An Ayurvedic Approach to Gut Health
Laura Borinsky, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, IIN Contributing Editor
While modern medicine has just recently started to explore the significance of the mind-body connection, the ancient science of Ayurveda has based its approach to wellness on this concept for thousands of years. Rooted in the idea that the mind and body are inextricably linked, Ayurvedic principles hold that any disease is the result of some sort of imbalance in the body.
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of medicine that dates back to around 6,000 BCE. In Sanskrit, ayur means “life” and veda means “science” – Ayurveda is “the science of life.” It is based on the idea that true health is achieved through balancing our bodily systems and living in harmony with our environments.
According to Ayurveda, everything consists of the qualities of the five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and ether. These five elements then make up three doshas, which are essentially the Ayurvedic mind-body types. The three doshas are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Vata is associated with air and ether, Pitta with fire and water, and Kapha with earth and water. Each person has varying levels of these three doshas. While one dosha is often more dominant, doshas are dynamic and the balance can continually change based on internal and external factors.
Each dosha also correlates with certain functions of the body: Vata governs the nervous system and circulation. Kapha governs immunity, structure, and the lubrication of joints. Pitta, the only dosha associated with the element fire, governs all things digestion.
Ayurveda and Digestion
According to Ayurveda, the key to good health begins with digestion. Good health is a reflection of our ability to digest anything – whether nutritional, emotional, or sensory.
There are two key terms related to Ayurvedic digestion. Agni, or digestive fire, helps us digest everything that we take in. Ama, or toxic accumulation, can create “dis-ease” in the system and ultimately contribute to disease. When our digestive fire is strong, we’re able to effectively break down the food we eat, absorb nutrients, and eliminate toxins. If agni is weak, it can lead to a buildup of ama.
Ayurvedic Tools for Gut Health
No matter your dosha, there are a few universal things you can do to help support optimal gut health and stoke that digestive fire.
- Sip on warm water throughout the day. This is one of the easiest and cheapest habits you can start incorporating into your daily routine. Sipping on warm water throughout the day is thought to help stimulate digestion, clear out ama, and boost metabolism.
- Avoid cold beverages, especially at mealtime. Because good digestion relies on stoking your digestive fire, chugging a glass of ice water along with your meal can dampen the digestive fires that are hard at work assimilating your food. It would be like trying to build a fire while pouring ice-cold water on the logs; it won’t be very effective.
- Sit down and slow down. There’s an ancient Ayurvedic saying that says, “If you eat standing up, death looks over your shoulder.” While there’s no scientific evidence to back that up, it’s good advice nonetheless. Sitting down to eat is one way to honor and separate the act of nourishing yourself from the rest of your busy day. In Ayurveda, digestion begins before any food enters your mouth. The first step is actually seeing and smelling your food. Have you ever noticed that when you smell your favorite food your mouth starts to water? Your digestive system is getting ready to do its thing by producing the saliva you need to break down your food. Slowing down and taking a moment to breathe before eating also helps your body physically prepare for digestion by getting you into a parasympathetic, or rest and digest, state. When you’re calm and relaxed, your body is able to focus its full attention on digesting properly.
- Take time to chew. The second step in digestion according to Ayurveda is chewing. Taking time to chew your food helps break it down so it can be assimilated easily later on. It also stimulates the production of saliva, which helps produce digestive enzymes. Taking time to really chew at mealtime not only helps with the actual process of digestion but gives your gut time to communicate to your brain that you’re full. Your brain receives a series of signals from digestive hormones found in the intestinal tract to let it know when you’ve had enough. It takes time for your brain to receive those signals, so if you’re scarfing down your meal, you won’t realize you’re full until you’re already stuffed.
- Enjoy your largest meal midday. Because everything is connected, including our bodies and our environments, it’s important to consider the time of day when eating. One Ayurvedic principle states that our digestive fire is strongest when the sun is at its highest point in the day. Eating your largest meal sometime between noon and 2pm will ensure that your digestive fire is at its peak. This practice will also give your body plenty of time to fully digest before bedtime, when your digestive system shuts down for some well-deserved rest.
- Eat only when hungry. While it’s a good idea to have your largest meal midday, Ayurveda also teaches us to only eat when we are hungry. Instead of planning your meals strictly guided by a clock, try checking in with yourself to see if you’re actually hungry at noon. If not, hold off on your lunch. If the last meal you ate hasn’t been fully digested you don’t want to overload your digestive system with more work. This is where practicing intuitive eating can really come in handy. Take a moment before you eat to ask yourself if you’re eating just to distract yourself from something or if you’re actually needing fuel for your body.
