How to Improve Digestion
In Ayurveda, healthy digestion is considered absolutely essential to thriving health. And in order to understand how to improve digestion, it’s helpful to have an awareness of the Ayurvedic definition of digestion—also known as agni.
The Sanskrit word for “fire,” agni is viewed as the very source of life, governing not only the digestion of food but also the digestion process of thoughts, emotions, and life experience. Ayurveda teaches that impaired agni is at the root of every imbalance, and that tending this fire in the digestive system is the first step in restoring balance.
This guide is intended to give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of agni, while offering practical tools and simple ways to avoid digestive problems and increase gut health.
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The question of how to improve gut health begins with humanity’s ancient relationship to fire. Fire has been worshiped throughout history, and many Indo-European languages even had two distinct words for it: one for an inanimate form of fire, one for an animate form.2
Interestingly, the English word “fire” was born out of the inanimate form.2 On the other hand, the Sanskrit word agni (pronounced uhg-nih) is one of the oldest known words for the living, breathing variety of fire. Agni is also the root from which a number of words evoking the dynamic nature of fire emerged: “ignis” (Latin), “ugnis” (Old Prussian), as well as “ignite” and “igneous” (English).1, 2
As its etymological history suggests, the deeper significance of the Sanskrit word agni is profound—sacred, even. In fact, it is said that a man is as old as his agni and that when agni is extinguished, we die.1
The Vedic culture revered fire for its light, its warmth, and its ability to cook food.3 But the Vedic understanding of agni extends well beyond “fire” in its physical form. Agni also names the fire element—one of the five building blocks from which everything in the universe is composed.
It is the vehicle by which food becomes consciousness, serving as a bridge between the body, mind, and spirit. It connects lower consciousness to higher consciousness and links the individual to the cosmos.1
In Ayurveda, agni is the source of awareness, nutrition, and intelligence. It drives all types of transformation, digests thoughts and emotions, and coordinates countless physiological processes—including the digestion, absorption, and assimilation of foods, sensations, and experiences into energy.1
Agni maintains the bodily tissues, overseeing their creation and renewal, as well as their breakdown and destruction.1 It gives our skin its luster, and our eyes their sparkle.1, 3 There are many manifestations of agni that affect the body and mind—from the fire of awareness, to the central digestive fire, from the capacity for discernment within each tissue, to that in individual cells—overseeing transformation at the microscopic level.
Balanced agni throughout the system prevents the undue accumulation of the doshas of vata, pitta, kapha, as well as the buildup of ama (toxins). In the event that any of these substances do start to accumulate, a robust and healthy digestive fire will keep them in the digestive tract—where they can be easily eliminated—and prevent them from invading other tissues in the body.
There are many ways to strengthen and support agni, which is hot, sharp, dry, light, mobile, subtle, luminous, and clear. In general, substances and experiences rich in these qualities will support digestion, while substances and experiences with opposite qualities will disturb it.
This offering can be made with sacred intention or it can be made mindlessly. We can focus on foods and other forms of nourishment that honor and enhance the qualities of agni or we can ingest substances and experiences that dilute and smother this fire.
If you're wondering how to improve gut health—and support every other aspect of your well-being along the way—here are some practical tips for protecting your sacred fire.
1. Follow a Consistent Daily Routine
Ayurveda places a great deal of emphasis on maintaining a supportive daily routine. This practice encourages overall well-being and is also surprisingly supportive of digestion. A routine creates a sense of regularity throughout the day, which bolsters natural hunger at regular intervals and prepares the digestive fire to receive food at consistent times.
A daily routine also helps to reduce stress and maintain a healthy nervous system, which is directly linked to the health of the digestive system. To begin a simple and supportive daily routine, start with a few basic rituals:
- Wake up at the same time each morning, ideally before 6 a.m.
- Go to bed at the same time each night, ideally before 10 p.m.
- Eat three healthy meals at about the same time each day.
2. Eat Well and with Mindfulness
Jathara agni (the central digestive fire) resides primarily in the stomach, but it feeds and nourishes agni throughout the entire body. Food is one of the most obvious—and potent—pathways through which to invoke balanced jathara agni, and balanced digestion in turn. Here are a a few tips for supportive eating habits:
- Give your full attention to the act of being nourished and the digestion process—agni is strengthened everywhere in the body when we are truly present with the food we eat.4
- Eat an Ayurvedic diet of light, simple, easily digestible, and sattvic foods.
