By Scott Blossom, Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medical practitioner
I recently watched the movie, “Melancholia,” by Lars Von Trier, and was struck by parallels, plot-wise, with the upcoming season of holiday feasting. For those of you who don’t know anything about the movie, it is about a wedding that happens on the eve of an astronomical disaster. The promises of love, unity, and family bonds are eclipsed by the presence of a rogue planet on a collision course for Earth. I know from first hand experience and observation that many a holiday feast, while gleaming with the promise of gathering and celebrating life with our beloveds, often ends with some in the party being eclipsed by a sort of gastronomical crisis!
Yes, I am being hyperbolic. Indigestion is not the end of the world. From an Ayurvedic perspective though, digestion is integral to virtually every aspect of our body/mind health- to harmony and balance as we know it.
The thing to keep in mind: you are not what you eat, you are what you digest.
Most people’s digestive capacity is similar to that of a small campfire. (There is, of course, a special subset of exceptional individuals, mostly adolescent males, who like wildfire can incinerate nearly anything that comes their way. I direct my commentary toward the rest of us.) Like a small campfire, the average humanís digestion is delicate: overload it and you smother it; feed it too little fuel and it dies; stir it too much or too little and it sputters. The key to good fire tending is to be a good observer and listener. Elemental fire knows what it wants and communicates its needs in the form of heat, radiance, and sizzle.† Our internal digestive fire speaks its own sensual and intuitive language: that of gut feelings.
For successful digestive fire tending, at least from an Ayurvedic perspective, consider these images:
- Heavy foods, like flesh foods, dairy, highly processed and intensely sweet foods are big logs. (Actually, dairy and intensely sweet foods, especially sweetened dairy foods like ice cream, are more like green or soggy logs, since they are the hardest to digest for most people.)
- Nuts and legumes, which fall in the middle of the spectrum from heavy to light, are well-seasoned medium logs; their vegetable fat and protein content make them both easy to burn and substantial enough to burn for awhile.
- Vegetables and fruits are light foods, easy to burn but quick to burn out.† Fiber-rich foods like these are the sticks that keep the fire burning, that stir it up and keep air circulating within it (via healthy peristalsis and elimination patterns).
- Judicious amounts of alcohol (apertif anyone?) and seasonings are your matches and kindling.
Next: Things that trouble digestion
An experienced fire tender knows you need all of these items, in the right balance and timing, to have a good fire.
So how does our fire-making go wrong?
- Heavy food offered to your internal digestive fire in excess can overwhelm it and produce indigestion by stifling the fire.
- Insufficient heavy food and too much light food will weaken the fire by starving it.
- Large amounts of strong spices, fried food, or alcohol will cause the fire to flare up, which may scorch the fire-tender. (Excess alcohol overheats and dampens the fire simultaneously.)
The key to tending the digestive fire is to learn to accurately identify the moment of satiation, the first signs of which are feelings of energy, satisfaction, and gratitude. Complications set in because most people, for a wide variety of reasons, take these first signs of satiation as a cue to eat more. In a Hollywood world, the film’s score would loudly alert everyone to the danger approaching in that the next plate of food or glass of wine that will upset the eater’s digestive harmony. In the real world the score, while clear enough if we listen carefully, is sometimes too subtle to detect.
Like most skills proficient tending of your digestive fire is best developed through personal trial and error. Useful suggestions may be found by reading about eating well but even the best theory requires verification.† Personal experience and paying attention to how the crucible of your own stomach works are the only sure ways to knowledge. In my opinion, one of the best sources of insight in this regard is to tend an actual fire, from ignition to ashes, and draw your conclusions from direct observation and intuition. As you watch the interplay flame, air, fuel and smoke you may put yourself on a surer course to avoiding gastronomical collisions this holiday season.
Scott Blossom is an Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medical practitioner in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit www.DoctorBlossom.com to learn more about Ayurvedic food recipes, whole-food cleansing, and health consultations. He wants to thank his brother Michael for contributing to this article.