By herbalist and Ayurvedic practitioner Jo Webber
Poor digestive health can be the root cause of many unpleasant, embarrassing and uncomfortable symptoms we can endure on a daily basis. Causing us to struggle with everything from excess flatulence after meals and constipation, to acid indigestion and unpredictable bowel habits.
Whether it’s feeling heavy and windy after dinner, or not being able to get into your favourite jeans (despite you eating healthy and staying active) – digestive issues can cause us a lot of problems.
Ayurveda is traditional Indian medicine, but it’s also much more than that. The name can be translated as ‘science of life’ and it’s a way of living that incorporates philosophy, yoga, food and massage as well as natural herbs. It’s a holistic approach to health.
Here are five ways Ayurveda could help your digestion and bring you relief.
1. Ease stress and make your gut happy with ashwagandha – the herb to help your mind and bowel cope.
A key principle in Ayurveda is that the mind and body are inseparable. And so when the mind is in distress, problems show up in our physical health. There’s an especially close connection between the brain and the gut: if you’ve ever had ‘butterflies in your tummy’ when you were nervous, you’ve experienced this first hand!
This brain-body connection starts to explain how stress can play a key part in IBS, too. In fact, up to three-quarters of sufferers say that stress is a trigger for their symptoms.
So, how do we deal with it? Practices to calm the mind are a key Ayurvedic way of coping with stress (see point 5 for more on this). But certain adaptogenic herbs also play an important role in Ayurveda, of course, and there’s none more appropriate than ashwagandha at times of stress. This much-loved herb can support energy but also has calming and anti-anxiety properties, helping to lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Try Pukka’s organic Wholistic™ Ashwagandha, taking one to two capsules a day – £16.95 for 30 capsules, available from Boots pharmacy, Amazon and Ocado.
Lopresti AL, Smith SJ, Malvi H, Kodgule R. 2019. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract. Medicine (Baltimore). 98(37): e17186.
2. Soothe and refresh with aloe vera
You’ve probably heard about using aloe vera for cooling and soothing irritated skin. But it can also have that same cooling and calming effect for the gut. In fact, it’s used in Ayurveda as an ‘intestinal healer’ to calm and soothe the digestive tract. For an irritated gut, make sure you’re getting a high-quality aloe vera juice or gel made from the inner leaf of the plant, such as Pukka’s Organic Aloe Vera Juice, taking 1–2 tablespoons before each meal – £15.95 for 1L, available from independent health food stores, Ocado and Amazon.
3. Think before you drink
Could your favourite beverage be making your symptoms worse? Coffee and alcohol are among the prime substances that can irritate the gut. Coffee is also a stimulant, of course, and increases stress hormones – adding fuel to the fire that triggers those unpleasant IBS symptoms.
As an excellent antidote and alternative, try a tea made with fennel and aniseed such as Pukka’s Feel New tea – £2.99 for a box of 20 teabags, available from Holland & Barrett, Tesco and Waitrose. A traditional Ayurvedic digestive herb and natural soother, fennel and aniseed can help calm spasms in the gut, ease sugar cravings and relieve bloating. Sip on a cup after a meal or any time you need relief. If your stomach tends to feel bloated and uncomfortable after eating a meal, then aniseed and fennel will soon become your favourite after-dinner treat.
4. Get to know Triphala – India’s most famous gut health tonic
Triphala is Ayurveda’s most famous herbal gut health tonic. Made from three fruits – haritaki, bibhitaki and amla – its traditional uses include helping relieve sluggish bowels, constipation, bloating, flatulence and abdominal pain. This traditional digestive tonic can be particularly helpful if constipation is a symptom as it improves gut motility to ease congestion and stagnation. But it can also be useful if you have alternating constipation and diarrhoea – a common pattern in IBS sufferers. Contrary to pharmaceutical laxatives, which tend to stimulate the bowel (best avoided!), triphala has a regulating effect, so it can be used long term. Try Pukka’s organic Wholistic™ Triphala, taking 1 to 2 capsules a day away from food – £16.95 for 30 capsules, available from Amazon, Ocado and health food store retailers.
Peterson CT, Denniston K, Chopra D. (2017) Therapeutic Uses of Triphala in Ayurvedic Medicine. J Altern Complement Med. 23(8): 607–614.
5. Train your mind to be still
Lastly, back to tackling stress. For most of us, finding stillness and calm – a place where stress can melt away – is a skill that needs to be learned. This is why meditation or mindfulness practices are a key part of the Ayurvedic lifestyle. Luckily, they’ve become more popular in Western society, too, and so plenty of resources are available to help us, from apps to breathing exercises to structured yoga classes.
Making one of these techniques or practices part of your daily life is ideal. But if stress affects your IBS, then a short meditation before you eat a meal could be especially helpful. Start by taking just five minutes before you eat to close your eyes and breathe deeply (five seconds in, five seconds out). You could find that even this makes all the difference.