Whether you eat a lot of meat-based fats, dairy, or even a robust vegan diet replete with loads of healthy fats, you’re handing your digestive system a real challenge. For some of us, that’s no biggie. We’ve got plenty of Digestive Fire to handle a few slices of extra-greasy pizza or a big ‘ole plate of ribs. No problemo!
But what happens when that gloriously strong digestive system tanks?
It’s not a pretty sight, my friends. Diarrhea, bloating, gasiness, indigestion, cramping, nausea, and severe pain can all shout their warnings at full-volume if we haven’t already realized that our digestive system isn’t what it used to be, and we’ve just overwhelmed it.
If we don’t heed those warnings, it can get worse, too. Constipation, malabsorption, leaky gut, chronic digestive conditions, tooth decay, skin problems, gallstones, and bigger diseases can arise when our Digestive Fire is squelched. It’s hard to come back from some of them, sometimes impossible. The changes we could have made early on are no longer adequate, so we have to look at much greater changes to diet and lifestyle potentially alongside much greater interventions.
The good news is, Herbalists have a lot of tools that are pretty darn easy to use if you pay attention to what your digestive system is trying to tell you. Those tools can help you head off longer-term and bigger problems so you can enjoy your life and food now and in the future.
What is Digestive Fire, Anyway?
When herbalists and related practitioners talk about Digestive Fire, they’re referring to the strength of your digestive system’s ability to both physically and chemically break down your foods and separate the helpful from the waste. We think of it as fire or heat because it includes both physical heat (the heat of your body) and chemical heat (acidity of your bile).
Good Digestive Fire can easily break down even the coldest, fattiest foods, like ice cream, or the toughest foods, like raw carrots or similar veggies. Your teeth take part in creating Digestive Fire, too, but breaking down the food initially is a little bit like chopping the wood into sizeable chunks before you put it into the cooking fire. The real work done by the Fire is in its chemical processes. When Digestive Fire is strong, the food is easily dissolved and the chemistry of the foods and drinks you’ve consumed breaks apart easily. The Fire also helps your body absorb and transport the nutrients and other helpful stuff into your blood stream, intercellular fluids, and ultimately to the organs and systems that need them. In this way, Fire is related to the circulatory system.
How Does Eating Meat or Dairy or even Veggies Affect My Digestion?
The kinds of foods you eat has a varying degree of influence on how strong your Digestive Fire is or will be in the future. Factors like your constitution and age, prior stressors or current conditions, environment and time or year, and even what you ate for supper last night can have an affect on how easily you’ll digest the meal you’re about to consume. The more often you tax your Digestive Fire, the harder it is for that fire to re-build. Some folks, like those with a Pitta constitution or those who are still quite young may be able to drop loads of fatty meats, cold dairy, and raw vegetables into their fire and have no adverse affects. They may even find those kinds of foods helpful. They’ve got such a strong fire they need to challenge it to keep it too busy to start stiring up trouble. That’s part of why a Raw Foods Diet or a Paleo Diet can be so healing and satisfying to some.
People with a Vata or Kapha constitution or of an older age are far more likely to notice the Digestive Fire’s warning signs that all is not well after eating some types of foods. That’s because they don’t have the natural volcano-type of Digestive Fire their youthful and Pitta cousins must manage. Instead of needing to give their digestive systems an extra challenge to keep the Fire focused, they need to tend and support their fire. More of us fall into this category than not, which is why so, so many Traditional Systems of Healing and cultures have emphasized a variety of ways to support the Digestive Fire, including some tasty tools and a few practical prohibitions to use and observe as we age.
Prohibitions? What do I need to Cut out of my Diet now?!?
Many of us tend to rebel against cutting stuff out of our diets, and for good reason. We’re built to seek pleasure and enjoyment in life. As children, we need to explore our world, try many different experiences, and learn through trial and error. We need loads of energy to grow and process all those experiences. We’re built to eat loads of sweet, salty, and fatty foods as we grow. They give us lots of fast and sustaining energy and loads of minerals for building strong structures in our bodies.Those foods are the foods of comfort and home as we navigate life’s challenges, and we never quite let go of the pleasure they offer.
The challenging part is in learning to appreciate the other flavors, like sour and bitter and spicy or pungent, and to give those other flavors a bigger role in our diets once we’ve grown to adult-size. Our bodies let us know when it’s time to shift toward them, usually in our late twenties to mid-thirties, depending on our constitution, lifestyle, gender, and environment. We’ve all heard about or experienced that “slowing metabolism” that creeps up on us in those years. With it comes a little weight-gain and often less tolerance for some of the more decadent foods and drinks of our youth. That’s the first sign that it’s time to start better tending your Digestive Fire.
A small part of tending your Digestive Fire is taking time to notice which foods or types of foods or drinks cause challenges for you. For most of us, that may include drinking less alcohol each week or working on reducing the amount of empty calories we eat, especially in the form of carbs and fats. Most Traditional Healing systems suggest a reduction in high-fat foods, cold foods or drinks, and raw foods beginning shortly before we start noticing those signs. Often in our very early adulthood, we would traditionally have made the shift away from those foods in our daily diet and therefore been able to indulge once a week or a couple of times a month. As we age, those same foods would become part of our festival and celebration meals only, allowing us to continue to enjoy them occasionally while we use our tools to keep our Digestive Fires burning bright well into our elder years.
