Practices, Not Pills: 11 Digestive Tricks You’ve Never Heard of, that Actually Work
"Health lives in the stomach" - Traditional Chinese Maxim.
Indeed, and health is digestion. Have you noticed? Digestion is everything. When we're good with food, we're good in general. We're just, good. We walk with zeal, lean with zest into the next meal, and everything just seems to fall into place.
So if there is one realm to work for health, it is digestion. That's why Ayurveda, literally the "Science of Life" wears the nickname the "Art of Digestion".
Our "gut" is responsible for practically everything from synthesizing happiness molecules to feeding every cell in our body, to fighting pathogens and detoxing all the toxins we accumulate. It takes a ton of energy.
Indeed, there is no diurnal bodily process more taxing than digestion. That's why good digestion is a master-craft that takes a master-plan.
Hunger, Health, and Healing.
To really digest well and transform food into fuel, we need a good gut. Specifically, we need a strong stomach fire.
Ayurveda calls this fire agni, and we experience it simply - as hunger! When we feel hunger, we feel in real time our body secreting digestive acids and enzymes. It's juicy and it's gurgly.
These juices are produced just to break down corresponding proteins, fats, and carbohydrates - turning not us into us. It's the greatest magic trick ever done and, if we're so lucky, we get to experience it three times a day.
According to Ayurveda, when hunger is regular and robust, we faire well. We faire most well when our hunger is most "high" at midday, when the sun is highest in the sky. Our juices are ready for nourishment, and we're to take our biggest meal. This one sign suggests that our body's inner-organ clock is well-attuned with the outer rhythm of life. Health is circadian: on track and on time.
A consistent and strong (while not too strong!) fire "cooks" our food with grace and ease, melting it like liquid lava. After, we feel supercharged with energy, vitality, and joy. There is little or no gas, bloating, or brain fog. We are lit with passion, purpose, and possibility. We feel supported, optimistic, and ready to "digest" whatever comes our way. In short, life feels good.
In this way, hunger holds the key, and to steward hunger is to steward the very life force of our bodies. To kindle hunger is to kindle inspiration and engagement and aliveness. Seen as such, this "hunger game" is internal alchemy, and a lightning path to vitality. Plus a really good lunch.
Hunger off? Digestion down? Rejoice! 'Tis a most glorious opportunity to refine your relationship with not only food, but also life. For again, agni shows our relationship with life-force.
Rather than breaking the bank on probiotics and acid pills, harness that inner sun! And try these creative exercises that treat the root of what's going on, and actually work.
1) Lie on your back and breathe.
Hunger naturally spikes when we rest. Rest kickstarts the parasympathetic nervous system, which tells our whole body and being that "we're safe" -- ready to rest, digest, and relax. Often just ten minutes of rich, full breath is enough to get the belly cauldron a-swirlin'. Make a habit of lying down for ten minutes before each meal, letting everything go, and just breathing. Don't force it -- just allow. If you want to get a bit more conscious and directed, point your breath to the space just south of your ribcage - your stomach!
2) Sing your favorite song. And go all out.
When in doubt, sing. . Singing is one of the most fun, quick, and powerful ways to engage the parasympathetic response. To our primordial belly-brains, if we're singing say, Bohemian Rhapsody, (which actually may not be this point's best example), we are not in flight or fight.
shows this. In particular, singing is one of the best ways to stimulate the Vagus Nerve, which is key in stimulating hunger. Life got you down, or uber serious? Turn to Michael Jackson and Beyonce, and shine some soul. Just lower the blinds, and lock all doors. And research
3) Say what you're pissed off about. Get Loud. Go for it.
Nothing cramps digestion or one's mojo more than repressed emotion, baby.
E-motion is literally just that: energy in motion. Lao Tsu, in the great Tao te Ching puts it simply: "health is motion". Which is to say, when we're not circulating energy, we're not in health. This may seem radical (and it is), but so often my body is not hungry because it wants the space to "digest" some old emotional content yet stuck in my system. When that's the case, I bring my awareness inside and ask, "what do you need?". If it's expression, I go for it.
