I have had a complicated relationship with digestion — and food in general — from a young age. I’m familiar with common issues like heartburn, nausea, and constipation. Interestingly enough, my interest in overall well-being (beyond the realm of trendy diets) was sparked during graduate school at Academy of Art University, where I studied sustainable fashion.
Not unsurprisingly, crops and garment production are also directly related to the food chain and the health of the planet as a whole. If you’re reading this, you probably already know that the food we eat is a major factor in how we feel. The body is hyper-intelligent, and so if the food we eat is processed or covered in pesticides, our digestion and inner workings as a unit will likely suffer the consequences.
After completing the Health Coach Training Program at Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I began experimenting with various dietary theories. The results ebbed and flowed. During my morning smoothie phase, I was incredibly regular, yet still highly sensitive. Sometimes occasional gluten and dairy consumption worked out fine and other times left me pain. I landed on a great dietary kick with food I loved even though it often made me feel nauseous and bloated. I couldn’t crack the code, and I was riddled with frustration.
Eventually, I met Ayurvedic practitioner and chef Divya Alter of NYC’s Divya’s Kitchen, who felt my pulse and “prescribed” an individual approach that would help sooth my discomforts. She reminded me to turn to ancient wisdom in lieu of hip health trends. The protocol, while complicated to maneuver at first, helped me feel a positive shift in my digestion within two weeks.
Along with the various SV Ayurvedic dietary practices, there are also lifestyle habits that are equally as imperative to achieving effective digestion. Before I left to teach in France this summer, the most pertinent piece of advice I received, next to sustaining various regimens unique to my health issues, was not to rush. Alter’s mentor Dr. Marianne Teitelbaum (aka Dr. T) stressed vehemently that, above all, I must move without strain. She said, “Even if you’re busy, don’t rush. Until you learn how to slow down, the herbs can only do so much.”
This is easier said than done, since many of us are used to running around. It is natural for us to want to go faster or race to a perpetual finish line. The act of rushing instigates stress and, as a result, triggers discomforts in the body as manifestations of that stress.
Dr. T explained that our reproductive glands — like the adrenals — make hormones out of cholesterol. (Contrary to many vegan wellness trends, Ayurvedic ancient wisdom recommends including whole milk in the diet in relation to balanced hormones). Rushing around kicks our sympathetic nervous system (“fight-or-flight”) into high gear, which compromises not only our glands but also our digestion, blood, and oxygen flow. Because our glands are often in overdrive, they are not able to effectively produce important hormones.
The stress caused by rushing and the inability to shut off our sympathetic nervous system show up as imbalances — from the gut to the glands to the organs and so on. This is not at all optimal for whole-body health, whether we eat greens or take herbs or not.
When we learn to be in the present moment as often as possible instead of rushing and obsessing about plans or expectations, the physical and mental blockades we create open up. Studies show that connecting with the present moment via practices like meditation benefits everything from concentration to lowering heart rates to improving digestion.
When in doubt or confused, consider these tips from my personal practice, inspired by Ayurveda. Here’s how to kickstart your digestive fire and ease any lingering anxieties that might be preventing it from functioning properly in the first place.
1. Meditate. For someone like me who anxiously feels the need to always have something to do, sitting still with myself and my environment without doing anything is a non-negotiable way to begin my day. I do my best to integrate the simple practice of being aware throughout my day, even if it is only for a moment. This practice is also helpful when making choices about what and how I eat, including my relationship with food and my body.
2. Be prepared. Keep as many clean, unprocessed items in your pantry as possible, like spices, whole grains, nuts and seeds, dried fruits, and fresh produce. When you surround yourself with wholesome ingredients, you will be more likely to consume them — and learn to prefer them — on a regular basis.
3. Drink water between meals. Give your digestion some space by eating without consuming too much liquid, and drinking water between the time slots between meals. Hydration is key, so long as water is not over or under-consumed. Think of maintaining a healthy plant instead of over- or under-watering it.
4. Eat slowly, without distractions, sitting down. This is amazingly important and yet enormously challenging in today’s society of device-happy humans. Do your best to sit down, first and foremost, so the body can process the food in a relaxed state. If you are looking at a device, make it a mindful practice by taking it slow and paying attention to your bites and chews between scrolls and types. Breathe.
5. Masala spice mixes. Alter’s spice mixes from her cookbook have seriously upgraded my meals, especially when I travel and I am seeking both extra flavor and digestive aids — quite helpful when faced with foods not normally consumed.
6. Fennel seeds. Alter recommended eating about 1/2 teaspoon of fennel seeds (equal parts dry-toasted to raw) either 30 minutes before or after a meal when digestion feels compromised, especially when traveling and eating something atypical to your diet.
7. Morning apple. Extremely grounding and satiating. Find the recipe in Alter’s cookbook, or simply boil a peeled apple to eat first thing in the morning — even before a workout or breakfast. It is easy to digest, has supportive vitamins and minerals, and kick starts the digestive fire. This fire is imperative to help effectively distribute nutrients absorbed from the food consumed throughout the day.
8. Food combining. Especially if you have a sensitive stomach or are easily drained of energy, consider things like trying fruit on its own, cooked or dried fruits with grains or yogurt, veggies with leafy greens, and protein with veggies. Instead of being militant, it is more than enough to do the best we can, when we can.
9. Herbs and tinctures. Do a bit of research and consult your doctors before self-diagnosing to determine the most imperative supplements for your current specific health goals.
10. Practice versus perfection. Eat mostly plants as much as possible instead of rigidly restricting. Yes, gelato is delicious (although certainly not Ayurvedic) but it might wind up being more detrimental to stress about it than to just enjoy it. The more one can relax around food, the less challenging it might feel to eat mostly clean food in the first place. The flow of what, how, and when to eat comes more naturally and feels less forced.
11. Take a break. It is easy to feel lost in regards to what diet or lifestyle practice is best for us. Cut yourself some slack from time to time and check in. What feels good? What are you craving? What are you forcing and where can you lighten up a bit, even if just for one meal or one day?
Ultimately, it’s important to ask yourself what dietary routines make you feel your best? What might you like to try or eliminate in order to cultivate more balance in your food and lifestyle practices?