Gut health is a trending topic amongst wellness practitioners these days. Modern research has finally established that a healthy gut is responsible not just for digestion, but also has an impact on mental health. For example, many patients suffering from depression and anxiety see improvements on eating a wholesome diet devoid of processed food. Processed food tends to be higher in sugar and salt & adversely affects the gut flora. Ayurveda has long known of these connections, and hence places a huge emphasis on improving digestion & metabolism.
Digestive SystemAnybody seeking to improve their gut health needs to focus on improving their digestion first. The process of Agni/digestive fire acting upon food leading to the formation of nutrients/by products and subsequent building up of body tissues is known as 'dhatu parinama'. This process of tissue building helps us understand that the end product of proper digestion is not just nourished tissues alone, but stronger immunity and faster tissue repair. Most chronic ailments cannot be effectively treated without addressing the digestive system first.
Recent studies done to understand the nervous system that control our digestive functions and its connection, along with the influence on our mind and emotions have led to the invent of a whole new branch of human physiology, called the enteric nervous system. Ayurveda considers that all 'function of movement' within our body is interconnected. An imbalance caused at the level of Vata, or air & space elements, will have an influence on thought, emotions, sleep, bones, joints and nervous system. This is normally caused by a combination of factors like poor diet, weak digestion, stress and disturbed sleep. Accumulation of Vata imbalance over an extended period of time can result in an extremely sensitive gut and symptoms similar to common digestive disorder called the irritable bowel syndrome.
The treatment for Irritable bowel in Ayurveda involves a holistic approach addressing the Vata Imbalance. This will include an easily digestible diet, including simple home cooked food with warming spices. Spices like asafoetida and ajwain (carom seed) are recommended to be used in cooking or as tea to prevent bloating and enhance digestion. It will also include methods of addressing the actual causative factors behind the stress and sleep issues like breathing exercises and meditation. External application of castor oil and hot fomentation over the abdomen is also seen as an effective treatment method to calm the sensitive enteric nervous system.
Ayurveda understands the importance of having a proper cleansing mechanism and the ill effects of having irregular bowel habits. Modern researches shows that fecal pH and transit time can be an important factor in identifying chances for colon illnesses including cancer. The recent increase in consumption of processed food, farmed red meat and low-fiber- calorie dense diet has resulted in an increase in cancer.
The Ayurvedic principle of having food freshly prepared and mixed with various digestive spices helps maintain a healthy fecal pH level. The concept of eating locally available and seasonal ingredients also helps in improved digestion and elimination functions. Fresh and seasonal produce not only have great flavour, they also have better concentration of anti-oxidants, nutrients and life force in them than those which are stored in cold storage. Spices like turmeric, black cumin, ginger, garlic etc. which are commonly used in Ayurvedic cuisine are also proven to have strong anti-cancerous properties.
Fasting and Rebalance
In Ayurveda, fasting is recommended as a method of cleansing or detoxification. The weight loss is usually a welcome side effect. Based on the level of Agni or digestive fire, fasting is usually performed in various ways ranging from avoiding all solid food for a period of time, and drinking only warm water; to having khichadi (rice and lentil porridge preparation) for all three meals in a day. According to Ayurveda, any food that we consume when the appetite is not strong, and is too heavy for the digestive system to metabolize, is usually converted to a toxin called AMA. This AMA is understood to have a deteriorating effect on physical, mental, behavioral and cognitive functions. One of the major aims of fasting in ayurveda is to eliminate these toxins. Another reason for fasting is to literally give rest to the digestive apparatus. A properly planned fasting will not only cleanse, but will also build up the digestive fire and prepare it to metabolize heavy and difficult to digest food.
An ideal fast for a healthy person is recommended as follows: Prepare khichadi with aged basmati rice, moong dal, turmeric, ghee and spices and have it for all three meals of the day once every fortnight. Hydrate well using warm ginger infused water and coconut water.
Ayurveda recommends a diet which is balanced in all six tastes. They are sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter and astringent. A diet which is balanced in all six will naturally include all the nutrients and would not make us feel unnecessarily unsatisfied or create undue cravings. Today most of our diet is predominantly sweet, sour or salty. The chances of illness are more due to absence of bitter, astringent and spices, which are healing herbs. Here are simple ways to ensure that your breakfast, lunch and dinner include all six flavours.
Breakfast: Add berries, cinnamon, pomegranate, and some pinch of dry ginger and cardamom powder to your morning porridge or cereal mix to counter balance the sweet flavour.
Lunch and Dinner: Include leafy greens (considered bitter), some lentils/beans (considered astringent) along with root vegetables/grains (considered sweet). Sea weed (salty) and tamarind chutney (sour+spicy) can be used as accompaniments. Another easy way to include bitter, astringent and spicy flavour to your meal is to have a variety of herbal and spice teas with your meals. Tulsi, ajwain, ginger & methi seed tea are good examples for tea to have with meals.
Ayurvedic recipes for enriching the gut microbiome: Spiced Buttermilk
Natural Yogurt: 1 cup
Water: 2 cups (Adjust the amount of water according to your preference)
Fresh mint leaves: 4-5
Ginger, peeled: 1/2″ inch piece
Fresh coriander leaves: 4-5
Himalayan Salt: ¼ tsp
Roasted Cumin powder: 1 tsp
Ground black pepper: 1/4 tsp
1. Puree together mint leaves, ginger, coriander leaves and mix with the yogurt and water
2. Now blend together the pureed herbs, Himalayan salt, cumin powder, ground black pepper and cold water, until frothy.
3. Garnish with cumin powder and mint leaves and serve.