With dark and chilly winter days comes an immense need to nest, cozy up, and eat all the comfort foods. Picking on raw berries or eating an arugula salad seems downright cruel this time of year, which is no coincidence according to Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient system of Indian healing and medicine. While healthy, those foods may not improve digestion during winter.
Ayurveda is built upon principles of diet, botanical medicine, lifestyle, movement, meditation, and massage catered to an individual’s dosha, or body constitution. In Ayurvedic medicine, each individual has his or her own unique dosha (Vata, Pitta, or Kapha) determined by the type of energy in his or her body. This energy regulates digestive function, physical and biological functions, and more, and is highly individualized.
Ayurveda and Winter
As the seasons change, so too do our body’s food requirements, according to the principles of Ayurveda. Colder, dryer weather leads to dryness in the body, evident by dry flaky skin and tired, rigid joints. During winter months, the body’s mucus membranes may become irritated, leading to viruses, cold, and flu, thanks to a weakened immunity.
Maintaining balance in the body and keeping the digestive fire stimulated is key to health during these winter months.
The easiest way to do this is by honoring your digestive fire and consuming the right types of foods. Joanna Webber, Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga teacher, notes “The digestive fire is much higher in winter due to the cold, so heavier foods are more digestible and we are meant to eat more and put on a little weight” she says. “This may appear contradictory, but in cold weather the body retains heat around the core, where the digestive system lies.”
John Douillard, founder of LifeSpa.com and Ayruvedic expert agrees, “In winter, or vata season, from November to February, you want to eat more nuts, seeds, grains, soups, stews, higher protein, higher fat foods that are more dense and more insulating for the body.”
“We’re supposed to gain a pound or two in winter as part of our insulation,” he says.
Eating the right kinds of food during winter season is the most important way to improve digestion, according to Webber. “If too little food is eaten to keep the fires adequately stoked, there is a danger of the body’s digestive fire beginning to burn up the body’s plasma and lymph tissues.”
When this happens, an individual’s dosha can easily become unbalanced and immunity plummets. “Although it is good to eat more in winter, it must be the right foods to nurture the digestive system and minimize heaviness and congestion” Webber says.
Improve Digestion, the Ayurvedic Way
To improve digestion and keep the digestive fire burning, eat these foods for wellness and nourishment.
1. Grounded vegetables
Vegetables that come from the ground are ideal in winter. Doulliard notes, “All the squashes, beets, carrots, potatoes, and sweet potatoes that grow underground all summer are heavy and more dense, which make them ideal for vata season.”
Roasted and baked winter squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, turnips, beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, and Jerusalem artichokes are all delicious and seasonal vegetables to incorporate into your diet this time of year. These vegetables are also rich in vitamin C, a necessary vitamin for keeping the immune system strong.
Ghee, or clarified butter, not only aids in digestive function, but supports the immune system as well. Erin Casperson, Ayurvedic health counselor, notes, “Ghee helps sustain healthy microbes in the gastrointestinal tract to promote effective digestion and elimination. It nourishes all the tissues of the body, including the nervous system, translating into calm energy throughout the day," she says.
Ghee supports the body with vital nutrition and healthy fat during winter, Doulliard explains. “During the winter months, a higher-fat diet provides insulation along with the nutrients you need to repair, rebuild, and rejuvenate before nature’s new year come spring.”
Use ghee to sauté vegetables and rice, roast vegetables and animal fats, blend into a turmeric latte, and use in baked goods.
3. Warming Herbs and Spices
Adding warming spices and herbs to the diet during the winter months is an easy way to improve digestion. Cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, cayenne, nutmeg, and cloves are all good choices. Utilize these herbs and spices in tea, soups and stews, curries, warm beverages, oatmeal, and in baked goods.
It may also be helpful to avoid cooling spices and other cooling foods this time of year. Webber notes to “drink spicy teas throughout the day,” but avoid “cold water, ice cream and other cooling foods which will aggravate Kapha and Vata.”
These include fruits like raw apple, melons, and mango, along with raw spinach, cucumber, broccoli, and zucchini, which are also considered cooling in Ayurveda.
Protein, both plant-based and animal, is important during the winter months according to Ayurvedic medicine. Doulliard explains, “Proteins are the building blocks for the body, and during the winter, these are essential nutrients for structural strength, skin health, immunity, and more.”
Warming winter foods rich in protein include nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, and cashews, along with kidney beans, lentils, navy beans, yogurt, beef, chicken, eggs, lamb, pork, and shrimp.
Consuming enough fiber in the winter promotes digestive function. According to Doulliard, “Ayurveda sees better elimination, or looser stools, as the body’s way of getting rid of the heat that accumulates at the end of summer.” This build up of heat can turn into dryness and constipation if not addressed.
Aim to eat a variety of fiber-rich foods throughout the day found in foods like beans, legumes, vegetables, cooked fruits, grains, rye, and rice.
Ayurvedic Lifestyle Practices
There are several other ways to improve digestion in the winter, outside of food choices. Getting adequate exposure to sunlight to reap vitamin D, sweating via sauna or exercise, and moving the body to generate heat all promote digestive fire.
Webber notes it is important to “practice some form of vigorous exercise to get the lymph moving in the body, preventing future congestive problems.”
“Exercise is also one of the best ways to stimulate a sluggish digestion, regulate the metabolism and aid the removal of toxins from the body” she says.
With a bit of self-care and warming, rooted food choices, your digestive fire will burn all winter long.
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