- Add these five spices for optimal digestion. Fennel, coriander, cumin, cardamom, and ginger are all frequently used in Ayurvedic cooking. Not only do they aid digestion in real time, studies show that they actually help the body produce its own digestive enzymes and bile, both of which are necessary for healthy digestion. In many Indian restaurants, you’ll often find a bowl of fennel seeds by the door because chewing fennel after a meal has been found to help with digestion.
- Add ghee to your diet. Ghee, or clarified butter, is a kitchen staple in Ayurvedic cooking. The primary fatty acid in ghee is butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that helps maintain the integrity of your intestinal wall. A compromised intestinal wall can lead to leaky gut syndrome, which can lead to a variety of symptoms beyond digestive troubles. Ghee also helps lubricate your digestive system so that things continue to run smoothly.
- Combine foods appropriately. One of the key principles in Ayurveda is proper food combining. The idea is that each food has distinct qualities, so they’re all digested differently. Combining foods with incompatible energies can diminish your digestive fire, or agni, which can then lead to bloating, gas, indigestion, and eventually toxic accumulation, or ama. While there are a handful of combinations Ayurveda recommends avoiding, one of the most important is combining fruit (especially melons) with any other food. Because fruit can be digested so quickly, if it’s combined with another slower-digesting food, it can end up spending too much time in the digestive tract, which can then lead to fermentation and bloating. Other key food combinations to avoid include raw and cooked foods, beans with cheese, and bananas and milk.
- Incorporate all six tastes. The key to eating a balanced diet in Ayurveda is to incorporate all six tastes: sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter, and astringent. By doing so, your plate will be full of all the essential nutrients and food groups. You’ll also end up feeling more satisfied, which can decrease snack cravings later on.
- Take a relaxing walk after you eat. Going for just a 15-minute walk after eating can significantly help aid digestion, according to Ayurveda. Recent studies have also shown this to be a beneficial habit. Taking a walk after you eat can not only aid digestion (sometimes even more so than that post-dinner coffee) but also help balance blood sugar levels.
- Don’t skimp on sleep. In Ayurveda, getting a good night’s sleep is imperative for maintaining optimal gut health. When we sleep, we enter the rest and digest state. Remember, the basis of good health is our ability to digest food as well as emotions. Giving your body time to rest will ensure that your digestive system and your nervous system have time to recharge for the next day. Ayurveda also recommends sleeping on your left side if possible. This employs gravity to naturally encourage food waste to move from your small intestine to your large intestine and finally to your colon, where it will be ready to be eliminated when you wake up.
An Ayurvedic Dish to Support Gut Health
Because good digestion is the foundation of good health in Ayurveda, making the digestive process as easy on your body as possible is the key to living well. Kitchari, a popular Ayurvedic dish, is a perfect example of a meal that is both nourishing and easy to digest. The combination of rice and mung beans provides all the amino acids needed to form a complete protein. Mung beans naturally have an astringent quality, which helps loosen any toxic buildup in the intestinal lining. Both the basmati rice and the mung beans are relatively easy to digest, so your digestive system doesn't have to work quite as hard. Kitchari balances all three doshas, and the combination of spices helps stoke the digestive fire.
Try the following recipe and remember to take time to really enjoy the entire process, including preparing the dish and sitting down for a relaxing meal.
The word kitchari means “mixture,” usually of two grains. Feel free to use any variation of grains. For example, you can swap the basmati rice with quinoa, depending on your preferences and dietary needs.
- 1/2 cup basmati rice
- 1/2 cup split mung beans
- 4 cups water
- 1–2 cups organic seasonal vegetables (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon ghee (or coconut oil if dairy-free)
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 pinch asafetida (hing)
- 1/2 to 1 inch ginger root, chopped or grated (or 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger powder)
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt
- Juice from half a lemon or lime (for garnish)
- 1/2 cup chopped organic cilantro (for garnish)
- Soak rice and mung beans overnight in cold water. Rinse and strain at least twice, removing any stones. (You can also buy these already sprouted, in which case skip this step.)
- In a large pot, combine rice, mung beans, and water. Cook covered on low heat for 30 minutes.
- While rice and beans are cooking, cut any vegetables you’d like into small pieces. Once rice and beans have cooked, add vegetables and cook for about 10 more minutes, until the vegetables soften.
- In a separate pan, sauté the mustard seeds and cumin seeds in the ghee until they pop. Add other spices and combine.
- Stir sautéed spices into cooked rice and beans.
- Add splash of lemon or lime juice and some chopped cilantro on top.
- Sit down for a calm, nourishing meal free of distractions, and enjoy!
How Health Coaches Can Use Ayurveda to Help Clients
The role of a Health Coach is to help clients implement healthy habits that will lead to sustainable positive change. Many of Ayurveda’s key principles for healthy digestion have nothing to do with what you eat but instead focus on how you eat. These Ayurvedic practices for gut health can be applied in any setting, and best of all, you don’t have to give up your favorite foods!