The ancient practice of Ayurveda is the sister science of Yoga which uses herbs, oils and lifestyle advice to correct physical ailments. Common digestion problems such as gas, bloating and constipation are associated with vata dosha imbalance. Vata represents wind, dryness and motion, and dosha refers to one's physical constitution or stage of life. People in their older years have entered the vata stage. (For more on the doshas, see Ayurveda For Aging)
"The ancients believed all illness was caused by poor digestion. If you are troubled by constipation, gas and bloating, here's how to improve it naturally."
According to New York City-based Ayurvedic practitioner Beth Biegler, "The digestive system tends to diminish with age and peristalsis slows." However, she notes, "I don't know if this happens because people eat so badly, or it's due to aging per se." Biegler maintains that most of these digestion problems can be overcome by changing your lifestyle.
In Ayurveda, changes for better digestive health could range from dietary suggestions to going to bed earlier. As a holistic system, Ayurveda also takes emotions into account when dealing with physical ailments, so the remedies also sooth stress, anxiety and other upsets that might trigger an uneasy stomach. Here are some guidelines for improving your digestive health.
Lifestyle Changes For Digestive Health
To avoid poor digestion, try making these easy changes in habit:
Here's what to avoid:
- Eat regularly, not erratically.
- Eat in a calm environment.
- Chew well.
- Avoid reading or watching television during mealtimes.
- Eat warm, well-cooked food.
- Eat your biggest meal midday. Have dinner as close to sunset as possible.
- Eat fruit by itsel'f. Don't mix fruit with dairy products.
- Get enough oil in your diet. Olive or sesame oils are good. You can saute (not deep fry) food with it, or steam the food and drizzle it with oil.
- Season foods with fresh ginger, cumin, mustard seed, shallots and small amounts of cooked onions.
- Don't eat when you're upset, nervous or anxious.
- Don't drink carbonated beverages.
- Don't drink too much water before, during or a couple of hours after you eat because it dilutes the "digestive fire"—acids that help break food down.
- Don't eat foods that are dry, crunchy or too cold, either in temperature—straight out of the refrigerator—or in quality, such as raw vegetables or salads.
- Avoid rough food such as beans, broccoli, celery, cabbage and Brussels sprouts unless they are very well-cooked, i.e., until soft. You can season them with warming spices such as ginger, turmeric, coriander, cumin, cayenne, fenugreek, cloves and black pepper, too.
- Avoid food that is "light," like crackers, popcorn, rice cakes and chips.
- Don't eat too quickly or while you're talking; that can lead to swallowing air, which causes gas.
- Don't eat leftover, frozen or microwaved foods. "Fresh is best," advises Biegler.
- Stay away from foods that are "heating," such as chile peppers, paprika, horseradish, chutney, pickles, vinegar and too much salt. Their heating quality itself isn't so bad, but too much heat can have a drying effect, explains Biegler.
- Tomatoes should be cooked (this also better releases its antioxidant nutrient lycopene). Go light on "nightshade" vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and fruits that are very sour.
Herbs To The Rescue
These remedies are good for reducing gas and improving poor digestion.
More Tummy Soothing Tips
- Add fresh ginger and cinnamon to your oatmeal or other cooked cereal. A bit of clove can be good, too.
- Sip ginger tea. Add a one-inch piece of fresh ginger to one and one-half to two cups water, then boil for five minutes. If it's too strong, add water.
- Try coriander, cumin and fennel tea. Add one-half teaspoon of each herb to one and one-half to two cups water, boil for five minutes, then strain and sip.
- Tulsi tea, available at health food stores, is another one to try.
- Experiment with lassi, a popular drink in India. Mix 1 tablespoon of plain yogurt into one-half cup warm water after meal
- Massage your abdomen with warm oil, beginning with the lower right quadrant, and circling up above the naval, then descending to the left. Breathe gently yet deeply, focusing on the colon and visual movement happening there.
- Place a hot water bottle on your belly for 10 to 20 minutes.
- Breathing well is a big help. Good breathing is quiet, unforced and relaxed. For better breathing exercises, see part five of our series, Breathing Well.
For more advanced assistance, seek out an experienced Ayurvedic practitioner. Most are happy to work with your physician.