- Develope a habit of eating at regular times each day. This kindles digestion and supports balanced hunger 4
- Eat appropriate quantities of food at each meal (about two handfuls) to keep agni strong.4
- Allow the digestive fire to fully process one meal before eating again, leaving at least three—and up to six—hours between meals.1
- Eat only when hungry. Genuine, healthy hunger is characterized by a sense of lightness, a pleasant anticipation of food, and is satisfied by eating. False or imbalanced hunger can be caused by boredom, emotional upset, exhaustion, and other disturbances, but it is usually resolved with a short rest, a walk, or some warm water.4
- Eat foods that digest well together and avoiding food combinations that disturb your digestive balance. For examples of healthy food combining, take a look at this food digestion chart.
3. Avoid Digestion Inhibitors
Ayurveda generally recommends avoiding ice water and cold drinks, as their damp cool nature can extinguish the heat of the digestive fire. Similarly, drinking too much fluid (especially in conjunction with or immediately after food) dilutes agni and can inhibit digestion.4
Excessive sleep, overeating, emotional eating, and leftovers all tend to dampen the subtle nature of agni, while foods like dairy, meat, and mushrooms can dull its sharpness. Heavy foods and cloudy weather can easily disrupt the light, clear nature of agni.4
4. Kindle Digestion Before Eating
There are many simple ways to kindle agni immediately before eating so that the digestive fire can effectively process our foods and burn any previously accumulated toxins. Here are a few ideas:
- Take a short walk just prior to eating. This practice wakes up the digestive capacity and can also help to clarify whether hunger is genuine or not. Emotional cravings will dissipate after a walk while true hunger will be enhanced.4
- Drink more water at appropriate times, away from your meals. Try drinking a cup or two of warm water upon waking and a glass of warm water 20–30 minutes before your meals. These tactics not only help to cleanse and hydrate the tissues, they also awaken the digestive capacity and can dramatically improve digestion.5
- Prepare a mixture of grated ginger, lime juice, and mineral salt. Eat a small pinch before your meals to awaken the digestive fire and activate helpful digestive enzymes.
- Look into the use of apple cider vinegar and fermented foods to activate your digestion. Be aware that these foods are aggravating for some (especially vata), but if used wisely by the right person they can be a great source of digestive benefits.
5. Support Digestion After Eating
When you have finished eating, it is important to take a full, deep breath before getting up and moving on to your next activity. This helps the body to register satisfaction and retains a helpful level of mindfulness as you transition away from eating.
Some people also benefit from the probiotic effect of enjoying a small cup of lassi after a meal. Lassi is made with one part fresh, homemade yogurt blended with four parts water, and you can add a pinch of cumin powder and salt to aid digestion.4
If meals tend to make you sleepy, a very short walk after a meal can be highly beneficial. Or, if you tend to routinely overextend yourself, try lying on your left side for 5–15 minutes after lunch.4 This position activates the solar energy channel, which is linked to agni, so it is not only relaxing and rejuvenating, but also very supportive of good digestion.
6. Consider an Ayurvedic Cleanse to Reset Digestion
A periodic gut health cleanse is a powerful way to kindle and reset digestion. Ayurveda honors the body’s natural intelligence and doing a cleanse gives the physiology a chance to do what it does best—detox, rejuvenate, and return to a state of healthy and balanced digestion.
There are many options when it comes to cleansing. For some, a weekly half or full day water-only fast works well. For others, simply eating a mono diet for one day each week is a better choice. This could be a simple fruit or juice cleanse, or a more nourishing day of kitchari.
The option that is appropriate for you depends on your constitution and current state of balance. A trained Ayurvedic practitioner can guide you in choosing and implementing a cleanse that is perfect for you.
7. Exercise for Your Dosha
One of the most important ways we can support and protect digestion is with proper exercise. And proper exercise, according to Ayurveda, can look entirely different from person to person. Ayurveda offers the unique perspective that the type, duration, and intensity of exercise that is most balancing for each of us depends largely on our constitution.
