Ayurvedic Wisdom for Better Digestion

by Shannon Sexton

If you’re suffering from digestive unrest, like I do, Ayurveda can help. Erin Casperson, Dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, says that according to yoga’s sister science, digestive problems, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome, acid reflux, leaky gut, and food sensitivities, can develop “for a thousand different reasons,” but many of them are due to diet and lifestyle choices that—surprise!—run contrary to the ancient rules of Ayurveda. That’s actually good news, because it means that we can take our health into our own hands.

Olga Chwa, a Digestive Wellness Coach trained in Ayurveda and the owner of Surya Wellness in Cleveland, Ohio, notes that when we’re trying to improve our digestion, “we often focus on the stuff we put into our bodies.” (Think: foods, herbs, supplements, probiotics.) “Of course, you have to have good input in order to have good output, but there are a lot of lifestyle practices that strengthen digestion, too,” she says.

Ayurveda is highly individualized, so you’ll get the most benefit from working with a skilled Ayurvedic practitioner who can tailor your digestive health program to your particular needs. But in the meantime, here are some of Erin’s and Olga’s best tips for strengthening digestion.

Ayurvedic Massage and Marma Therapy
“Ayurveda has abdominal massage protocols for digestive problems, which range from manipulating the viscera to stimulating marma points, aka Ayurveda’s acupressure points, in the abdominal region, feet, and ears,” says Olga. She suggests finding an Ayurvedic bodyworker who can address your specific digestive issues.

Take a Walk After Meals
The New York Times’ Well blog has reported on three studies suggesting that the ancient Ayurvedic prescription of walking for at least 15 to 20 minutes after a meal may help food move through the stomach faster. For people with Type 2 Diabetes, it may lower blood sugar levels after eating.

Get Eight Hours of Sleep
“Sleep is a huge component of good digestion,” says Olga. “The rest-and-digest function of the central nervous system is at its peak when we are sleeping, so it’s important to get eight hours of sleep every night.” Poor sleep, on the other hand, “leads to all sorts of chemical events in the body that then create digestive problems,” she observes.

Try Yoga Nidra
Yoga nidra, which Olga defines as “a sensory withdrawal practice that includes breath awareness and a body scan,” can switch on the central nervous system’s rest-and-digest function, too. She recommends this practice to her clients as a “sleep supplement.” Try it when you’ve had a poor night’s sleep, or as a prelude to sleep, she suggests. A skilled yoga teacher can walk you through the process, or you can find guided audio recordings online. Fun fact: The Boston Globe has reported that yoga nidra may help with insomnia, as well as anxiety, depression, addiction, and chronic pain.

Tune into Your Emotions
If you’re dealing with digestive unrest, “look at how you manage stress,” says Erin. For example, if your anxiety spikes and you get hit with a bout of stomach issues, follow some vata-pacifying lifestyle guidelines. “Slow down, in both your life and your eating,” she says. “Practice mindful eating in a calm, quiet environment. Give yourself a vata-pacifying, warm, sesame oil massage. Practice gentle yoga and slow, deep breathing. And follow a vata-pacifying diet—think soups, stews, and other moist, nourishing, cooked foods.”

Support Your Microbiome
It’s important to work with your doctor or integrative health practitioner to tailor gut healthy foods and supplements to your particular needs. But as a general rule, Erin recommends incorporating coconut oil and/or ghee, which contain gut-healthy butyric acid. Ghee, she says, helps sustain healthy microbes in the gastrointestinal tract to promote effective digestion and elimination. Another Ayurvedic tip is to make homemade buttermilk, Erin says. She offers more Ayurvedic advice for digestion here.

Chew Your Food Properly
Ayurveda teaches that how you eat is even more important than what you eat, says Olga. One of Ayurveda’s golden eating rules is to chew each bite of food 32 times. (It’s the first step in your digestive process, so you might as well do it right!) Chewing properly also encourages you to eat more slowly and mindfully (which Ayurveda also recommends).

Don’t Eat Your Meals and Snacks Too Close Together

This can overwhelm your agni (digestive fire) and lead to unpleasant symptoms such as gas, bloating, and other forms of indigestion, says Erin.

Eat Local, Seasonal Foods
“Trust that what’s growing in your neighborhood is the healthiest fare for your digestive system,” says Erin. From an Ayurvedic point of view, fresh foods that have been ripened by the sun contain more prana (life force) than foods that are shipped and stored thousands of miles from their harvesting point. And nature’s bounty provides what we need when we need it. (For example, root vegetables in the fall help us stay grounded and strong during the windy, changeable—i.e., vata-imbalancing—weather.)

Experiment with Proper Food Combinations
According to Ayurveda, some foods digest well together, while others create indigestion and its byproduct: ama, a subtle toxic residue that is the breeding ground for disease. Combining proper food can improve the quality of your digestion and even address issues such as food sensitivities, says Erin. But some of the rules run contrary to our Western eating habits. (No more smoothies, she says, because fruit should be eaten alone!) Erin recommends experimenting with these food-combining rules from Ayurvedic expert Vasant Lad.

Use your body as a laboratory, and conduct some experiments. Which practices make a difference for your digestive system? When I tried these tips for myself for a month, after struggling with undiagnosed digestive problems for two years, I stopped feeling so bloated after meals, and I stopped waking up in the night with abdominal discomfort. For me, stress management and a vata-balancing lifestyle were the keys to calming my digestive system—though I’m sure the other practices helped, too. 

Shannon Sexton is the former editor-in-chief of Yoga International magazine and a freelance writer, editor, and strategist based in Madrid.