HJ: Both Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine share a strong focus on digestive health because they realize the fundamental truth that nearly all illness begins with imbalance in this area. Many of the primary modalities for healing in both systems are centrally focused on diet and modification of lifestyle habits to improve digestive health. Most of the recommendations are simple, powerful, safe and effective and can be practiced on your own with just a basic understanding of the core principles involved. Furthermore, you will be empowered to take control of your health and cultivate a deeper connection with your body — invaluable skills that will give you a lifetime of improved health, digestion and overall wellbeing.
11 Crucial Tips for Better Digestive Health
By Jack Adam Weber L.Ac., Dipl. C.H.
The following tips are helpful for everyone, especially those with digestive issues. They are culled from years of personal and clinical experience, as well as from the annals of both Eastern and Western medicine. Many of these tips have conflicting research and opinions. The suggestions I offer, therefore, are ones that I have seen work.
These are guidelines; try them and notice what works for you.
Remember too, however, that future imbalance may develop from poor habits, even if they feel okay in the present. If you suffer from poor digestion, or want to optimize your health, I recommend you give these a try. These tips are not meant to diagnose or to treat any specific disease. Please consult with a physician if symptoms are severe or persist.
Tip #1: Do not drink liquids just before, during or just after your meal — especially not cold ones.
Explanation: This can dilute your digestive enzymes (conflicting research on this) and weakens digestive fire. If you do drink, a cup of warm tea or water is usually okay, and will likely not affect enzyme activity. Meals high in salt are doubly injurious because they promote imbalance of excessive thirst and water intake. Pay attention; notice what works.
In TCM terms, drinking excessively (and any cold drinks at all) while eating injures the Stomach and Spleen Qi, the two organs systems most important for digestive health.
Tip #2: Try squatting while you eat.
Explanation: The rest of the world does it for good reason, not just for the absence of chairs. Squatting is helpful especially if you have been sitting or doing sedentary, intellectual work, where energy stagnates in the upper body (e.g., computer work). Squatting stimulates digestion by encouraging energy to flow downward, helping to relax breathing and the diaphragm, as well as activating the “middle and lower burners," the areas of the torso corresponding with digestion.
The Spleen and Stomach meridians/channels on the leg are activated by squatting; these are the primary channels and organ systems responsible for digestive health in Chinese medicine.
Tip #3: Talk minimally while eating, if at all, and chew your food really well.
Explanation: Talking impairs chewing, allows excess air into digestive tract, and often creates tension, which hampers good digestion. Excessive talking while eating distracts one from body-awareness and leads easily to over-eating. On the other hand, if you are upset/stressed and you have to eat, talking might help you alleviate your upset, in which case it is beneficial. This highlights the importance of listening to your body for what feels good.
Chewing well increases the surface area of your food, making it easier for digestive enzymes to further break it down. Chewing well allows digestive enzymes in your saliva, HCL in your stomach, and pancreatic enzymes in your intestines to mix thoroughly with food to further the digestive process. Remember also, you want your food to be as liquefied as possible by the time you swallow your food.
Tip #4: Do not eat when stressed or emotionally upset.
Explanation: This is common sense, really, but often ignored. Intuitively, it does not feel good or right to eat when stressed out. In Chinese medicine, stress and emotional angst primarily impact the Liver organ network, which in turn “invades" the Spleen/Stomach system. The Liver organ network is crucial for good digestion and assimilation.
Unless you are “starving," try to unwind before eating. Take a walk, do some deep breathing, process your feelings, take some deep breaths and eat while keeping your stomach and belly area relaxed. A “quick check" method for this is to gauge the softness of your lower belly. Breathing in it should pooch it out slightly, and exhaling, your belly should recede. Also try to avoid physical and emotional stress after eating.
Tip #5: Eat soup
Explanation: This is the original, post-harnessing of fire era, most efficient and nutritious way to consume food. It allows for maximum nutrient absorption, and when prepared with herbs, especially Chinese herbs, the benefits are increased. Make a pot every few days; warm it up as needed. Soup is efficient, nutritious, fun, cost effective, and easy to digest. If you eat meat, it is most easily digested in soup.
Consult a Chinese herbalist to learn which herbs to include in your soup for your particular constitution.
Tip #6: Eat fruit and drink water between meals.
