Last year, I spent a week at an Ayurvedic spa in the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains and learned immediately that in Ayurveda, the quality of your digestion is the biggest key to your overall health. If your digestive system is running smoothly, you’ve got the best shot at staving off disease and feeling great. It’s that simple.
But let’s get real: If you’re not cocooned in the lovely confines of an Ayurvedic retreat center or don’t have a degree in nutrition, there’s a good chance you take your digestive system for granted. You expect it to do its job of turning food into energy and neatly disposing of waste effortlessly—yet your eating habits (read: skipping meals, eating take-out too often, snacking constantly, and eating too much food overall) make it tough for it to get the job done. The result? Minor digestive woes—think things like bloating, gas, and constipation—that cumulatively impact our health in big ways.
The good news is that you can fix the imbalances that cause these issues with Ayurveda, says Kate O’ Donnell, author of The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook and a yoga teacher based in Boston. Here, she and other Ayurvedic experts offer five simple tips that you can start doing now to improve your digestion—and your health.
5 Ways to Improve Your Digestion With Ayurveda
Tip No. 1: Stimulate your digestive system before you eat.
According to Bellevue, Washington-based Aadil Palkhivala, founder of Purna Yoga, the digestive system loves to be stimulated by twists. Poses such as any of the Marichyasanas are ideal, because the twist happens in the GI tract. “Twisting creates agni—fire or heat—that gets our gastric juices flowing,” says Palkhivala. “They help the digestive system say, ‘I am ready to eat, I want food.’”
Tip No. 2: Eat foods in the right order.
Combining foods is treated seriously in Ayurveda. There are two basic rules to follow, says Palhkivala: First, always eat protein before anything else. “The stomach only produces a certain amount of hydrochloric acid at a time,” says Palkhivala. “And because protein is the only food that requires hydrochloric to digest, it’s best to eat it first, while you have an abundant supply.” Second, you should never eat fruit after a meal (except for papaya, mango, and pineapple). Fruits digest faster than other foods, which means your body will focus on breaking them down first—and not do as complete a job breaking down other foods that take longer to digest. The exceptions—mango, papaya, and pineapple—all contain enzymes that can speed the digestion of protein, fat, carbs, and starch, making them an ideal after-dinner treat.
Tip No. 3: Sip a digestive tea with your meal.
Drinking cold water during a meal is an absolute disaster for your digestive fire, says O’Donnell. It’s essentially like asking your digestive tract to break down food as you are freezing it, she says. Far kinder to your stomach is to sip warm water during your meal, which aids digestion. Even better? Sip this digestive tea as you eat:
Digestive Tea Recipe
½ teaspoon fennel
½ teaspoon ground coriander
pinch of ground cardamom or one crushed cardamom pod
2 cups water
Boil spices in water for 10 minutes, strain, and sip it slowly along with your meal or after your meal.
Tip No. 4: Practice this pose after you eat.
The best—and only—pose to do after a meal is Virasana (Hero Pose) or Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose). “Virasana stimulates the digestive meridians that run along the front of the legs,” says Palkhivala. “By doing these poses immediately after a meal, digestion is enhanced.” Spend 2-5 minutes in Hero Pose to get the benefits.
Tip No. 5: Lie on your left side for 10 minutes to optimize your digestion after a meal.
If you find yourself somewhere where you can’t bust out a yoga pose on the floor post-meal, head to the nearest couch and lie on your left side for 10 minutes, says O’Donnell. “Prop a cushion under your left armpit to create more space for your stomach, and allow your stomach to relax and spread out,” she says. Because the liver and gall bladder are on your right side, lying on your left lets gravity draw the bile down into the stomach, where it can help digest the food you’ve just eaten, and then slowly empty out of your stomach, she says. On the flip side, lying down on your right side puts too much pressure on your stomach, forcing the food to pass more quickly and enter your intestines prematurely.
by Elizabeth Marglin