You've probably come across the phrase "you are what you eat". Ayurveda tells us this is only partly true: you are what you digest. Even if you eat the best diet of organic, local and seasonal foods appropriate for your constitution, if you are not digesting all this great food efficiently then you're not getting all the nutrition in it.
The Making of Toxicity
Our ability to efficiently break down foods into absorbable molecules to fully assimilate the good (vitamins, minerals, life force, etc.) and release waste matter is essential to every aspect of our health. Poorly digested food leaves behind a residue known in Sanskrit as ama, or toxic matter. When allowed to accumulate in the body, this thick and sticky substance (some of which you might see on your tongue first thing in the morning) can lead to a host of ailments. It literally clogs the circulatory channels that carry nutrition to all our tissues: the lymph system, the blood, the muscle, fat, bone, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive tissues. Accumulation of toxicity impedes the proper flow of prana (life force), blood, and oxygen. When the cells in your body stop receiving the nutrition and energy they need to do their job, expect trouble.
Regulating the Fire of Transformation
Our digestive capacity (called agni in Ayurveda) can be compared to a burning fire. If the flame is weak food will take a long time to cook. It may not even cook all the way. If food stays too long in our gastro-intestinal tract it begins to ferment, and absorption of nutrients is impaired. We end up bloated, constipated and tired. On the other hand, if our digestive fire is too strong it will burn food so thoroughly and so fast that the body won't have time to absorb any of it. Think of people who eat like there’s no tomorrow yet remain skinny as sticks. In the end, whether our digestive fire burns too low or too high we can't properly assimilate the nutritious and energetic value of the food eaten. Now that you know that you can appreciate how keeping your digestion in top-notch condition is a pre-requisite for all of your tissues to be well nourished, free of toxic matter, and functioning optimally.
What’s the State of Your Digestion?
In our society we've come to view signs of poor digestion as normal. Every drugstore offers a multitude of options to treat (or rather suppress) our digestive ills. Antacids, digestive enzymes, laxatives; they are easy to buy, easy to use, and work temporarily at best. Don’t be fooled. Poor digestion can be the cause of persistent headaches, skin rash, allergies, gut inflammatory diseases, immune dysfunction and more. Ayurveda reminds us that even a little belching after eating is a sign of poor digestion. And since "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", you might as well address those minor discomforts before they become major. The way to do this is to strengthen your digestive capacity, so as not to leave any ama behind.
Signs of Good Digestion
The body feels light and energetic after eating.
The mind is clear and alert after eating.
The tongue is clean in the morning.
There is a complete bowel movement every day.
Breath is sweet.
Hunger is felt at mealtime.
There is no desire to overeat.
Signs of Poor Digestion
Heaviness in the stomach.
Burping (with an odor of the food eaten at the previous meal)
A heavy coating on the tongue in the morning.
Dull and inattentive mind.
Feeling depressed, sluggish, sleepy after eating.
Tips to Improve Your Digestive Health
Start your day with a glass of hot lemon water. Lemon helps flush out toxins from the body, cleanses the liver, and promotes elimination.
Eat moderately. The ideal portion to eat is what you can hold in your two cupped hands joined together.
Make lunch your biggest meal.
Eat lightly in the evening and at least 2 hours before going to sleep.
Chew well: digestion begins in the mouth with the release of digestive enzymes contained in your saliva.
Avoid ice-cold drinks and foods right out of the fridge. Overtime they will extinguish your digestive fire!
Putting Things in Perspective
Do the best you can to follow those guidelines but do not worry if every once in a while you "fall off the wagon". The key is to know when to cheat. For example, iced drinks or ice creams will not lastingly affect your health if taken occasionally and on a hot summer day–not the same story if it’s a habit you have on wintery nights! Similarly, if your digestion has been good lately and you happen to have a heavy late dinner, rest assured it will not have dire consequences on your digestive health.
As a Final Note...
With Thanksgiving around the corner opportunities to overeat and burden our digestive system are going to be plenty. But let's not get neurotic about food! We are multi-faceted beings and need more than food to feel well nourished. Authentic, heart to heart connection with our loved ones is often what we really crave when we reach for more sweets. Beautiful scents, sights and sounds, including silence, should be part of a well-rounded sensory diet, and are essential to our well-being. Food for thought.... ;)