Explanation: Wait at least 10 minutes before eating if you have to drink more than a cup or so of water, and 15 minutes after eating fruit. Especially if you have compromised digestive health, I have found that bloating, indigestion, and gas develop when this is not heeded. Wait at least an hour aftereating before eating fruit, and half an hour or so for drinking water is also optimal. This is both cleansing for your system and does not dilute your digestive enzymes for digesting solid food.
Tip #7: Include fermented foods which are rich in beneficial bacteria
Explanation: Ferments make nutrients more available for assimilation, out-compete bad bacteria, improve immunity, and have recently been clinically shown to increase the numbers of certain T cells, improve mood, and even reverse mental illness such as OCD and ADHD. Besides, fermented foods also taste good!
One caution: make sure your ferments are prepared and stored properly, as some have putrefying bacteria that also grow in them. A quick word on kombucha: eliminating it has improved many a patient’s digestive symptoms.
Tip #8: Test for Parasites/Candida if you have the symptoms for infection.
Explanation: No matter everything else you do, you will plateau in your health if you have imbalance here. The majority of these parasites are invisible to the naked eye. In other words, just because there are not worms in your stool does not mean that you are free of parasites and Candida overgrowth. The best way to determine if you have them is to do a stool test with a health care professional. Treating them because you think you might have them is not advised and in the long run can create more problems and expense.
Some of the psychological and physiological correlates for infestation, but by no means the only cause, are loss of power and compromising too much in your life, and a weak immune system. In nature, weak plants are those that are more susceptible to attack by pests. Same goes for us.
In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) terms, this is called Gu Syndrome and can severely injure the Spleen/Stomach axis and the intestines, among other systems. Here is an amazing article on this.
Tip #9: Resolve past and present emotional issues and traumas.
Explanation: Obsession with ultra-pure diets often carries an element of transference of unconscious emotional issues so that we feel chronically “toxic." We mistakenly think we can clear emotional wounds and vacancies through diet. Because mind and body are intimately linked, a better diet and eating habits can help us achieve emotional integration/balance on one level, but will not address deeper emotional roots of food obsessions. Such obsessions create fanaticism, rigidity, neurotic worry, and leave us unresolved and unintegrated.
Ironically, dogmatism around food can even leave us more physically unwell, especially if we are eating a diet that is not actually right for us. I see this all the time with raw-food advocates (going on a quick tangent here), who follow raw food gurus (you know who you are), who have little to no medical training. Raw food, like all food, and even more so because it is raw, needs to be recommended to the right person at the right time under the right conditions in the context of their overall constitution and acute health challenges. “Raw food for everybody" is even a more flawed notion than one “healthy diet" for everyone (more on this below). If you are a raw-fooder and can be honest about how you really feel and your stamina, and see through the healing crisis propaganda, you might consider giving it up, or seeking professional advice from a Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic physician. Most MD’s don’t know squat about nutrition, by the way, unless they have supplemented their formal education.
Tip #10: Let your deep body wisdom inform your food choices.
Explanation: There is no one healthy diet. As I just alluded to, everywhere we hear the phrase “eat healthy," but few recognize that this does not refer to one diet specifically, at all. We each have different needs/constitutions/imbalances and these all change over time, even day to day. Illness, stress, physical demands, injury, and sundry other factors change our nutritional needs. The best dietary advice, in my opinion, comes from the Eastern traditions of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda because they contain extensive dietary wisdom in relation to individual constitutions, patterns of medical imbalance, as well as acute and long-term needs.
Remember, food really is medicine, and one who gives dietary advice should do so in the context of being able to comprehensively evaluate your overall health. Dietary advice should therefore be given by health care professionals trained in a comprehensive system of medicine. I have seen too many fad diets and charlatan idealists injure the health of innocent believers.
Tip #11: In the end, no matter what you have or do not have to eat, eat with gratitude and appreciation.
Jack Adam Weber is a licensed acupuncturist, master herbalist, author, organic farmer, celebrated poet, and activist for Earth-centered spirituality. He integrates poetry, ancient wisdom, holistic medicine, and depth psychology into passionate presentations for personal fulfilment as a path to planetary transformation. Jack’s books, artwork, and provocative poems can be found at his website PoeticHealing.com. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Facebook.