“All disease begins in the gut” – Hippocrates
Our digestive strength is one of the most important aspects of our physical functioning. Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” knew this over 2000 years ago and he wasn’t the only one! Nearly every traditional system of medicine places a huge emphasis on digestive health while modern medicine is slowly catching on to this ancient wisdom.
Why Your Digestive Fire is So Important
Put simply, your digestive fire determines how well you are able to extract life force (qi or prana) from food for your body to utilize. It has been reported that some yogis are able to subsist without food by obtaining this energy directly from the environment but for the rest of us average folk we need food, and more importantly we need to obtain energy from that food with our digestive fire! The common saying goes “you are what you eat” but I would argue that “you are what you digest and absorb.” If you eat the “perfect” diet, yet have compromised digestive function, it doesn’t really matter what you eat until you are able to properly extract nutrition from that food.
How To Boost Your Digestive Fire
When it comes to improving digestion there are three important aspects to focus on: What to Eat, When to Eat and How to Eat. Let’s dive into each one.
What to Eat
Minimally Processed Whole Foods
There is no magic diet that works for everyone (contrary to popular belief!). The one thing I can say that is sure to improve your digestion is to cut out heavily processed and refined foods. This includes most packaged foods, and likely anything with ingredients that you can’t pronounce! Eat food that you could find yourself in nature – whole fruits and vegetables, meat and seafood, nuts and seeds, as well as properly prepared pulses and grains if you desire. Focus on the quality of food above all else and avoid pesticides as much as you can!
In traditional Chinese medicine, for those with weak digestion it is imperative to eat cooked food as much as possible. It requires a lot of digestive energy to break down and digest raw foods so why not spare your digestive fire and use actual fire to cook it for you? Of course some raw foods here and there won’t hurt but if you are struggling with digestive issues try cooking your meals and consuming them warm.
Individual food choices are important but so are the combinations of those foods. If you ever feel extremely bloated after indulging in a charcuterie board or buffet you know what I’m talking about! Diversifying your meals is great but the more foods you include in a single meal, the more taxing it is on your digestive system. Some general food combining principles to follow include:
- Eat fruit alone
- Don’t combine large amounts of carbs with protein
- Minimize water intake with meals as this dilutes stomach acid
When to Eat
When the Sun is Up!
Your digestive system, just like the rest of your body, is synchronized to a 24-hour rhythm (your circadian rhythm) that regulates its function. Simply put, you are designed to eat during the day and fast at night. More specifically, you are designed to eat the majority of your food when the sun is at its highest. This is when you have the most digestive fire to break down a large meal.
Never After Dark
Eating after the sun sets is a signal to your body that it’s still daytime. This shifts your circadian rhythm and prevents you from getting proper sleep. As mentioned previously, digestion is an energy intensive process so if you have a late dinner, your body puts its energy towards digestion rather than healing and recovery during sleep. A similar disruption occurs when you are exposed to blue light after dark. (Check out NaturoBlocks blue blocking glasses and use code wellnstrong at checkout for 10% off!)
When You’re Hungry
This one should be obvious, but with constant access to food in western society, we rarely listen to our hunger signals thus we almost never eat when we are truly hungry. As a matter of fact, one of the best things you can do to improve your digestive health is to not eat. Fasting (intermittently or long term) is a great way to give your digestive system a break and rebuild its energy. Like most things, too much of a good thing is bad so make sure you don’t overdo it and always listen to your body.
How to Eat
Ideal: chew each forkful thoroughly and enjoy every single bite with utmost gratitude.
Reality: watch Netflix and scarf down entire meal in 2 minutes, forget what you just ate.
On an energetic level, your perception of the food you’re eating influences how it nourishes your body. For example, if you are resentfully eating ice cream with guilt because you know it’s going to impact your weight, well it’s probably not going to do much to nourish your body! Contrast that with mindfully eating ice cream to celebrate a special occasion, having extreme gratitude for every bite. I can guarantee those will impact your body differently purely based on your mental state!
In a Relaxed State
Take a few deep breaths before your meal and make sure you aren’t distracted by your TV, phone, or anything else going on around you. Your body must be in a parasympathetic state for adequate stomach acid and digestive enzyme release. If you’re stressed, you can’t digest. It also helps to eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly, if you have issues with this try chopsticks!
Not only does eating outdoors help get you into a relaxed state, it also gives your body proper environmental signals in order to digest food properly. As mentioned previously, eating with the sun is ideal, assuming you’re actually getting sun! The light signals you provide your body are extremely important and should be yoked with food intake (light = food, darkness = fast).