Stoke Your Digestive Fire to Boost Your Energy and Clear Inflammation
As the raw food movement gains enthusiasts worldwide, you will often hear them say that raw food is best for health because it is highest in nutrients. Technically, this is correct because raw food is higher in enzymes and vitamins than processed food. But for those with digestive problems, the nutrients in raw food can be hard to absorb and metabolize, so these folks may find that lightly cooking their food can make it more digestible.
The dietary philosophies of both Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic Medicine regard food as more than calories and nutrients. In fact, the thermal nature of the food is just as important as the type of food eaten, impacting the body’s balance and ability to digest and absorb. In these ancient traditions, foods are categorized according to their thermal properties (hot, cold, neutral), and flavour (sweet, spicy, pungent, sour, salty). An efficient digestive system is able to handle the breakdown of all types of food, whether cold or hot. But for those with digestive weakness (or low digestive fire) this may not be the case.
Practitioners of Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda also believe that the body is affected by weather. So foods with warmer thermal properties are thought to be more balancing to the body in cold winter months. (In fact it is believed that the body can be harmed by eating too much cold, raw food in winter, especially if the person has a ‘cold’ constitution.)
Tending the Digestive Fire
To ensure healthy and optimal digestion, we must support our digestive ‘fire’. This fire (called agni in Ayurveda) represents the power of our digestive organs to process and absorb what we eat while burning off waste products. If we have a strong digestive fire, we are able to easily digest food and absorb its nutrients. If we have a weak digestive fire, our body won’t digest food well, leaving undigested particles behind that create inflammation in the body.
Eating cold (raw) foods is best avoided by those with weak digestion because the digestive tract is made of smooth muscles, and these muscles like warmth. Just think of a time during winter when you were outside freezing. Remember how your muscles tightened up, and your body started shivering? Well, the same can happen to your gastrointestinal tract with the consumption of excessive amounts of cold food; it can cause muscle spasms leading to abdominal pain, cramps, and more.
In addition, the temperature of your food can affect the speed at which action potentials (needed for peristaltic movements in the GI tract) are fired. A cold meal reduces this frequency, thus reducing peristaltic waves.
Can Cooking Help?
Light cooking methods such as steaming and stir-frying can make some foods easier to digest. Warming and cooking our food can weaken its molecular structure, making it easier to chew. Heat helps to degrade the parts of plants and meat that are resistant to our salivary enzymes. Cooking can function as a means to predigest our food, improving the nutritional availability. For instance, cooking proteins denatures them, allowing them to adopt a different structure that makes them more susceptible to digestive enzymes, and thus more digestible.
Cooked and warm food is also more energetically beneficial in the winter. That is why my new ‘Hot Detox’ plan recommends that 80% of the menu be served warm! (Editor’s note: Julie Daniluk’s new book, Hot Detox, outlines a 21-Day Anti-Inflammatory program to heal the gut and cleanse the body. It involves the use of warming ingredients, and warm cooking methods, to fire up a person’s digestive power.)
Spices to Ramp Up Your Digestive Fire
Adding a warming spice to a recipe or a meal can help raise its energetic temperature. Spices such as ginger, turmeric, fennel, cinnamon, and anise are very warming and supportive to digestion. What is so fantastic about using them in recipes to warm up your food is that they have medicinal properties that can also positively impact digestion.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) – is a member of the Lauraceae family. It is a warming spice that helps to reduce dampness in the body by increasing circulation. It is antiseptic and an excellent digestive tonic, and is known to mimic the action of insulin (the hormone in the body that regulates blood sugar) by stimulating insulin receptors on the fat and muscle cells. This action helps to usher sugar out of the blood and into the cells. As a result, the simple addition of one gram of cinnamon to the daily diet of people with Type 2 diabetes has been shown to improve blood sugar levels, as well as blood fats, to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) – is a member of the Zingiberceae family. Like cinnamon, it improves circulation to all parts of the body. This fragrant root can soothe an upset stomach and has been used for centuries for this purpose. Added bonus: Scientists have found that ginger suppresses the release of vasopressin, a hormone thought to be responsible for nausea caused by motion sickness.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) – is a member of the Zingiberaceae family too. It is a deeply warming spice that contains strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Known for its intense yellowish-orange colour, turmeric has played an important role in many traditional cultures for thousands of years and is highly valued in the practice of Ayurveda. The true value of this medicinal root is only beginning to be understood in the West, thanks to new research that is revealing the depths of its healing powers.
Turmeric is a root that looks a lot like ginger, but is difficult to grind. If you buy turmeric already ground, make sure you buy small quantities of good quality powder, and use it up before you buy more.
One of my favourite recipes to warm up with in winter is the Turmeric Spice Latte (found on page 145 in the Hot Detox book). Be sure to download all the great book bonuses at http://www.HotDetox.com
Turmeric Spice Latte
(Shown on Vitality's cover this month)
Preparing this recipe is a wonderful way to take care of yourself and your family. My best friend, Sarah, swears by this drink to help her stay away from caffeine. It is very grounding and anti-inflammatory, so it may become one of your favourite beverages. (Makes 2 cups.)
2 cups nondairy milk, warmed (almond, coconut, or hemp)
2 medjool dates, pitted, or 1 Tbsp raw honey
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp freshly grated ginger or 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp coconut butter (or coconut oil)
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
2 threads saffron
Place all the ingredients together in a blender, including any of the boosters if using, and combine. Serve warm.
• Carmody R., Wrangham R. “Cooking and the human commitment to a high-quality diet”. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. (2009); 74: 427-434. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ pubmed/19843593
• Huma N., Anjum F., Sehar S., Khan M., Hussain S. “Effect of soaking and cooking on nutritional quality and safety of legumes”. Nutrition & Food Science. (2008); 38:570-577. http://tinyurl.com/hbrkx93
• Koebnick C., Strassner C., Hoffmann I., Leitzmann C. “Consequences of a long-term raw food diet on body weight and menstruation: results of a questionnaire survey”. Ann Nutr Metab. (1999); 43: 69-70. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ pubmed/10436305
• Verhagen M., Luijk H., Samsom M., Smout A. “Effect of meal temperature on the frequency of gastric myoelectrical activity” Neurogastroenterol Mot. (1998); 10: 175-181. http:// tinyurl. com/ h7wv7px
• Daniluk, Julie, “Culinary Spices That Heal”: http://vitalitymagazine.com/ food-features/culinary-spices-that-heal/