In Ayurveda, we have an understanding that digestion is the foundation in which health develops from and where diseases mainly begin from. Digestion itself has a physical component where the actual experience of taking in food gets converted into usable forms of nutrition and cellular information, and it has a mental component that is dependent upon the state of mind involving the information coming in through the five primary senses (eyes, ears, nose, mouth and touch), as well as the emotional aspect of our relationship to the world. Both of these create a somato-emotional relationship responsible for either our well-being or our potential towards ill health.
Ayurveda has what is called Samprapti, which translates to the "six stages of disease." Otherwise known as pathology. These six stages consist of Accumulation, Aggravation, Overflow, Relocation, Manifestation, and Diversification. Accumulation and Aggravation present with prodromal (precursory/preliminary) symptoms that tend to go unnoticed, such as dry stools, gas, and a decreased ability or mild manifestation of constipation (relating to a Vata disturbance), burning indigestion (relating to Pitta disturbance), and sluggish digestion (relating to Kapha disturbance.) When any of these symptoms present themselves it is clear that there is a digestive disturbance that can slowly progress and produce more intense symptoms where these disturbances leave the digestive system and enter into the circulatory system (Overflow) and eventually making their way into a new home (Relocation-Manifestation-Diversification).
It is strongly and repetitively emphasized in Ayurvedic Medicine that healthcare begins by managing our health, disease and overall digestion in the first two phases of Accumulation/Aggravation. This is where diet and lifestyle come into play because it is understood that diet and lifestyle are what can create the foundation for health or illness. When we notice any digestive disturbance, which isn't always the case because they tend to start out as mild symptoms that get either ignored or unnoticed, it is imperative that we slow down and attend to these symptoms in order to prevent their further influence in our health. These subtle digestive disturbances are indications that the digestive system has been compromised and requires some attention. More often than not, the reason for these disturbances is because of an emotional stir-up and/or neglecting to follow harmonious practices in our lifestyle, which includes healthy eating habits.
Luckily, Ayurveda has noted "15 General Guidelines for Healthy Eating" and have been clearly pointed out in the first text of California College of Ayurveda. These 15 guidelines are:
1) Food should be taken in the proper place. Meaning, that the environment that one eats in affects digestion. For maximum digestion, the environment should be calm, peaceful and pleasant.
2) Eat food prepared by loving hands in a loving way. Food prepared for by loving hands is always more beneficial to the body than food prepared without awareness of the sacred.
3) Say grace before meals. Grace is an opportunity for meditation, chanting or saying a blessing before taking food.
4) Food should be eaten without distraction. According to Charak Samhita, the original texts of Ayurvedic Medicine founded by the first medical doctor known as Charak, "One should not talk or laugh or be unmindful while taking food. One taking food while talking, laughing or with distracted mind, subjects himself to the same trouble as the one eating too hurriedly. So one should not talk, laugh, or be unmindful while taking food." When the mind is distracted, food is not chewed properly and emotions that disturb digestion enter the mind.
5) Food should be taken with a proper frame of mind. When consuming food, the mind should be peaceful. If a person is anxious, angry, disturbed, or impatient, it is best to either skip the meal or meditate first.
6) Food should be chewed until it is an even consistency. According to Charak Samhita, "One should not take food too hurriedly. If it is taken to hurriedly it enters into the wrong passage, it gets depressed and it does not enter the stomach properly. In this situation, one can never determine the taste of food articles or detect foreign objected mixed with them." Digestion begins in the mouth.
7) Food should be warm. Warm food is digested more easily than cold food. Cold food weakens digestion, is digested slowly and more likely to produce toxins.
8) Food should be taken that is oily or moist. Oily and moist foods are more nourishing than dry foods. Dry foods are difficult to digest and to eliminate. Still, food that is too oily is also hard to digest, as it is very heavy. Hence, all food should be moist and somewhat oily.
9) Food should not have opposite potencies. This is the essence of Ayurvedic food combining. Food should not h ave opposte actions. Hot and cold foods taken together will be neither purifying nor tonifying. In addition, some specific combinations will be very difficult to digest, will vitiate the doshas (biological humors) and produce ama (toxins.)
10) Only a small amount of liquid should be taken with meals. When too much liquid is taken with food, the liquid reduces the strength of agni (digestive fire.) It is like putting water on fire. Hence, when too much liquid is taken, the doshas become vitiated and ama forms. While too much liquid is not good, so too, food is hard to digest if it is very dry. Hence, dry meals require about 1/2 cup of water. Moist meals, such as soup, do not require any additional water. If additional liquid is taken before or after a meal, a person should wait at least 1/2 hour on either side of the meal.
11) One should avoid cold drinks. Cold drinks weakens agni. Liquid taken with a meals should not come from the refrigerator. Drinks should be at room temperature or a little warm and in the proper quantity.
12) Food should be taken with self-confidence. When taking food, it is important for a person to feel good about what they are consuming. Self-confidence motivates the internal forces of nature to support good digestion. A lack of self-confidence increases anxiety and interferes with digestion.
13) Eat until you are 75 percent full. This is perhaps the most difficult challenge people have. Overeating suppresses the agni, increases the kapha dosha and increases ama. Scientists have stated that the surest way to extend life is eat at less. When the proper amount of food has been taken, a person no longer feels hungry. A person feels satisfied, not full. The body and mind should feel light and awake following a meal.
14) Take some time to rest after meals. It is common for people to complete a meal and immediately get up and go back to being productive. Productivity or strong emotions immediately following a meal will interfere with digestion, vitiate the doshas and increase ama. It is best to rest for some time. Ideally one hour. This allows the first stage of digestion to be completed. During this time, a mild walk is proper or the reading of a peaceful book. Strong exercise and emotional excitement should be avoided. As many will find one hour difficult, any amount of time is better than no time. At the very least, a person should close their eyes and take several slow breaths before rising from the table. Taking rest doesn't mean falling asleep, although, it is common in some cultures to have a siesta but actually falling asleep versus light relaxation is contraindicated and impairs digestion.
15) Allow three hours between meals for food to digest. Three hours is the minimum time it takes to completely digest food. Hence, the previous meal should be digested before the next meal is taken. If food is taken too soon, Ayurveda teaches that ahara rasa (undigested food) will mix with the new food. The result is stated to vitiate the doshas and cause disease. The appetite should not become strong until the previous food is digested. Hence, if the desire to eat again comes quickly after a previous meal, one should ask oneself whether the desire is genuine hunger or whether it is simply sensory desire arising from some other source such as emotional dissatisfaction or anxiety.
Whether for disease prevention (healthcare) or disease management (sick-care), Ayurveda addresses both at the basic level of working with diet and lifestyle. In both cases, diet and lifestyle is where it all starts. What you put into your body, including sensory interaction, determines what comes out of the body. What is your digestion telling you?
DISCLAIMER: This information is meant for educational purposes only and not considered medical advice. Any changes in lifestyle should be reviewed with a qualified practitioner and/or primary care physician if you are currently under their care for specific conditions.