Inspired? Try this out:
Set a timer. Most of the time, we only only need two minutes to feel (and release!) an emotion. Children demonstrate this marvelously well. Don't delay and don’t mince words - your food is waiting, after all. Get to the core of it! Tell your tell, have your tantrum, and let it go. ‘
Next: give yourself empathy. Behind your anger is a heart that cares, a lot. And just wants to be seen, heard, felt and loved. As Heart IQ master Christian Pankhurst says, when you feel it you can heal it.
So set an agreement with yourself that you express the anger to a) have fun (because anger is aliveness, fun, and even the fire of the sun itself!) and b), to touch and to hold the heart that cares. Touch the care, and your agni will bloom, in no time.
Before you sit down to eat, enjoy a rest to let your system cool down some. Then, eat with a newfound ravenous delight. And after, enjoy a cool, calm day. Good work soldier.
4) Hold a friend, and ask a friend to hold you.
In my experience, there’s no better way to kick on the rest and digest than through touch. And again, research agrees. Indeed, touch-deprived adults prone to anxiety, depression, and compromised immunity. This is at least in part because touch stimulates "serene" seretonin, the delicious vagus nerve, and an existential sense of "hey, I'm loved". When we don't have it, life sucks. And agni's not even on the table.
Got a partner or pal? Try holding hands, exchanging a five minute back massage or, best, set a timer and hold each other. Whether you're "giving" or "receiving" the benefit goes both ways, and it's only good. If you have a touchy-feely friend who's in to holding, set their head to onto your heartbeat. You’ll initiate a womblike trance, and you'll both be famished in no time. The trouble with this one is you'll be so blissed out, you won't want to eat. Eat anyway. And after, proceed with cuddling.
5) Smother yourself in ghee.
Oil massage first thing in the morning (or, indeed, whenever) is a time-tested treatment for digestion, rest, and joy. One modern study found that just briefly touching one's own lips for one to two minutes significantly increases parasympathetic response. Neat.
In sanskrit, the word for "to love" is the same as "to oil". To oil is to love the self, and self-love sets everything straight. If you're not so lucky to have, say, Blake's luxurious Golden Ghee, go for sesame or coconut oil. Use a mirror and enjoy the mantra, "look how much I love myself".
So often my body witholds hunger when I'm withholding love from myself. Perhaps even deeper than the need for food is the need for love. It is truly miraculous what comes "online" when we love and accept ourselves just as we are. I could say more here, but I’d rather link you to my article on just this very topic. It's ooey-gooey good good.
6) Let yourself not eat.
Yup. Now, #6 is blasphemy in Ayurvedic circles, where set meal times are law. There’s good reason for the rule -- to sync up with the sun -- but if attaching to it causes stress, anxiety, or a sense of obligation (“I must eat”), it defeats the purpose. And it might even work against it (research shows that stress is the worst thing for digestion).
Let yourself off the mental hook. You’ll be just fine if you don’t eat this one meal. Trust that your body’s hungry for a different type of nourishment, or wants space to digest some old food or emotion and opt to make space for that. Often just letting go of “needing” to eat, and truly turning away from food releases the tension in my tummy, and I’m suddenly rushed with agni. Mental stress/attachment are real, and they prevent our body from acting naturally. Follow food times, but be natural and be light. We are humans and not robots, after all.
Tell yourself, “I love that you’re not ready to eat. I love you. This food will be here for you when you are. What do you want to do instead?"
7) Work out 2 hours before lunch. Play Rage Against the Machine. Rage.
Agni demands exertion. And exercise is foundational to health. Whether it's burpies, push ups, parkour or paragliding, exercise aliveness. Agni is the felt-sense of being lit up with aliveness. So light your fire.
Pro-tip: oscillate hot (fire energy) with cold (water energy). This ancient pairing of paradoxes is excellent for oxygenating the system and stimulating hunger, and actually has more measurable health benefits than I could possibly list. Try breath of fire, followed by yin yoga. Or a steaming epsom bath followed by a cold plunge. Just make sure to rest after, even for 10 minutes, (this is when you’ll really feel the hunger come on), and don’t over do it.
If you don't have time to do a full work out, just a bit of gut-pumping exertion thirty minutes before a meal can do wonders. Again, be gentle. The mark of wise exercise is going just to the point of sweat and just to the point exertion. Consistency trumps intensity. After we should feel energized, and not at all drained.