- Airy and mobile vata benefits from gentle, grounding forms of exercise and vata-balancing yoga.
- Fiery pitta is balanced by exercise done with relaxed effort rather than driven intensity, and is calmed by pitta-balancing yoga.
- Slow and earthy kapha responds to vigorous and stimulating exercise and kapha-balancing yoga.
For all three doshas, doing some form of yoga for digestion is a great way to energize and activate agni and maintain a balanced state of digestion.
8. Meditate to Reduce Stress
Stress can have a very detrimental impact on our overall health, and is particularly disruptive to the digestive process. Meditation is a beautiful subtle therapy that not only encourages stress reduction, but also supports the proper digestion of thoughts and emotions, encourages a healthier mental and emotional state, and helps us to develop more productive responses to stressful situations.
If you are new to meditation, Dr. Vasant Lad’s Empty Bowl Meditation is a simple and beautiful practice that offers a powerful starting point for your meditation journey.
9. Get Fresh Air and Practice Pranayama
Just as fire is fed by fresh air, digestion is kindled when we breathe deeply and relax our bodies. This might be something as simple as going for a walk or a hike in nature and consciously taking deep, full breaths into your belly.
If you’re open to a more specific practice, consider refreshing the deep tissues with a few minutes of pranayama (yogic breathing exercises). The following practices offer support for each dosha:
- Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breath) is a grounding practice to balance vata.
- Sheetali (Cooling Breath) is a calming practice to balance pitta.
- Bhastrika (Bellows Breath) is an invigorating practice to balance kapha.
If you are not sure which doshas are affecting your agni, our resource on the Four Varieties of Agni helps to sort out the different types of imbalances and offers practical recommendations (including specific pranayamas) for each one.
10. Drink Good Tea for Digestion
Drinking warm tea throughout the day is an excellent way to tend to agni and support healthy digestion. The warmth naturally encourages the heat of agni and it is also a delicious way to incorporate specific digestive-supporting herbs.
- CCF Tea. This traditional Ayurvedic blend of three spices (cumin, coriander, and fennel) is brewed together as a tea to support digestion and encourage gentle cleansing. CCF Tea is famous in Ayurveda for strengthening the digestive fire without aggravating pitta, soothing common digestive discomforts, and supporting the body's natural ability to detox.
- Detox Digest. Detox Digest uses CCF Tea as a base, adding the powerful digestive allies turmeric and ginger to warm the body, promote healthy circulation, and support a comfortable post-meal experience. It has a pleasant and slightly pungent aroma and flavor.
- Ginger Tea. Whether prepared with fresh ginger root or ginger powder, drinking ginger tea benefits all aspects of digestion. Even with its zesty kick of spice, it offers just the right amount of warmth without overheating the system.
11. Support Your Digestion with Herbs
Throughout history, humans have turned to the plant kingdom as a source of natural digestive support. Incorporating digestion supplements and herbs for gut health into your daily routine is a simple and powerful way to jumpstart your digestive health. Here are a few of our favorite digestive allies:
- Triphala. This traditional Ayurvedic formula consists of three fruits and is balancing to vata, pitta, and kapha. Triphala is revered for its unique ability to support digestion, elimination, and a healthy gut microbiome.
- Easy Digest. Easy Digest liquid extract is a powerful blend of herbs that supports the digestive process. It can be used before meals to stoke the appetite or taken after eating to promote a comfortable post-meal experience.
- Digestion Formulas. If you are working with a particular dosha, Vata Digest, Pitta Digest, and Kapha Digest are crafted to deliver just the support you need. These formulas help to balance the digestive fire by addressing whichever dosha is most affecting your agni.
Digestion is essential to our well-being; in fact, maintaining balanced digestion may just be the secret to achieving optimal health and longevity. So it goes without saying that the powerful force of agni is deserving of our respect, attention, reverence, and care. If you are hungry for more information about this topic, consider exploring these complementary resources:
- The Four Varieties of Agni: The different types of imbalances that can disrupt agni and how to work with them.
- Ama: the Antithesis of Agni: An introduction to ama, the undigested natural toxins that build up in the body.
- Ayurvedic Guide to Healthy Elimination: A comprehensive look at healthy elimination through the lens of Ayurveda.