Digestion in simple words is a process where the complex insoluble food particles are broken down into small food molecules in the gut. When this happens, food material is easily absorbed into the blood plasma. In some organisms, the smaller particles are absorbed through the small intestine into the bloodstream.
The process of digestion is considered as the most essential in the body as it signifies or relates to overall health and well-being of the person. When a person has a healthy digestive system, he is not prone to any disease and is mentally and emotionally in a state of well being.
What does the digestive system comprise of?
The human digestive includes salivary glands, mouth, esophagus, stomach, liver, gall bladder, pancreas, small intestine, large intestine, colon, and rectum. The liver, gall bladder, and the pancreas are considered as a solid organ or accessory organs of the digestive system.
The process of digestion takes place in the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), which is a long connected, tubular structure that starts at the mouth and ends with the anus. There are some bacteria present in the GI tract, which are called the Gut flora or microbial flora or microbiome that help with the process of digestion.
Our digestive system has six main functions like ingestion, motility, secretion, digestion, absorption, and excretion. Digestion does not occur in the stomach; rather it begins when one first sees or smells the food. It so happens that the sight and the aroma of the food trigger the salivary glands in the mouth and the release of saliva helps in the breakdown of sugar and starch.
In spite of having good dietary habits if the digestive tract is not working correctly, then the body starts struggling with the absorption of the essential nutrients from the food and excretes the food molecules as it is.
The most common problem that is observed in today’s situation is a deficiency. People undergo such conditions due to poor eating habits, lifestyle changes, and stress. Due to such changes and different patterns, the gut tries to adjust itself and maintains a balance.
However, many people nowadays suffer from one or other digestive disorders. The different digestive diseases that a person experiences.
- Constipation: A type of functional gastrointestinal disorder where a person finds it difficult to pass stools as they are infrequent or incomplete and needs to strain during the bowel movement. Usually caused due to low intake of fiber in a regular diet.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): This also is a functional gastrointestinal disorder. Also called spastic colon or irritable colon. In this condition, the colon muscles contract more often than in people without this syndrome. The common symptoms of this syndrome are bloating, excess gas, abdominal pain, and cramps.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or Heartburn: When there is burning pain in the middle of the chest this condition is called as acid reflux. This reflux occurs when the acid in the stomach moves up into the esophagus. This GERD often occurs in the night or after meals.
- Chronic diarrhea: Occasional visits to the loo are considered as regular, but loose stool usually three or more times a day is abnormal. In cases of chronic diarrhea, the frequency increases and it lasts for at least four weeks and so is a matter of concern. This can happen due to the inability of the body to absorb food, viral infections, ulcerative colitis, etc.
- Gastroenteritis: This can be caused either due to bacteria or virus in the gut. Symptoms for this include headaches, fever, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Along with the above digestive disorders, there are some other common symptoms as well, which can be treated. Such symptoms include gas, abdominal pain, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort so on and so forth.
In Ayurveda or traditional medicinal systems, the importance of digestion is the foremost aspect which is looked at. Many such practitioners have confirmed that all the diseases originate in the gut. Every single body has different digestive tract and everybody functions and interacts with food and medicine differently.
In Ayurveda, the practitioners treat such problems holistically. They categorize the human body into three basic energies or doshas; Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. According to them to improve digestion we need to stimulate Agni or the digestive fire which is responsible for all the digestive processes taking place in our body. Incorrect digestion may lead to the formation of toxins, which may lead to excretion of nutritious food.
To enhance the process of digestion, one needs to follow a few tips like:
- Drink water upon waking up in the morning.
- Eat freshly cooked food.
- Eat when you are hungry.
- Chew your food properly.
- Do not drink plenty of water before eating.
- The food that you’re eating should contain all the six tastes.
- Walk 100 steps after dinner.
- Sit in Vajrasana after dinner.
These are some common recommendations that are suggested by the practitioners, but along with these, they also prescribe some herbs which catalyze the process of digestion.
Herbs can be introduced in food, can be taken in the form of supplements, can be consumed in other edible ways, etc.
Herbs are a natural way to deal with digestion issues and problems. Being natural, they have less side-effect. Generally, the herbs that are prescribed can be from the ones available in the kitchen, but sometimes there can be a requirement for the ones that are not available a home.
Herbs have all kinds of taste like bitter, sweet, sour and spicy. Most commonly they are available in powdered form, but nowadays they are available as tablets, capsules, syrups, tinctures which are the forms available commercially.
Let’s have a look at the various herbs that are useful in improving Digestion and in the treatment of digestive disorders:
- GINGER (Zingiber officinale)
This carminative is considered as one of the best herbs for digestion. The most widely and commonly used part of this plant is the root. Ginger root is available in any supermarket. The ingredient that contains in this root soothes the gut and aids in digestion by increasing peristalsis, which further moves the food through the intestine. The tonic of this herb helps to normalize the digestive process. The root of this herb can be grated and warm ginger tea can be prepared, which is helpful for soothing nausea.
As its name suggests, it is a combination of three herbs, namely; Amalaki, Bibhitaki, and Haritaki.
It is used in traditional medicine for thousands of years. This triphala consists of all the fruits of these three ingredients.