All that said, "go hard in the paint".
8) Free-write with ravenous passion.
When you're feeling uninspired, stale or stagnant, get creative. Make beauty, and have fun. Set aside an hour before meal to have some fun, and stoke your creative soul.
One idea -- try a Freewrite Frenzy, and devour the page. 3 Pages. Don’t think. Go.
Another is to make a list starting with “I want to” or “I’m hungry for”. Dream big. The menu (life) is yours. Paste pictures. Update it regularly. Drewl.
Writing not your thing? Cool. Something is. Get going, and go 'till your drewing for the food-fuel you'll need to keep creating.
9) Make a food plate. Offer it up.
Expressing gratitude, like singing, belly-breathing, and receiving touch is a sweet shortcut to parasympathetic bliss. Gratitude not only initiates rest and digest, but it also connects us to the web of life and a deep feeling of belonging and support. Perhaps leading the research in this field is neuroscientists Joe Dispenza, whose research shows gratitude floods the brain and body with neurogenesis: the blueprint of healing.
Offering a food plate to my ancestors -- to the some total of people, plants, animals and energies that came before me -- is one of my most beloved rituals. If I'm outside, I'll leave my first bite on a leaf or a barkchip for a lucky squirrel to later enjoy. It often brings me to tears, and inspires those around me to take a moment to consider the moment. If I have time, I might bask in gratitude for upwards of an hour, until I forget that I was going to eat. Even if the food gets cold, those are the best meals. My agni's aflame, and I'm satisfied before I take my first bite.
Even when I'm pressed for my time, I'll take a moment. Gratitude relaxes the belly, kickstarts the appetite and opens the heart. It reminds us to go slow, eat just what we need, and to consider all those around us.
I am fond of indigenous elder Martin Prechtel who says something to the affect of, (and I'm paraphrasing him here), "the point of banquets is to make time for really good prayers".
Too woowoo for youyou? Try a gratitude list, or just feel thanks in your own personal way. A consistent ritual is nice, and practiced daily builds with momentum and gravity. Dispenza reminds us that the trick is to really feel it. Try to go at least to the point of feeling even just a trickle. Your belly will grumble with thanks.
10) Make space to cook slowly, and cook a good long while.
We move too fast which, again, sucks. And definitely does not support digestion. At least once a week, shift the narrative. And set aside two or three hours to make an utterly magical meal.
If you try this practice with sincerity, you'll naturally synthesize most of the above tips and enjoy their cumulative benefit. This is why Ayurveda recommends conscious cooking as one of the most beneficial practices for well, everything. Conscious cooking is active, resting, art - a ritual of remembrance and gratitude and self-love and inspiration. It's art we can eat!
I am an ecstatic cook. If you see me cooking, you'll see me singing and shaking and we spicing with spirit and soul. I'm celebrating, meditating, and even working it out. If I'm angry, you're going to know about it. And I'll hoop and I'll holler until all that passion transforms into a bomb-ass curry. I'll even work out, and do super squats or martial arts behind the stove while the sauces simmer. The food loves that, and it's more agni for everyone.
The practice? Have as much fun and make as much beauty as possible. Play exotic music. Pour yourself a glass of (agni-inducing) red wine. Hum along. SING along. Sweet-talk your food like a sweetheart, or console it like an infant. Dance some. Dance some more. Jot down inspiring vacation ideas. Fill the kitchen with your breath. Fill the food with love.
Make the very act of cooking your art. If making food is making love (and it is), let this be foreplay. Allow your sensual soul to celebrate all the pleasures of this world. Feel the contours of the cabbage. Inhale sweet cardamom cream. Delight in the pitter-patter-popping of cumin, coriander, fennel and friends. On every sense organ let nothing be lost.
Remember that as you take it all in, you're generating specific enzymes specific to the food your cooking. So digestion begins the moment we intend to cook. Intend love. In short, be present. With yourself and with the food. With everything. And try not to taste before you sit down to eat. Build anticipation. Agni loves that.
Make plenty to share. Offer up the first bite. And invite me over, cause I'm starving.
11) Wake up early to do the most energetic and fun thing that you can possibly imagine.
Besides conscious cooking, if there's one tip I can leave you with to utterly support digestion and utterly transform your life, it's this.
