It’s probably not news to you that scarfing down your food while multitasking (finishing emails, driving, walking home from the gym…) isn’t exactly the greatest for your digestive tract. Slowing down and being mindful during mealtime is a staple of Ayurveda, the five-thousand-year-old Indian medicinal practice. But this type of mindfulness goes beyond resisting the urge to multitask—your breath plays a role, too.
“Breathing techniques are central to Ayurveda and Ayurvedic physicians will use specific types of breathing exercises to help resolve certain health problems,” says Lisa Joy Mitchell, an Ayurvedic expert and the author of Sacred & Delicious. When it comes to preventing bloating and indigestion, one breathing technique that is used is right nostril dominance breathing. Never heard of it? Here, Mitchell along with Nick Bitz, ND, a licensed, board-certified naturopathic doctor and the chief scientific officer for Youtheory, explain how it works and how it can be used as your guide for optimal digestion.
Understanding your nose, sun channel, and moon channel
If the only time when you’ve given your nostrils any thought was when they were all plugged up from a cold, you’re probably not alone. But even when your nostrils are both free and clear, Dr. Bitz says that your airflow is rarely even; one nostril typically has dominance over the other at any given time. This is called the “nasal cycle”—your nostrils switch off over which one is doing the majority of breathing throughout the day.
So what’s the connection to Ayurveda, exactly? Dr. Bitz says that there is an Ayurvedic belief that there are several energy channels running through the body. For our purposes, we will focus on two: the sun channel and the moon channel. The sun channel runs through the right side of the body, Dr. Bitz says, and is connected to activity and heat, including digestion. The moon channel, which runs on the left side of the body (again, all the way through the nostrils), is connected to rest. These channels alternate every hour-and-a-half to three hours.
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For optimal digestion, both Dr. Bitz and Mitchell say it’s best to eat during the times when your sun channel is dominant, as it’s associated with heat. This is when your Ayurvedic “inner fire” is activated, which helps the body digest food more efficiently, Dr. Bitz says. “The digestive heat and fire help to break down food properly.” Mitchell adds that eating when the body’s sun channel has dominance revs up the digestive enzymes, which helps food move through the digestive tracy more efficiently.
You don’t have to do anything complicated to figure out if your sun channel is dominant. All you really need to do is check which nostril you’re breathing out of. Try closing your eyes, paying attention to your nostrils, and feeling where there is more energy and air. “When you inhale, you can feel one nostril having predominance over the other,” Dr. Bitz says. “The key is to just sit quietly and be mindful about where the breath is moving through the nose.”
How to leverage your breathing for better digestion
Of course, most of eat when we’re hungry and when our schedule allows, not just when we’re breathing out of our right nostril. Mitchell says in these moments there are actually ways to activate right nostril dominance. “One way is simply by smelling delicious foods,” she says. “Another way is to add ginger or a little lime and salt to your food, which is a classic Ayurvedic way to generate heat in the body and activate the sun channel,” she says.
Another benefit to this Ayurvedic breathing technique is that paying attention to your breathing inherently forces you to slow down and be more mindful; it’s difficult to pay attention to your breath when you’re eating as quickly as possible while simultaneously doing something else. “This is not about trying to make your breath do something while you’re eating; it’s about being mindful of what’s happening in the body,” Mitchell says.
While right nostril breathing dominance is nothing to obsess over, it’s one tool that can be used to help check in with your body and prime yourself for a potentially healthier digestion. There’s a reason why Ayurvedic techniques have withstood the test of time; your breath truly can be powerful.
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