When I began studying the ancient life science of Ayurveda and Ayurvedic herbs, I began to notice my body reacting to my diet in ways I’d never been aware of before. Some of the reactions were obvious, such as certain foods produced gas (unfortunately that was obvious to those around me too!) or constipated me for a couple of days. But many of them were subtle and required a bit of investigation to determine what those subtleties meant. I discovered that a white film on my tongue, for example, meant there was some toxic build-up in my colon. A headache, lethargy, or irritability not long after eating meant that my digestive fire was either under or overactive in response to my diet.
But I also realized that certain emotions, such as fear or anger, could cause my digestive system to literally burn through a veggie burger like I’d just eaten a handful of spicy chilies. If knowledge is power, then Ayurveda made me an omnipotent warrior of my personal health. Discovering that proper digestion was the key to feeling good every day and that the right diet and Ayurvedic herbs could improve my metabolism made me dream of greenhouses filled with luscious, loving leaves.
Did you know? There are five primary Ayurvedic herbs for promoting healthy digestion, and they’re not some obscure botanicals you’ve never heard of before. A simple trip down the spice aisle in your local supermarket (or a quick peek in your pantry) will deliver you five common Ayurvedic herbs for enhancing your diet and improving your digestion safely and naturally.
Agni: The Fire of Digestion
Agni is the overarching energy that governs the transformation of vitamins, minerals, and other nutritional ingredients in our diet into our seven dhatus (body tissues). Primarily, it breaks down food, stimulates secretions, and manages metabolism. It also destroys foreign bacteria, microorganisms, and toxic residue in the stomach and intestines. Every cell and body tissue (all seven dhatu) contain agni, and longevity is dependent upon its proper functioning. In addition to managing digestive function, agni also supports intelligence, understanding, perception, comprehension, and the color of our skin. When agni is functioning properly, the body absorbs and assimilates food easily. If agni is impaired, the whole body will suffer.
Agni has four states high, low, variable, and balanced and Ayurvedic herbs can assist the body’s return to equilibrium. The pitta dosha has inherently high agni, which accounts for the presence of tejas, the fire element. This is why including fiery foods like chili peppers and garlic in our diet incite pitta and may cause excess acidity in the digestive tract if too much is consumed–they push agni into overdrive. Agni is low in kapha and variable in vata, given the low presence of tejas. Learning more about each dosha’s elemental composition, its corresponding optimal diet, and the role of Ayurvedic herbs is central to maintaining agni and optimizing our health.
3 Stages of Digestion
The first stage occurs in the mouth and stomach and is dominated by kapha. Its mechanisms are saliva and the alkaline secretions of the stomach lining. In this stage, water and earth elements are extracted from food and broken down.
Pitta dominates the second stage with secretions from the small intestine. In this stage, the fire element is extracted from food.
Vata dominates third stage, occurring in the large intestine and through the formation of stool. Air and ether elements are extracted from food during this stage.
Did you know? In India, it is customary to chew a mixture of fennel, cumin, and cardamom seeds after eating a meal to aid the assimilation of food. All three Ayurvedic herbs are cooling and help balance the spicy heat of many Indian dishes (if you find this too strong a taste, try mixing fennel seeds and ground versions of cumin and cardamom with hot water for a gut-calming tea, and drink about 30 minutes after eating).
Ayurvedic Herbs & Herbal Compounds
In Ayurvedic diet and nutrition, formulas and concoctions are useful for ensuring the absorption of certain herbs. For example, black pepper is required to increase the bioavailability of curcumin to a useable level. Triphala, an herbal compound comprised of three fruits is one of the best Ayurvedic herbal formulas for improving digestion and colon functioning and clearing ama. Learn more about the benefits of Triphala here.
Taken in isolation, Ayurvedic herbs can provide a range of digestive benefits, such as:
- Stimulating digestion
- Improving bile flow
- Increasing pancreatic enzyme activity
- Decreasing gas and bloating
- Supporting the body’s natural digestive function
As promised, here are the five primary Ayurvedic herbs used to promote healthy digestion.
