“One Man’s Food is Another’s Poison." ~ Dr Mercola
The process of digestion is so much more than what we may first think. Great digestion means that even toxic substances can be made harmless, while poor digestion means that even beneficial foods can become poison and promote disease.
To really encompass the importance of what digestion entails we must go beyond the digestive tract and be aware of all the high metabolic places in our body such as the liver, pancreas, small intestine, etc. This broader view of digestion extends to all parts of our body and includes every cell.
While reading this article it is important to remember that every cell digests something inwards, uses heat transformation and excretes waste products.
Digestive Imbalance Symptoms
The signs, symptoms and diseases that are highly influenced by improper digestion
If you experience 3 or more of the following imbalances on a weekly basis, then the chances are you are suffering from digestive imbalance!
- Burps and reflux that has any smell or taste, especially a sour taste or the taste of your previous food
- Excessive flatulence or any flatulence with a foul smell
- Poor appetite or excessive and persistent appetite
- Foul body odour or bad breath
- Low energy and chronic fatigue
- Diarrhoea, constipation and irritable bowel
- Bloating or distension in the abdomen
- Gastroesophageal reflux, heartburn or other burning sensations in the digestive tract
- Deficiencies, especially iron, iodine and B12
- Weak or cracked fingernails, sometimes with white spots
- Food allergies
- Eczema, acne, dermatitis, psoriasis & other skin disorders that stem from internal imbalance
- Haemorrhoids, anal fissures, rectal itching and blood or pus in the stool
- Vitiligo and pigment disorders that are highly influenced by fungal infection of the skin
- Auto-immune disorders like fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, ankylosing spondylitis, and many more.
- Osteoporosis and most forms of arthritis
- Colitis, appendicitis, polyps, ulcers and other forms of inflammatory digestive conditions
- Dysbiosis: Increased quantity of negative bacteria, fungi and parasites e.g. Candida
- Lack of zest and enthusiasm for life
Simplified Naturopathic Understanding of Digestion
The modern medical understanding of digestion is very much based on enzymes which catalyse and create transformation of the molecular bonds in the food we eat. In simple terms, these enzymes break our foods into the right size and shape so they can be used by our bodies’ cells.
These enzymes are secreted from many different organs and cells that influence different parts of the digestive tract. When there is imbalanced secretion of these digestive enzymes then there are improperly digested foods that ferment and feed parasites, fungi and yeast.
This is a very important point to understand because it shows that bacteria and parasites often do not forcibly invade or take over the digestive system. Instead they are opportunistic organisms that are able to flourish when there is undigested food or excessive waste products for them to feed upon. In fact, many of the organisms that live in our digestive tract are absolutely essential and we could not live without them.
However, when there is poor digestion, great challenges can arise in the body because these organisms are given excessive fuel for their fire. They then multiply out of control, excrete their own waste products and damage the walls of the intestine.
If the walls of the intestine become sufficiently damaged then the condition is referred to as leaky gut. This can become a serious problem where partially digested foods, fungi, bacteria and parasites enter into the bloodstream and create havoc throughout the rest of the body.
If the leaky gut becomes severe then it can also lead to a condition called auto-intoxication. This is where the body unwillingly reabsorbs the waste products of the liver and colon creating a perpetual cycle of refilling the body with its own waste products.
We see examples of this in our environment where bacteria are living in harmony and balance, because nature often does not create excess food for them all in one location. But if we observe places where humans have funnelled water and waste products such as a sewage pipe opening to a field, then bacteria proliferate at this location.
This proliferation is not solely because the bacteria were present there to begin with, but more obviously because there is an abundance of food for them to eat. Humans have observed if we process (digest/metabolise) the sewage properly before excreting into a field then the growth of harmful bacteria is greatly reduced and the balance of bacteria is more likely to be restored.
By adopting good digestive principles we can prevent the growth of potentially harmful bacteria, fungi and parasites. This lessens the likelihood of an inflamed and bloated digestive system that reabsorbs toxins. Instead we create an optimum functioning system that provides sufficient enzymes for digestion and encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria.
“You are what you eat. No, actually you are what you digest." ~ Dr Rama Prasad
Simplified Ayurvedic Understanding of the Digestive Process and Cause of Disease
When agni (digestive force/enzymes) is low then ama (improperly digested toxins) is created instead of ojas (life sustaining essence) and this leads to the creation of disease instead of vitality.
This degenerative cycle becomes mutually reinforcing so that low agni (digestive force) creates more ama (improperly digested toxins) and low production of ojas (life sustaining essence), which in turn does not nourish agni (digestive force and enzyme production) and the whole cycle is repeated.
There are many factors that affect the quality and quantity of agni (digestive force), and many of the most important ones will be dealt with below.
Causes of improper digestion include
- A high stress lifestyle with mental and emotional distractions.
- A sedentary lifestyle: without daily exercise we no longer have the amazing effects of agni (transformative force) stimulation that occurs during sweating exercise.
- Excessive eating and overburdening the digestive system
- Improper Food Combinations
- Congested liver and thick bile
- A dehydrated body that leads to deficient digestive juice production
- Deficient use of digestive spices at meals
- Excessively cooked or burnt foods
- Excessive use of foods with heavy, sticky and hard to digest qualities
- Processed foods and white flour products
- The Oral Contraceptive Pill can have a negative effect upon GIT (gastro intestinal tract) bacteria leading to imbalances of bacterial growth
- Antibiotic drugs have been linked to many disturbances in GIT health and particularly in relation to bacterial imbalance.