Amalaki (Emblica Officinalis), Bibhitaki (Terminalia bellerica) and Haritaki (Terminalia chebula)
Triphala is most commonly used to treat constipation. It stimulates the mucous membrane of the gastrointestinal tract that improves and balances the digestion process. It also aids in digestion by eliminating the toxins from the intestinal tract. Its most common job is to support bowel health and digestion.
Triphala can be bought in the form of a powder, pills or liquid extract. The liquid extract Of Triphala is typically meant for external application and should never be put into the eyes.
- PEPPERMINT (Mentha piperita)
It is an herbal carminative that eases digestive discomfort. This herb helps in relaxing the muscles of the digestive tract, which further stimulate the bile flow. Peppermint oil acts as a relaxant for the intestinal wall muscles. Commercially peppermint is available in the form of enteric-coated capsules which are to be consumed three times a day. These capsules work well on dyspepsia.
- MILK THISTLE (Silybum marianum)
It is a type of bitter herb which is used for digestion. It is a flowering plant and belongs to the daisy family. It has a bitter tonic action which helps in stimulating the flow of bile, which in turn ensures smooth digestion. It’s most commonly used in liver disorders.
- ARTICHOKE (Cynara scolymus)
It is considered as a digestive tonic. This herb belongs to the daisy family and has been used for several years. This herb is considered as the strongest for digestion as it stimulates the bile flow and helps the body to effectively breakdown food and alcohol. The main ingredient of this herb is Cynarin. A high concentration of Cynarin is found in the leaves which improve the appetite and digestion. It is the most commonly used herb to alleviate the symptoms of the irritable bowel syndrome, bloating and nausea. Commercially the extracts of this herb are available in the form of tinctures and tablets.
- CHAMOMILE (Matricaria chamomilla)
Most commonly used to prepare infusions of traditional medicine. The most known and consumed herbal infusion containing chamomile is the Chamomile tea. It is a great herb that soothes the stress-related digestive worries. It also aids in indigestion, reduces heartburn, and acidity. It is an anti-ulcer and helps relieve colic pain in babies.
- FENNEL (Foeniculum vulgare)
It’s a wonder herb for all the tummy related issues. Most commonly used for soothing tummy aches. It also has the property to enhance appetite, digestion, and absorption. Along with the easy breakdown and digestion of fatty foods, it also can stabilize the blood sugar levels. It is useful in relieving in severe colic and bloating problems.
- MARSHMALLOW ROOT (Althaea Officinalis)
The root of this herb is worthy due to its mucilage constituent. This mucilaginous constituent coats and soothes the mucous membrane of the digestive tract, which in helps in relieving heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome and constipation. Its anti-inflammatory property makes it great for curing ulcerative colitis, gastritis and peptic ulcers.
- TURMERIC (Curcuma longa)
It is most commonly found in the kitchens and common curry spice. It is widely used to improve digestion. This herb keeps the digestive inflammation under control and soothes the gut wall. It helps in preventing ulceration, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome. The herb possesses anti-inflammatory property due to the presence of the active ingredient called Curcumin. Best available and used in powdered form.
- CALENDULA (Calendula officinalis)
It is a miraculous and diverse herb. This herb can improve digestion and absorption. It can reduce the inflammation in the gut wall. It detoxifies the body from the pathogens and helps in battling with amoebic infections and worms. It also relieves pelvic and bowel infections.
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
The root of this plant stimulates the process of digestion. Being a demulcent, it moistens and soothes the digestive mucous membrane by increasing the production of mucin. Mucin is a secretion that prevents and protects the gut lining against stomach acid and other digestive juices. This herb is sweet to taste and can be consumed in the form of powder along with a combination of other herbs.
- MEADOWSWEET (Filipendula ulmaria)
This herb is an occasional weed that is seen in some places and is considered as a great medicinal plant for numerous reasons. It contains salicylic acid. If there is any sensation of heat and inflammation in the gut, this herb can be used to treat the irritation in the gut. It is beneficial in treating acid reflux, heartburn, and irritated stomach.
- DANDELION (Taraxacum Officinalis)
This bitter digestive herb is an incredible healer. The roots of this plant are useful for liver and digestive problems. It soothes the gut, reduces inflammation and restores the liver and gall bladder. Commercially one can avail them in the form of capsules, tablets, tinctures, tea, and coffee.
14.YARROW (Achillea millefolium)
The flowers contain flavonoids, resins, tannins, and lactones. These help in reducing the amount of acid the stomach produces. They do this by acting on the vagus nerve, which is the main digestive nerve. The reduction in the production of stomach acid, in turn, reduces the chances of heartburn and indigestion. Yarrow tea can be consumed by using dried yarrow flowers and yarrow leaves can be consumed raw by adding them into some salads.
- BASIL (Ocimum basilicum)
It contains Eugenol an active ingredient which helps to reduce the quantity of acid in the stomach. Basil helps to reduce gas, increase appetite, relieve abdominal cramps and improves overall digestion. To ease stomach upset one can add one or two teaspoons of dried or fresh basil leaves in the meals to lessen the symptoms.