Tools for Boosting Digestive Fire
The fun part once we’ve made peace with the letting-go of the foods and drinks that no longer serve us is discovering and learning to use the many tools we have for boosting our Digestive Fire. The wisest among us get started early, but even old dogs can learn to appreciate new treats! Tools like Fermented Foods, Cooking more, Spices, and learning to use Bitters can make a huge difference in your body’s ability to digest naturally.
Fermented Foods Boost Digestion
Let’s start with Fermented Foods. I’ve written a longer article on what they are and how they work Here. The super sort of it is, the process of naturally fermenting some of the foods in your daily diet gives your microbiome extra support. Your microbiome plays a huge part in maintaing and using your Digestive Fire to break down and absorb your foods and drinks. Take good care of it by adding lacto-fermented foods, like countertop dill picles or kimchi, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, saurkraut, and kombucha to your daily menu. Your microbiome will thank you no matter what constitution you have.
Cooking Improves Digestion
Cooking more doesn’t mean avoiding eating out. Cooking more actually means finding ways to at least kiss as many of your foods as possible with a little external heat. Even a quick and light turn in a wok set on high heat can go great lengths toward reducing the work your digestive system needs to do to break down your foods. Vegans and vegetarians may benefit most from Cooking more, but it’s wise for meat-eaters to consider skipping the raw side salad in favor of a plate of lightly cooked veggies like braised brussle sprouts as well.
Vegetables are the most obvious choice, but consider tossing learning to cook fruits, too. Many of our older cultural cuisines include a gammut of ways to cook fruits. Today, these recipes may be categorized as for recuperation from illness or only for the elderly, but that was not the case for our Ancestors. They enjoyed baked, fried, stewed, and even sun-dried fruits in moderation starting quite young and continuing on through their lives.
Spice it Up for Good Digestion
Many of the herbs and spices we use in our cooking today were originally included in the dishes we so adore not to preserve them or to cover up the taste of rotting foods or meats as we’ve too often been told. Our Ancestors knew better than to try to eat rotting foods, unless they were fermented, of course. They used all those spices to care for their Digestive Fires and to help maintain overall health. We can use carminitative, rubificient, and choleretic ad cholagogue herbs and spices to support our digesetive tract and make our foods taste supurb at the same time.
Carminative herbs support perestalsis, or the little contractions in your intestinal tract that help you move food and waste along. Carminative herbs include many of our favorite baking spices, like Ginger, Cardamon, Clove, Fennel, Anise, Cumin, and Corriander.
Rubificient herbs increase circulation. They’re sometimes classified as heating herbs or circulatory stimulants. They help draw bloodflow to the walls of our whole digestive system, making it much easier for our blood to pickup the nutrients our digestive tract has extracted and carry them through out our bodies. Rubificient herbs include another group of favorites for baking and cooking savory dishes, like Ginger, Cinnamon, Clove, Cayenne or Chili Pepper, Oregano, Black Pepper, and Peppermint.
Choleretic and Cholagogue herbs support adequate bile production and flow. These herbs are often mildly to pretty darn bitter, so we often use them sparingly. Too often, they’ve been entirely eliminated from modern version of some of our favorite foods. I don’t know what that is specifially, but I expect it has to do with the intensity of how bitter they can be coupled with some of their chemical compositions. Wormwood, for instance, was used as a seasoning for roasts, stews, and in after-dinner drinks. It is the primary flavoring in Abysinth, and when taken in moderation it’s quite stimulating to the liver and gallbladder. It’s also gotten a really bad rap because if it’s high levels of thujone, a chemical that be fatal if taken in large quantities. Choleretic and Cholagogue herbs include favorites in the herbal kitchen, like Dandelion, Oregon Grape root, Peppermint, Artichoke and Gentian.
How Can I Use Spices to Improve Digestion?
The easiest way to begin to spice it up is to start adding a little more of those spices to our daily diet. Don’t skip the black pepper; instead, let the server give you a few good grates. When you’re cooking, try adding a little more of each of the spices the recipe asks for. A dash of spice is rarely enough, in my book. Amp it up slowly, though. Our modern diets have been pretty bland, especially since the fast food restaurant was born in the middle of the last century. Give yourself time to adjust to increased levels of spices in your foods, especially those rubificient ones, or you may find yourself dripping in sweat and wishing you’d left the spice out altogether.
As you get used to adding a bit more spice to your cooking and eating, consider adding some bitters to your drinks, too. Cocktails are always a treat, but a dash of bitters in plain water can be quite nice. Experiment a bit. DIY Bitters by Guido Masse and Jovial King is a terrific place to start playing with the bitter flavor and boosting your Digestive Fire through better liver and gallbladder support. Masala Chai, coffee, cacao, and tea are also wonderful drinks that incorporate choleretic an cholagogue herbs. Make one or more of these a guilt-free part of your daily diet by eliminating the sugar and focusing on the spice and bitter flavors these drinks can offer. As your body gets used to it, you’ll probably find they’re not really as bitter as you’d once thought.
- Managing Bile Flow with Tom Marsfield
- Thujone: Psychedelic, Potent Cancer Treatment, or Poison?
- DIY Bitters: Reviving the Forgotten Flavor – A Guide to Making Your Own Bitters for Bartenders, Cocktail Enthusiasts, Herbalists, and More (affiliate link)