Do you remember waking as a five year old on a Saturday morning, utterly in love with life? The sanskrit word for that is em, stoked. You -- and your fire -- were stoked. Stoked to be alive. And also, stoked for specific things. Stoked to watch cartoons, climb trees, jump on your parents' bed and eat that entire jar of cookies.
Agni is inspiration, and for the most part kids don't have tummy troubles. Their fire of aliveness is strong.
Chances are, somewhere along the weight of life mangled your mojo. You don't wake as stoked as your five year old did . What do you need to stoke that child's fire? Not in five years or five days, but in five minutes. Be specific. You know, and only you know.
There was a while my agni was really suffering, and I chose to live this practice full out and full on. For two whole weeks, I'd wake every day at 4am and drive out to the nearby oldgrowth forest for a five hour adventure hike. It was just me, myself, and a Radiohead. I sang and I stomped and I swam. It was bloody magical. And I returned by lunchtime with uproarious hunger. Food never tasted so good. After, I took an hour nap, and woke with a full day ahead of me. Cashiers remarked how aglow I looked. I was agni. And my friends were just waking up.
Those were some of the happiest days of my life, and simply because I chose it.
You don't have to go as extreme as that . . . but, you could. If nothing else, as you ready yourself for bed this evening write down one thing that you're excited to wake for tomorrow morning. You'll sleep with a smile and wake with a smolder. Whatever you do, chances are it'll rev your rockets, and after you'll enjoy a blissful breakfast.
I'm curious what you choose. Let us know in the comment section below.
3 Parting Tips:
When you eat, just eat. Be present with your food and go at the pace that your body wants to. Notice when your body says, “thank you friend, I’ve had enough”. Honor that. Leave some space. And worry not, there's always another meal.
Immediately after, rest to digest. Best to lie on your left side for ten to twenty minutes. This practice of LSD -- Left Side Down -- organizes the organs for easy food transit. It's pro-peristalsis.Feel your body. Say, "this is what it's like to feel my body". Just rest.
And after that, have some warm ginger tea, and go for a short walk.
And a reminder: we live in the Kali Yuga (the age of, “eh, good enough”), so do what you can, and be gentle with yourselves.
Take What You Can Chew
Whew! That's a lot. If you're life is something of a full plate, and this may be a bit much to digest. Which is totally not the point. My hope here is to inspire more creativity with health and healing, and to shine understanding on some of the energetics behind it all. I wish to leave you inspired and empowered. At choice. We are always at choice, and that choice is so very creative. So very powerful. My guess is if you try even one of these tips for a few days you'll experience immense benefit.
To me, alongside Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda truly is the world's most holistic and comprehensive system of understanding. And when practiced sincerely, it will totally transform your life. Not to get evangelical on you, but hallelujah.
Consider this: the biosphere of our bellies contains as much bacteria as there are cells in our body. There's a whole world of community within us. Dependent on us. I believe that in the moment we honor our human bodies, we in that moment honor the earth body. It's not just poetics but a morphogenic truth that we're all one field, baby. When we we feel and follow and feed our bodies, we honor that truth. We honor everyone and everything. In that moment, as far as it practically matters we're enlightened. We're in-tune and online. We're enough.
Agni is inspiration. When we hear it and tend to it, we hear and tend to our soul's deepest churning hunger. "I want this", it says. "I really want this". What we want, what we really hunger for, is our purpose. It is our passion. It is our path. It's safe and solid and sincere. It may be "I want to care for children" or "I want to write stories". It really doesn't matter. If it's in us, and it's fulfillment fulfills us, it's enough. It's all life asks of us, and all we can ever really give back to life. It's dharma, and it's delicious.
The not-so-secret is I offer this counsel because I need it. My self-care is my service. It's not hyperbole to say that I did not follow the essence of the above guidelines, I would not be alive.
I am so grateful, because if I want to eat food, (and I do!) I must feel and honor my body deeply. The result of doing what I need to do is I find myself on path and on purpose, all at once an Ayurvedic coach, personal chef, and sacred foodie. I look around and see my wake helping others eat, heal, and come alive. The wound weaves the Way.
Agni is everything, folks. Do what you have to do to care for it well. Choose magic and madness, spices and spells. And stay hungry my friends.