How to maintain a healthy digestive system
There is increasing awareness of how important healthy digestion is to feel our best. For example, research indicates that most of the body’s serotonin, a key hormone in balancing mood, is produced in the gut.
The gut is also being viewed as a key player in good immunity. Ayurveda (the ancient Indian system of medicine) agrees that healthy digestion is at the heart of health and healing. It also thinks of our digestive system as being stoked by fire and if that fire gets too hot or is too cold then we get immediate symptoms of indigestion, such as a feeling of not digesting a meal even after several hours, bloating acidity/heartburn, or even diarrhoea and constipation.
In Ayurveda, there are three different doshas (or mind-body types), vata, pitta and kapha, and all three can predominate in a person's digestive system in different ways. If you don’t know which dosha you are, take our quiz to find out.
You may be blessed with strong, balanced digestion, with regular hunger and well-digested food. Or you may experience the following from time to time:
Irregular digestion: Erratic appetite with bloating and indigestion, common in vata types.
Intense digestion: Intense hunger but poor digestion with acidity and strong thirst, common in pitta types.
Weak digestion: Low appetite and slow digestion with heaviness after a meal, persistent sweet cravings and need for stimulants, common in kapha types.
Balancing your digestion
We all want to eat food that is best for us. However, there are so many different, and often conflicting dietary guidelines out there, it is often hard to know where to begin.
Nutritionists often say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, for example, but there are some people who are just not hungry first thing in the morning.
Ayurveda offers a wealth of suggestions on how to nurture our digestive fire, known 'Agni'. Importantly, Ayurveda recognises that there is no one size fits all when it comes to how and what we eat.
Here are some helpful tips for balancing your digestion:
Try having your main meal between 12pm and 2pm, when the digestive fire is stronger. When it comes to the evening, a big meal will not only tax your digestive system but can disrupt your sleep. If you do eat a big meal in the evening, try not to make it too late
Try to eat only when genuinely hungry as this is a sign that your previous meal has been digested
Try to stop eating before you feel really full up. Ayurveda advises to only fill our stomach to half or three quarters to allow room for our digestion to work optimally. The key to this is to chew each mouthful mindfully and eat more slowly so we can really listen to our body
It’s great to drink lots of hot herbal teas between meals, but try to limit liquids taken with food, as this can dilute the digestive enzymes. A cup of Feel New tea, Three Ginger tea or After Dinner tea 45 minutes after a meal can be very helpful for digestion
Keep to regular mealtimes and try to avoid skipping meals which can weaken digestion
Avoid foods which are seen as hard to digest such as excessively cold, damp, heavy, spicy, oil and fried foods. Freshly prepared food is also viewed as easier to digest than leftover
Favour organic food that is in season
Regular exercise, such as brisk after lunch walk can help maintain good digestion.
The best foods for your dosha
What makes Ayurveda’s approach to diet unique is that rather than promoting one diet to suit all, it recognises us all as individuals. Understanding your dosha can be really helpful in working out which foods are best for you.
In Ayurveda, there are six tastes which can help us to understand the effects of different foods on us energetically, through their effect on the doshas.
A healthy diet needs to include all six tastes, but you can tailor the amounts of each for your specific needs by favouring those tastes which balance your main dosha.
The basic rule to remember is that:
Sweet, sour and salty tastes balance vata dosha
Sweet, bitter and astringent tastes balance pitta dosha
Bitter, pungent and astringent tastes balance kapha dosha
In this light, it makes sense for high-energy vata types, with their more variable appetite and digestion, to favour regular meals of warming, nourishing and sustaining food- think one-pot meals such as soups, stews and casseroles.
In contrast, the more robust, slower moving kapha types need a lighter, more stimulating diet.
Pitta types, with their tendency to overheat, do best to minimise the spicy taste in favour of foods which are naturally more cooling and cleansing- such as plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Small positive changes for your digestive health
It might be challenging to include all the suggestions for your main dosha into your daily life, but this can be overwhelming. You can try adopting one or two each week and seeing how it affects you.
Even a small improvement in your feelings of wellbeing can be enough of an incentive for making more gradual changes. Ayurveda is certainly no quick- fix, and the most profound changes tend to happen gradually over time.
Remember, we’re all a mixture of the three doshas so we’ll show characteristics of each but one or two will tend to dominate. vata is more likely to get aggravated when the season's change in spring and autumn, pitta dosha in summer and kapha dosha is late winter and early spring. So take extra care to balance these doshas at these times of the year.