“It comes back to the beginning” – the theme tune punch line from the fantastic TV series, The Bridge. If you haven’t seen it, you should! I’m singing the song for you now, you are just very lucky not to be able to hear me. It does indeed all come back to the beginning and in health, that beginning is digestion. If our digestion is poor we can suffer from immediate problems such as bloating, wind, heartburn, nausea, diarrhoea, constipation etc. It can also lead to a general sense of heaviness, lethargy, lack of energy and a sense of blockage in the body. If we allow the digestion to continue in a weak state, these more general symptoms can develop to a whole host of ailments and full blown diseases. If we keep our digestion in good shape, however, we feel light, energetic and strong. Our tissues are fully nourished and we have a good quantity of ojas, or resilience and immunity. With this knowledge and a few simple guidelines, we can avoid many pitfalls and stay healthy.
In Ayurveda, digestion is seen as the sum of many complex processes and is likened to a fire. This metaphor is fantastically useful. For a fire to burn wood effectively and create heat, the flame needs to be burning brightly. If it isn’t and it is just a glowing ember or a small flicker, you could put all the best logs on it, and nothing will happen. The logs will just get a little charred around the edges but no breakdown will occur and definitely no heat.
It’s the same with our digestion. Think about your digestion as being a small fire in the area of your stomach and duodenum. To be able to break down, absorb and assimilate the food you eat, this fire needs to be burning brightly. If it’s a good strong flame, you can eat your food in the knowledge that it will be digested well and you will be stronger for it and enjoy the energy that comes from it. If your digestive fire is strong, it means your stomach is ready for food and your digestive fluids are flowing.
Eating when your digestive fire isn’t ready
How do we know our digestive fire is ready? We feel HUNGRY! Now this might seem very obvious and basic but you’d be surprised how many clients I talk to who don’t remember when they last felt hungry. In this society where food is readily available, all day every day, we eat for many different reasons. It may be because the clock says so, it may be habit, it may be due to boredom, anxiety or another emotion or it may be just because we crave something. What our bodies have evolved to do is to eat when our stomach is empty and our body is ready. We have a simple way of telling us when this is, it is hunger.
Experiment with feeling hungry before you eat anything, properly hungry. Experience the hunger pangs, the slightly gnawing pains in your stomach telling you that your digestive fire is roaring and ready to digest what you throw at it. It seems lots of people are scared of going there, don’t be. Make sure you DO eat when you are hungry, don’t let your body continue hungry for too long.
If you eat when your digestive fire isn’t ready, the digestive fire won’t be able to consume the food (like the logs on the dying embers) and our food won’t be digested properly, leaving us with less nutrition and the toxic by-products of incompletely digested food. This can lead to immediate problems such as bloating, wind, constipation etc. as well as generalised sense of heaviness, lethargy, lack of energy and a sense of blockage in the body.
Overloading your digestive fire
For a flame in a fire place, there is an optimum amount of wood to add so that the wood burns well and enough heat is generated. If you put on too little, you don’t get the heat. If you put on too much, the flame gets swamped and the wood doesn’t burn. It is the same with our digestive fire. 2/3 capacity is the ideal amount of food to put in our stomachs. If we put in more than that, our digestive fire gets engulfed and our food doesn’t get digested.
How can we know when we are 2/3 full? The key is that we are still just a little bit hungry. It takes 20 minutes for our brain to register we have had enough so stop when you feel gently satisfied but are still a little bit hungry. Don’t finish what’s on your plate when you get to this stage. It is better to waste what is left on the plate than what is already in your stomach.
Drowning out your digestive fire
Sip water gradually throughout the day. This is very important advice on many levels and particularly so when it comes to digestion. If we drop a few drops of water on a flame, what happens? It flickers a little and keeps burning. If you chuck a bucket of water on it, it goes out. Use this analogy to understand why it is important to sip water on-off rather than downing a large glass of water all at once.
Keep your digestive fire strong using the following guidelines:
- Eat only when you are hungry. When you experience hunger you should have a proper meal. Even if the time is other than when you expect to feel hungry.
- Never over-eat, your stomach should feel gently satisfied and never full (about 2/3 of capacity is ideal). Don’t finish everything on your plate if you are satisfied.
- Sip drinks gradually, do not gulp down glasses.
- Drink room temperature or preferably warmer water – the ideal is comfortably hot water.
- Cook with herbs and spices (they make your food easier to digest and absorb). Ginger is especially good for digestion, but others include black pepper, cumin, coriander, mint, basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme.
- Eat warm or room temperature food, never straight from the fridge.
Experiment – you’ll feel the effects straight away!
Till next time, take care of yourselves.
Author: Kate Siraj, Ayurvedic Practitioner, BSc Ayurveda, MChem (Oxon), MAPA.
© The Ayurveda Practice