I would like to shed light on the most potent foods I know for improving your digestion.
Below, I recommend a number of powerful foods for balancing blood sugar, elimination, lymph and bile flow, liver function, and pancreatic enzyme and stomach acid production.
And as we aim to improve digestion, it is essential to bring balance and coordination to all of the pieces in the digestive puzzle.
According to ayurveda, stress aggravates vata, can dry out the mucous lining of the intestines, and can also lead to eliminative issues such as constipation. In order to avoid this, we should choose foods that are unctuous, soothing, and lubricating to the intestinal wall.
Keeping that in mind, here are five ways you can use food to boost your digestion.
1. Move Your Bile
- Chia and flax seeds are loaded with essential fatty acids that lubricate the intestinal wall and nourish the microbes that support intestinal health and function. These seeds are also high in fiber. High fiber foods create bulk that puts pressure on the intestinal wall, resulting in an urge to move the bowels. High fiber foods also attach to the bile in the intestines and escort it to the toilet while stimulating the request to the body for more bile. Adequate bile flow helps govern the regularity and consistency of the bowels.
- Raw beets and apples are great bile-movers and thus very effective for occasional constipation. A great way to start the day is a breakfast mixture of freshly grated raw beets and apples sprinkled with lemon juice.
- Green, leafy vegetables are high in fiber and magnesium, which support healthy muscular contractions (called peristalsis) in the large intestine.
- Legumes provide bulk and better bile flow, both of which support healthy elimination.
- Prunes are also high in fiber and contain within their skins a mild laxative (called dihydrophenylisatin) which can kick-start sluggish bowels by boosting intestinal contractions.
2. Move Your Lymph
The lymphatic system is the largest circulatory system in the body, with a high concentration of lymphatic vessels lining the intestines. The villi and lacteals that line the intestines, and the lymph that surrounds the outside of the intestines, make up 70–80% of the body’s immune system.
The primary function of the lymph is to remove cellular waste while circulating the immune system throughout the body. This happens as a result of muscular contractions, thus making body movement, stretching, and exercise the lymphatic system’s best medicine. Staying hydrated is also a nutritional requirement for healthy lymph flow. For optimal hydration, some experts recommend consuming half of our ideal body weight in ounces of liquid per day.
- Eat red: The best foods for the lymphatic system are those we generally classify as antioxidants. Classic examples of lymph movers are all foods that would dye your hands red. Berries, cherries, cranberries, pomegranates, and beets are all good lymph movers.
- Green, leafy vegetables are highly alkaline, which supports lymphatic drainage. In nature, spring and summer harvests are both primarily alkaline and boost lymphatic flow. The winter harvest is primarily acidic, which is nature’s way of rebuilding.
- Fennel: Eating fennel and drinking tea made from fennel seeds are traditional ways to move the lymph. As a tea, fennel is effective for gas and bloating, and also supports the function of the intestinal lacteals. The lacteals are small projections in the intestines, similar to the villi, that help absorb nutrients (particularly fats).
3. Feed Your Microbiome
- Seasonal organic foods: Plants attract certain microbes from the soil and, when we eat those plants, the microbes become a part of our microbiome. Compared to conventional foods, organic produce is typically a far greater source of beneficial microbes for the digestive tract. Eating seasonal, organic foods provides microbes that support bodily functions required for each season. In the winter, for example, foods are denser and require stronger digestion than the leafy greens of spring. Microbes that support stronger digestion naturally propagate in the winter’s seasonal harvest. While research is only beginning to shed light in this area, ayurveda has for thousands of years understood the value of seasonal eating.
- Fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, and miso are all great microbial sources. These were traditionally eaten in the winter as a way to preserve vegetables in the colder months. Fermented foods are made from a process called lacto-acid fermentation, which makes them very acidic and “heating” for the body. While eating more acidic foods in the winter makes sense, it can be problematic to eat them in excess in the summer. As with condiments, fermented foods should generally be taken in small quantities.
4. Cleanse Your Liver
- Bitter roots: Digging up and eating dandelion root, burdock root, Oregon grape, goldenseal, and others was traditionally a standard part of the American diet. Today, such liver-cleansing and bile-moving staples are conspicuously lacking in most diets. If it is impossible for you to dig them up or purchase them fresh, take your bitter roots in capsule form in the spring. Always choose an organic, whole herbal root form rather than an herbal extract, as most of the good microbes are killed during the extraction process. Whole herbs are simply dried and ground up, leaving intact the majority of the good microbes.
My favorite liver-cleansing and bile-stimulating foods are:
5. Boost Your Stomach Acid
Once we have increased the bile and pancreatic enzyme flow, encouraged lymph drainage, possess a healthier microbiome, and enjoy better elimination, we can fire up the stomach’s production of hydrochloric acid (HCl). Here are some of my favorite ways to do this:
- Chew fresh, raw ginger root, or drink ginger tea before and during a meal.
- Dress a salad with oil and vinegar. Vinegar is an acetic acid, which boosts HCl. Apple cider vinegar works even better, because it is safe for high acid conditions.
- Drink a large glass of water a half hour before a meal to pre-hydrate the stomach’s natural buffer layer; this incites the stomach to make more HCl.
- Enjoying fermented foods as an appetizer will help kindle the digestive fire.
- Sip hot water with lemon before or during the meal.
- Add a little salt and pepper to a small glass of water and drink that before a meal.
- Spice food with fennel, cumin, coriander, ginger, and cardamom.
- Ginger, black pepper, and long pepper is ayurveda’s premier spice formula to boost HCl production.
Join me for more tips on how to improve your digestion, support your longevity, and increase your happiness in my course with Yoga International, Ayurveda and the Science of Longevity: A Research-Based Approach to Eating, Sleeping, and Relationships.
A version of this article originally appeared on Dr. John Douillard’s LifeSpa.com.