A Fire in the Belly

We’ve all had those moments when a light goes on and all that was obscured before becomes easier to see. One such moment for me happened when herbalist James Snow came to Sacred Plant Traditions in July 2006 to give a talk about herbs and digestion. Snow, who’s on the faculty at Tai Sophia in Laurel, Md., spoke of the necessity of creating “a fire in the belly.”

What?!

A fire in the belly. And for Snow, one of the key problems was ice.

Growing up in the South, we always—always—had ice in our drinks. Iced tea. Iced Coke. Even iced OJ. Until I began drinking coffee in college—coffee is not the friend that every procrastinating college student makes it out to be!—I don’t think I ever had anything that was not either iced or cold (no, I did not put ice in my milk; that’s what ice cream was for).

Little did I know, this was not conducive to healthy digestion. I remember when visiting Petersburg, Russia, and wanting ice for a soda getting really weird looks from my Russian friends. (I got the same looks when it came to my then-refusal to eat fat even as they smeared their khleb with quarter-inch thick slabs of butter or salo. If I had to do it all over again, I’d go for a half-inch, at least!)

Iced drinks or cold drinks before a meal are akin to dunking the stomach in a cold shower—the exact opposite condition we need to create when we’re about to eat. And yet, it seems anywhere you go, especially dining out, you get water with ice no matter what. You have to beat the server to the punch and request no ice.

So, if adding ice to drinks before a meal is a no-no, then what are some go-go’s that can light a fire in the belly?

Give meals their own space. This is probably the most difficult thing for any of us to do when so many activities call us. A good approach may be to offer thanks for everything that brought the food to the table—the sun, air, water, wind and soil, the pollinators, the hands that tended, harvested and transported it, the hands that made it and so forth. We’ve spent much of our evolution not only scouring the planet for food, but have always given it a high place in our culture, through gatherings and festivals. It deserves our attention and our gratitude.

Use carminative, or warming, herbs in your food or drinks. Cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, anise, ginger…these are just a few that will help to warm the digestive system.

Try bitters. OK, so the bitter taste is way down on the list of American-palate-approved tastes, but herbalists should not be the only ones who come to love bitters. Bitters include chamomile, dandelion, yellow dock, burdock. Take a little bit of bitters tincture in water about 15 minutes before a meal to rev up the digestion, stimulate appetite and increase bile secretions, which are needed for breaking down fats. Bitters also serve to relax the digestive tract, which can aid motility. Bitters can be combined with carminative herbs for a more pleasant taste. And bitter greens—collards, kale, chard—can be eaten with a meal, or those like arugula or dandelion leaves can be eaten after a meal, to achieve a somewhat similar effect on the digestion.

Chew your food! The scent of food gets the digestive mojo flowing, which is great. But you must chew—and chew well, especially things such as protein that require more breakdown. Chewing food well creates more surface area on the food as it goes through the digestive system, thus making it easier on the body to digest, assimilate what’s needed and eliminate what’s not.

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