal effect on our stress levels, which in turn affects how our body functions. Choosing to focus on what is nourishing both mentally and physically will both help our digestive health.
. Use nature’s tool kit – Digestive botanicals have been utilised for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine, and are often overlooked in the West. The bitter leaf; Hari Patti, Ajwain; a thymol oil rich herb, and Dhania Dal; otherwise known as the coriander seed, are just some of traditional ayurvedic herbs that make up the digestive blend d’mix. When chewed after meals, d’mix strengthens agni by stimulating the release of our digestive enzymes, strengthening the gut walls and detoxing the body.
So there we have it; healing practises that can restore our digestive balance without the need to cut out our favourite foods or pop pills forever. When we are mindful of our agni, our whole body benefits.