Summary: Examining the link between good digestion and a strong immune system in Ayurveda, with practical advice on improving digestion.
Ayurveda places great emphasis on having a strong digestion. A strong digestive ‘fire’ or Agni can ‘burn off’ infections. A strong digestion also means food is properly digested and assimilated without the toxic by-products (called ‘Ama’ in Ayurveda) of a weakened digestive system. If digestion is weak it can lead to imbalances in the body and ultimately disease. Surprisingly Ayurveda attributes around 80% of all health problems to the by-products of a weakened digestive system. Wow!
Digestion can easily be weakened by the stresses of modern life, over-work, emotional upsets, eating while walking about or working, a diet low in life-force, difficult to digest foods (such as red meat and fried foods), lack of suitable exercise, drinking cold drinks with a meal, etc.
Ayurveda recommends some very simple and practical tips to help build a strong digestive fire and reduce the possibility of disease.
Key Advice for Better Digestion at Mealtimes
- Avoid drinking for 30 minutes before, during, and 30 minutes after a meal. But if we have to drink, then sips of warm water are acceptable.
- Eating at regular times of the day in a settled atmosphere (not watching TV or arguing with family members)
- Eating only when hungry and definitely not grazing throughout the day
- Following an Ayurvedic diet that is specifically tailored to our individual mind-body constitution (e.g. Vata – Pitta – Kapha and their combinations)
- Avoiding ice cold and carbonated drinks at any time! These ‘extinguish’ the internal digestive fire – carbonated drinks also derange Vata
- Having a short walk a few minutes after a meal helps digestion. Even a walk around the office or climbing stairs helps, rather than just sitting still
General Advice for Improving Digestion
Follow the general advice for increasing our levels of Ojas to improve immunity
Eating a small slice of fresh ginger (Zingiber officinale) with a sprinkling of salt 10 to 15 minutes before a main meal to awaken the digestive fire (not advised for pure Pitta constitutions – they already have a strong digestive fire or Agni)
Sipping warm water throughout the day helps boost the internal ‘fire’. Again – maybe not suitable for pure Pitta constitutions, or during hot weather as this could possibly lead to an imbalance of Pitta dosha
Taking the Ayurvedic supplement ‘Trikatu’ strengthens our digestive powers. Trikatu has a heating and stimulating effect. It helps us burn up already accumulated toxins – Ama. Trikatu powder is a mixture of dry ginger, black pepper (Piper nigrum) and Indian long pepper (Piper longum – not to be confused with the cheaper Indonesian Long Pepper Piper retrofactu). It is usually taken about 15 minutes before a meal and really stimulates the digestive system. However, Trikatu, because of its heating qualities, is not recommended for pure Pitta constitutions (or for pregnant women).
There are a couple of well-informed articles about Trikatu on the LifeSpa website: Background on Trikatu, and its role in reducing Ama
Yoga and Pranyama to Improve Digestion
Certain Yoga postures can also help improve digestion. Usually these poses involve stretches that stimulate the internal organs. Most are very easy to practice – such as simple spinal twists, knee to chest, etc. and are the sort of exercises found in a basic yoga class. While it is always better to get personal instuction from a qualified yoga teacher, the seqence of eight poses to improve digestion given on the Yogajournal website is a good starting point. A slightly more advanced set of asanas to help digestion was published on the Huffpost website.
Pranayama, or yogic breathing techniques, can also help improve digestion. They distribute prana or life-force to different parts of our body, improving our nervous system and general-well being. There exists many different techniques, with a bewildering array of advice on how to perform each one! When learning them it is probably best to try and get the information from an enlightened Master (or his or her accredited teachers). Sometimes YouTube carries reasonable videos e.g. Bhastrika Pranayama, Kapalabhati Pranyama, Bhramari Pranayama etc. However, Pranayama practices are not for everyone – if we have any underlying health conditions (e.g. heart conditions, respiratory problems, suffer from diabetes, high or low blood pressure, epilepsy or vertigo, have hernia or stomach surgeries, or are pregnant, etc.) it is worth checking carefully for any contraindications for the specific type of pranayama before we start. A good, basic introduction to pranayama is available on the ‘Joyful Belly’ Ayurvedic website.
Other Key Ayurvedic Strategies to Build a Strong Immune System
Or, return to Boosting Immunity with Ayurveda – Overview article