Bonus benefit – Fennel seed reduces the discomfort of menstrual cramps.
This bitter and pungent herb is the seed of the much-loved or much-hated fresh, green cilantro plant. Its stimulating substance aids digestion with a cooling virya to help dampen overactive agni. Coriander is also tri-doshic and can be mixed with fennel and cumin for a delicious tea, or added to any number of soups and stir-frys to pump up the flavor.
Bonus benefit – Coriander contains properties that purify blood.
Native to Egypt and the Middle East, cumin belongs to the parsley family. This bitter tasting, pungent Ayurvedic herb balances all three doshas through its cooling action. Its primary digestive function is aiding secretions to help prepare the body for food intake and assimilation. Cumin also has an fascinating history. Scientists discovered cumin in 4000-year-old excavations because it was used to preserve mummies. Perhaps we can assume then that cumin is also an herb to aid graceful aging?
Bonus benefit – Cumin relieves abdominal pain and cramps.
Cardamom has the sweetest taste of the five Ayurvedic herbs. It has a pungent, sweet and slightly astringent rasa and a heating virya. Cardamom freshens breath (ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom pods to clean their teeth) and relieves gas, clearing the intestinal tract of toxins and overall discomfort. All three doshas benefit from cardamom thought it should only be used in small amounts. Sprinkling a little on ice cream can reduce the production of mucus and can neutralize the acidity of coffee.
Bonus benefit – Cardamom strengthens the heart and lungs.
In my culinary world, ginger is an herbal God. It has a pungent and sweet rasa, and is one of the most rewarding Ayurvedic herbs for digestion. Its heating quality warms the belly, especially in powdered form as it is more potent and penetrating than the fresh root, which has a higher water content. It is used as a carminative (relieves gas), kindles agni, neutralizes toxins, and assists in the absorption and assimilation of food, making it lighter and easier to digest. Ginger also cleanses the intestines and promotes healthy poop. It balances vata and kapha but increases pitta. Ginger is an excellent addition to your daily diet.
Bonus Benefit – Ginger may relieve the symptoms of osteoarthritis because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Check out Healthline for more proven benefits of this wondrous Ayurvedic herb.
Did you know? Visionary and yogi, Sadhguru, informs us that in a 40-day cycle are three non-consecutive days in which we do not need to eat. In these days we are unaffected by hunger, which is the body’s way of communicating the need for a break. A 24-hour fast can relieve the digestive system of operating according to a clock, rather than to our inherent need for nourishment. We may observe these days as opportunities to fast, consuming only water or fruit juice.
A Mouthful of Wisdom
In addition to adding Ayurvedic herbs to your diet, follow these easy diet tips for a happy belly:
- Eat at least three hours before bedtime.
- Drink warm water with fresh lemon about 30 minutes before meals.
- Avoid eating too many raw or spicy foods.
- Don’t mix fruit with other foods.
- Sit in vajrasana (kneeling pose) for a few minutes to correct stomach upset.
- Lie on your left side to support your stomach when you go to sleep.
Emotions too can disturb the mind and eventually result in digestive dysfunction, leading to the build-up of ama in the colon. Ayurvedic wisdom reminds us to observe our emotions with detachment and allow them to dissipate. Indeed, don’t repress any bodily urge, whether it’s sneezing, coughing, passing gas, or feelings of anger or resentment. Along with an informed, healthy approach to food and diet, the right intake of Ayurvedic herbs can treat most digestive system disorders. Find organic triphala in our shop for one of the most potent, natural sources of this gut-healing Ayurvedic herb.
Linda Reynolds has studied and practiced Ayurveda and Yoga for more than 6 years. From a career in academia to a full-time freelance-writer and nomad, Linda has always enjoyed research and writing, particularly about topics that support increased self-awareness. Linda loves to sing, play guitar, do yoga, and take long walks in nature. Her greatest act of courage so far was selling everything she owned and leaving Canada to travel and discover a new way of life.