- NSAID’s (Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs) have disastrous effects upon the digestive tract
General good digestion principles
- Only eat when hungry with a feeling of real hunger from the belly, not the mind. Hungry for a treat or desire and definitely not because it is lunch time. This point could well be one of the most important factors in creating and maintaining good digestion. The counterbalance to this is that if you are not getting hungry at least two to three times a day then agni (digestive force) needs to be stimulated through other techniques.
- Chew all of your food until it is well masticated and fully coated with saliva. The importance of this is paramount because the first stage of digestion starts in the mouth. Without complete coating in saliva it is unlikely that proper carbohydrate digestion will occur. Many nutritionists say that most mouthfuls will need 30-50 chews before they are properly masticated. It helps to put down your fork/spoon/chopsticks between mouthfuls. I once heard a saying that has stuck with me forever: “Drink your food and chew your liquids”. Not only will the chewing of liquids coat the mouthful in saliva, but it will also warm the liquid towards body temperature which creates less likelihood of putting out the digestive fire.
Chew, chew, chew...
- Avoid excessively cold foods as these will put out the digestive fire. Especially ice!
- Moderate your meal sizes to your digestive capability. If you are feeling tired, lethargic or heavy after eating then the meal was either too large, poorly combined or too heavy in qualities for your present digestive capacity.
- Avoid drinking water 1 hour before or after your meals. Before meals dilutes hydrochloric acid in the stomach which will then have to be replenished, hopefully in time for your meal. Drinking after your meal messes with the calculated ratios of digestive juices that your body is secreting in accordance with the size and quality of the meal. If you are thirsty at these times then just takes small sips and swish it around your mouth before swallowing which allows for sublingual absorption and rehydrates the blood with less chance of affecting the digestive process.
- If the meal does not contain a liquid portion to it then take sips of water with your meal because most metabolic processes are hydrolysis reactions. This means they take place in the presence of water.
- Eat the larger and heavier meals of the day for breakfast and lunch with the lightest meal taken at dinner. This is done because our digestive fire rises and falls with the sun and so it is on its downward descent as night is coming. If your dinner is taken after dark then this rule applies even more so.
- Exercise increases our digestive capacity and the transformative force all throughout our body. Regular exercise should be part of everyone’s daily routine even if only brief. The best time to create a routine of exercising is the morning because it stimulates our metabolism for the rest of the day.
- When performing exercise it should be done within one’s capabilities and not directly after eating. When we exercise our circulation is directed away from our internal organs and towards our muscles. We want as much circulation to be at the digestive organs so they can properly perform their functions. This point is especially important after rich and fatty foods.
- Try and avoid swimming, showering or bathing after eating because this also draws the circulation away from the digestive organs.
Recipe for poor digestion: exercise during and right after meal!
- Stimulate the acupressure point stomach 36 before and after meals to help the process of digestion in the stomach.
- Eat when in a calm and peaceful state of mind. When we are stressed, thinking excessively or performing tasks, we are more likely to be in a sympathetic nervous system state. This releases adrenalin, redirects circulation and inhibits digestion.
- Eating meals with full concentration and awareness so that you don’t eat too quickly or too slowly. Eating too slowly will mean it is unlikely that all parts of the meal will receive their proper times in the stomach. Eating too quickly will make it unlikely that you will chew your foods properly. A good principle to follow is to take 3 deep breaths before your meal, do this with complete concentration upon calming your nervous system and focus upon the digestive fire within.
- Try to have digestive spices and heating flavours present at most meals. Digestive spices increase our enzymatic secretions, encourage the proper breakdown of foods and lessen the likelihood of incompatible foods reacting with each other. The most neutral digestive spices that can be used with virtually anyone are cumin, coriander and fennel. Ginger is also great for most body types.
- Try not to lie down horizontally after eating. If you really feel the need to lie down then take 100 calm paces followed by; lying on the stomach for 8 deep breaths, then the right side for 16 deep breaths and the left side for 32 deep breaths then return to a vertical position.
- If heavy sweet foods are being eaten then these should be taken at the beginning of the meal and not for dessert. Heavy and sweet foods need more time in the stomach for digestion and when taken at the end will upset the digestive process. This guideline does not include fruit which is generally light and sweet in its qualities. Fruit should be eaten away from meals or at least 20-30min before a meal as an appetizer.
Fruits after meal? NOT!
We can see from this article that the importance of digestion is truly paramount in the creation of good health and longevity. It should always be the first step in the treatment of any disease so that we can properly absorb our foods and secrete our waste products.
As the first point states, our mental and emotional stress has a profound effect upon digestion so it is even more important to not get stressed and think that you need to religiously follow all of these principles. Instead, understand that each step that you can comfortably integrate using your positively directed willpower, will assist your long term health, happiness and vitality.
Wishing you health and prosperity,
PS: If you would like my support to strengthen your digestion, then my Vitality Now Ayurvedic Detox Retreat is for you. Agni or digestive fire is the focus of this detox retreat, where all herbs and treatments are individualised for your unique needs. Supporting you to restore your clarity and energy, so you can have more freedom in you life.