Tame your digestive flame with Ayurvedic methods for gut health and digestion

Today might *officially* be World Digestive Health day, but for Ayurveda-junkies like us, taking care of your digestive health is an everyday pursuit. 

That’s because Ayurveda teaches that your digestive fire (powered by the ever-burning Pitta Dosha) fuels the goings-on in your entire mind and body — think of it as your inner furnace, but one that’s a little temperamental and prone to chopping, changing and throwing tantrums. Ayurvedic doctors trace the root cause of many illnesses, ailments and imbalances back to problems in the gut, and even if you’re eating ‘healthily’ you might not be giving your unique gut what it needs at that moment in time. Like everything else in the universe, it’s in a constant state of change as it reacts to the world around it. The trick is to tune in, listen to what it’s telling you, and feed it accordingly. Needy? Yes. Powerful? Also yes. 

Doshas & Digestion

First, let’s look at some common digestive upsets for each Dosha. To self-diagnose, try using a tongue scraper first thing in the morning to tune into the messages your gut is sending around the body. Tongue scraping also has the added benefit of preparing the gastrointestinal tract for breakfast because, as we know, digestion starts in the mouth.

With breezy Vata, digestive imbalance can manifest as gas, bloating, abdominal cramps, constipation, and even a brownish coating over the tongue. To bring Vata back into balance, choose sweet, sour, or salty flavours and avoid pungent, bitter or astringent (think drying or ‘chalky’, like an unripe banana or pomegranate) ones.

If you’re fiery Pitta, you’ll have extra digestive fire. Imbalances may make you prone to feeling ‘hangry’ or having acid reflux, heartburn, an upset stomach, or a yellowish coating over your tongue. To balance these uncomfortable conditions, Pitta should favour sweet, bitter and astringent foods but avoid sour, salty or pungent. 

For grounded Kapha, an unhappy gut can leave you with a low or non-existent appetite, heaviness and sleepiness after eating, mucous congestion, or a whitish-hued coating on the tongue. To balance these ailments out, opt for bitter, pungent and astringent flavours, but avoid anything sweet, sour or salty. 

The most important Ayurvedic lesson to remember for a healthy gut is to adapt your diet for your Dosha to bring balance to the fiery Pitta force that drives your digestive system… but there are some things that all of us, whatever our individual body type, can do to help achieve a healthier, balanced gut. Here they are, with the stamp of approval from Deja’s Ayurvedic experts.

Follow the sun

Whoever said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day had never met an Ayurvedic doctor. Each of our brains houses our own internal body clock (called the ‘suprachiasmatic nucleus’) which controls all of our functional rhythms. The more we stick to these rhythms, the more in-balance we feel. This internal clock is influenced by light, which is why both sleep and digestion have peaks and troughs along with the sun’s rise and fall. When the sun is at its highest our digestion is at its strongest, so lunch should be your biggest meal and breakfast and dinner should be as close to sunrise and sunset as possible. 

Eat bigger, better meals and fewer snacks

When it comes to avoiding the temptation to snack, the struggle is very real. But are you really hungry, or is there something else (like boredom or stress) that’s driving your desire to eat? Centuries of Ayurvedic wisdom says true hunger only generally occurs at least 3 to 4 hours after our last meal, and when we snack through the day, the digestive fire is constantly being awakened, disrupting our natural daily rhythms. By sticking to a routine, our bodies know when to prepare themselves for digestion and can do a better job of it because they’re ready to go. Avoiding the temptation to snack will go a long way towards ensuring complete digestion, proper absorption, and assimilation of nutrients. 

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Make mealtimes a sacred ritual 

Ayurvedic science teaches us that digestion is an all-body experience, and not just something that’s isolated to one system in our gut. All of our senses are involved in processing food, so by practicing mindfulness when we eat can help our digestive system to do its job. This includes everything from choosing a variety of spices to delight your eyes, nose and taste buds to focusing your whole attention on the food in front of you (that means no phones at the dinner table!) and taking your time to savour and properly chew each mouthful. 

If you want to level-up your Ayurvedic practice around mealtimes, you can introduce breathing techniques to activate the ‘rest and digest’ mode your body enters to process food and consciously allocate energy to it. Before you begin to eat, take five deep belly breaths with the tips of your middle fingers pressing the tips of your thumbs — also known as ‘agni mudra’ or ‘fire gesture’.

Iced drinks aren’t cool

Remember: whatever your Dosha, your digestive system is governed by Pitta’s fire. And what happens when you add ice to fire? You dampen it. It might be tempting to reach for a refreshing iced drink, but the imbalances caused as a result can lead to malabsorption (when the small intestine is unable to absorb enough nutrients) and incomplete digestion of food, clogging the gastrointestinal tract. Eventually, this food waste can build up throughout the body, wreaking havoc in the form of weakened muscles, aches and pains, fatigue and sluggishness, insomnia, brain fog and low moods. If your primary Dosha is Pitta, drinking cool water is ok to tame your inner heat, but for Vata and Kaphas we recommend room temperature or even warm drinks. 

Try not to eat before bedtime

Yep, that means an earlier supper and no more late-evening snacks. Eating too soon before you go to bed is all too often a direct cause of insomnia or other sleep troubles because our bodies do all sorts of amazing things to rejuvenate and replenish while we’re asleep, but they can only do that well when they’re not distracted by directing energy to digesting food you’ve just eaten. If you’re having a day when life just doesn’t allow you to stick to your ideal mealtimes and you end up eating later than planned, make sure you avoid dairy, frozen foods, or oily, fatty, or sugary foods.

The digestive system, like everything else in the world, is complex and ever-changing, and extremely volatile. Trying to bring it into balance is harder than taming a wild beast, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you find it difficult to manage. The key, as always, is to remember that Ayurvedic wisdom teaches us to strive for balance, and not perfection, and to always listen to and adapt along with our bodies, which have a mind of their own.