There is so much to know about digestion it is actually astounding. The complexity of the science of digestion alone in Ayurveda boggles my mind. The fact they knew all of this information 5000 years ago is baffling. Even today, as medical facts are uncovered, it is found in the ancient study of Ayurveda. It really feels like playing catchup in many ways. Like throwing out a textbook to write your own just because its from another culture that you don’t understand.
There was a court case recently in Canada that gave a first nation mother the right to choose their traditional medicines over modern medicine for her daughter who had been diagnosed with cancer. Medical doctors tried to intervene, but the courts ruled in the mother’s favour. This precedent will be one I will be watching closely.
What truly bothered me about this case (besides that we still feel as a society that we can decide what’s best for the first nations peoples after the cultural genocide we have inflicted upon them) was the deep lack of respect for their medical science. Whatever works, works. That’s it. Facts are indisputable. But if you suppress a culture who’s ways have worked for generations simply because they don’t have some pharmaceutical company paying for trials and research, then you really need to check your arrogance. You may have western medical knowledge and that’s great. It has it’s place. But don’t throw out any other treatment methods that may be available simply because you don’t understand them. We will only ever grow to understand them if we actually put funding into doing trials with other traditions of medicine. The system is skewed to benefit a western model (and fuels insurance and pharmaceutical companies in the process). What should matter is helping people, period.
When the British invaded India, they committed acts of cultural suppression as well upon it’s citizens. Among the things they outlawed was Ayurveda. And what an unfortunate mistake that was for all of us in humanity. If it had been adopted by the British instead of almost eradicated, it would be more widely used today and a lot of our daily suffering would be much more manageable and maintained.
A large part of that management is in the health of our digestion. Digestion is a broad and far reaching topic, filled with information. I struggle even to translate it’s sanskrit roots into western terms here because for many of it’s findings, modern medical science has no words that translate (In fact, many of it’s findings haven’t even been discovered yet by modern science). I’m not trying to bash medical science. As I’ve said in the past, the two are complimentary. So long as we care about keeping people healthy, they will always both work towards that same goal. But to understand digestion from an Ayurvedic perspective will take more than just me blogging. Still, a good place to start today will be with what makes us eat, and ultimately digest, in the first place:
Appetite is reflective of the energy we spend. The thing is, people spend their energy differently. In Ayurveda, we can look at this through the lens of the doshas (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha – remember the Winnie the Pooh analogy).
As you all know, I work with kids. When I was a kid we had maybe 30 mins to eat our lunch and then they rushed us outside to run around (which is already bad for digestion in and of itself as the body has to divert energy towards our exercise while it is trying to simultaneously digest). Nowadays? The kids are lucky if they get 10 minutes. It’s astounding. And they don’t get to snack every hour or so. They get a quick recess where they are forced outside before lunch. They are also expected to eat these huge lunches because they are growing and need more food to sustain that growth. It’s really actually quite dumb. They need more time to eat. But still, this doesn’t go far enough. The three meals a day model works for almost no one. Not only do the kids need more time to eat, but they need to have the freedom to eat according to their nature:
If your appetite is of a Vata nature, your appetite is variable. You may go the whole day preferring to snack and eat more often. You may even skip meals and not be aware of it. It is hard to pin your appetite down at a strict time. A healthy appetite for you will mean having smaller meals and snack more throughout the day to satisfy that appetite. When your digestion is off, you will commonly experience gas, bloating, and pain. You seem underweight for your frame.
If your appetite is of a Pitta nature, your appetite is strong. You feel hungry and burn through that fuel quickly. You tend to eat a large meal which will satisfy you until the next meal, eat another meal that satisfies you, and so on. You will never forget to eat a meal, but may choose to skip a meal because you are focused on something else. When your digestion is off, you will commonly experience burning digestive symptoms. You have a low weight for your frame and have difficulty maintaining your weight.
If your appetite is of a Kapha nature, your appetite is low. You often feel you have to force yourself to eat simply because “it’s time to eat”, though you feel satisfied often only eating one or two meals a day. You will never forget to eat, but may choose not to eat because you are not hungry. When your digestion is off, it is sluggish. You put on weight easily and may have excess weight for your frame. It is difficult for you to lose weight.
When asking yourself which of these three you fall into, try to think of what it’s most commonly been like in your life. It can fluctuate between these three at times, but remembering what your body naturally tends towards will tell you which dosha your appetite is in (but paying an Ayurvedic Practitioner to assess you is far better of course). We often blame ourselves for forgetting meals, being too skinny, being too fat…But it’s not just because of the food choices you make. Yes, that plays a large part in nutrition for your body, but eating right for your nature is fundamental.
Forcing kids at a young age to eat on our time sets them up for a lifetime of failure. Some kids may not finish their lunch, but just need opportunities to eat smaller portions throughout the day. Some kids may be like a garburator devouring everything. Others may only want to eat a couple of meals. Don’t force them to eat or to not eat! Spread it out. If they take forever to eat it is because they are not hungry. Leave them be. If they need to eat all the time, let them! Try to establish a routine that works best for them, so they feel hungry at appropriate times. Don’t force them into some wonky appetite pattern with no regard for their nature. I know we do this because it’s how we were taught. Break the cycle! Start with yourself. Recognize how your appetite is, and adjust your eating patterns to match it. If I can give you any good rule of thumb to follow, it will be to try and make lunchtime your biggest meal of the day, and have lighter meals if any in the morning and afternoon. Kindle that fire of your appetite properly to work towards this. You don’t want to start heavy or end heavy in your day. Midday is optimal for digestion.
Knowing you have a natural way your appetite operates can hopefully trigger a sort of “Duh! Of course!” moment in you. Your problems with your weight start here. Many people in today’s society struggle with their weight and ultimately their concept of their self image through their weight. I am telling you right now that you have been set up to fail from the get go, and realizing that there’s a way that works best for you is paramount. This is why diets don’t work; they don’t assess your appetite pattern. This is a great place to start if you are worried about weight in any way. So don’t beat yourself up! Ayurveda can teach you to play to your strengths. It creates the space you need to foster that change towards better health.
We will continue to visit other aspects of digestion as time goes on. Until tomorrow!