Thoughts on a cold, wet, snowy evening while sitting by our wood stove…
Thorough and complete digestion is a foundation to good health in many traditional systems of healthcare, both East and West. While the entire digestive process is quite complex, I want to focus on one key aspect in this article.
One of the primary jobs of the digestive system is to take food from the outside world and transform it in a way that our bodies can absorb and benefit from the nutrients.
The idea of transformation has long fascinated me. Anyone who has spent time around a campfire in the summer or a wood stove on a chilly winter night has watched fire transform the wood logs into charcoal and ash. As part of this changing process, light and heat are released to our benefit.
A strong and hot enough campfire releases all the potential of heat and light contained in the logs, creates little to no smoke, and leaves only a small residue of ash. A fire that is weak has poor combustion, creates excess amounts of smoke and much of the heat and light potential remain in the dark chunks of charcoal.
These same ideas can be applied to digestion. A strong digestive fire ensures the complete transformation of the food, allowing us to receive the full potential of nutrition. Weak digestive fire means residue from the food will remain in the body, creating an internal environment that leads to disease.
While the idea of ‘digestive fire” may be symbolic on some level, the modern view of digestion views acids and enzymes, especially hydrochloric acid, as integral parts of this process. These acids can be seen as a type of “liquid fire” that transform food. Anyone who has ever experienced acid reflux and felt the burning sensation in the throat can identify with the concept of digestive fire.
Herbs to Support Digestive Fire
First of all, not everyone needs more digestive fire. People who tend to be hot-blooded, hot headed or especially competitive (athletes with “fire in the belly”) may already have as much digestive force as they need.
While many spices aid in digestion, there are two that are especially helpful and commonly found in most kitchens: black pepper and ginger.
Black pepper is found on every table in every diner in America. Fresh ground black pepper is often added to balance the cold energy of salads. Black pepper is added to turkey lunch meat to aid the digestion of a heavier animal product. The pepper in pepper jack cheese warms and aids digestion of the cold wet dairy. Black pepper is so commonly used that many of us take it for granted and don’t realize its health promoting properties.
Piper nigrum is one of our strongest digestive aids. Its Sanskrit name from the Ayurvedic tradition is Marich which means sun. It is considered to have abundant solar energy.
Its use can be helpful in relieving sinus and lung congestion as excess mucous is a possible sign of poor digestion with extra “residue” left over. The heating, stimulating action of pepper also increases circulation and can be helpful with folks who have chronically cold extremities.
Pepper must be fresh ground to realize its full value in digestion; and remember, a little goes a long way.
Ginger is another spice common in many kitchens. Although it can be enjoyed purely for its pleasant flavor, it is my personal favorite for warming up cold and deficient digestion.
Dried ginger powder has a hotter energy than fresh slices and is considered more therapeutic in this context. It strongly stimulates the internal fire and is especially helpful in transforming heavier animal protein. This is why Asian cuisine prepares ginger fish, ginger chicken, ginger beef and pickled ginger with sushi and sashimi.
Neither ginger nor black pepper is good for people having excess heat in their digestive system. Basically, if you feel worse after using these spices, especially shortly after eating, don’t use them.
If you have signs of cold digestion, such as bloating, excess congestion or food being digested very slowly, I hope you will consider ways to add these two ancient spices to your diet.