It's been said that to keep a fire burning, you don't want to throw cold water on top. The digestive system is often compared to a blazing fire because it requires heat, energy and nutrients to function properly. And function properly it must, if we want to experience vibrant health and vitality. Cold, frozen and leftover/stale foods and drinks can hinder the body's natural digestive processes, especially during the chilly times of year, or make people who are already prone to coldness (such as dominant vata types) more irritable and unwell.
Instead of creating even more coolness, dampness and congestion within the digestive system, try heating the body up with grounding, warming spices such as the ones used to make chai tea. Chai is a time-honored spice blend that has been used to bring about relaxation, improved digestion and pain reduction for thousands of years.
The Five Chai Spices
Chai spice blends differ depending on their origin, but the following five spices are most often used in a chai spice blend:
Do you suffer from fatigue, constipation, stomach pains and/or diarrhea? If so, ginger should be your spice of choice. Ginger is known to kindle the digestive fire while, at the same time, it is extra soothing for an upset stomach. Ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory, lowering swelling, water retention and pain that can develop in the digestive system due to allergies, a poor diet or even stress. (Learn more about stress in Unlocking the Stress in Your Body.)
In addition to sipping on chai, you can start your day with a cup of ginger tea to warm up the digestive organs, or sip it chilled before mealtimes to help with proper nutrient absorption, enzyme production and circulation. Consider buying fresh ginger root and removing the tough skin (this works with a vegetable peeler) then boiling it lightly in water to create tea, adding finely chopped pieces to your favorite meals, or even chewing on it to soothe the inner-cheeks and gums.
It’s one of the most popular spices in the world, but cinnamon is far more than a great way to flavor baked goods and breakfasts. A naturally fragrant and slightly sweet-tasting spice, cinnamon has been used by Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years.
Cinnamon helps fight off bacteria, balances blood sugar levels, kills the buildup of harmful yeast and fungus in the gut (called Candida), increases energy, supports weight loss and improves the health of your skin. It’s extremely high in antioxidants and, although we only tend to use a little bit at a time, just less than one teaspoon has been shown to help fight infections, allergies, indigestion, skin blemishes, hormonal imbalances and blood sugar fluctuations that can deplete energy.
Cardamom’s unique taste is more apparent in the Indian spice blend called garam masala, but it’s also used in chai to improve digestive functions and balance stomach acids. Related to ginger, it offers similar benefits when it comes to reducing swelling and improving acidity, pains and cramps. The seeds of the cardamom plant contain powerful volatile oils and active ingredients including acetic and formic acids. Considered to be a very potent spice, the essential oils in cardamom comprise about five percent of the seed’s total mass, giving it strong healing properties as well as a sharp taste and smell, which are sometimes used to mask bad breath. Cardamom spice has been used to numb pain, since it’s a natural analgesic; and to relieve cramping, since it has antispasmodic abilities.
Cloves have a musky and strong taste, plus they effectively lower inflammation associated with various ailments. Cloves have traditionally been used to dull pain associated with toothaches, menstrual cramps, headaches, joint pains and injuries. Cloves provide several types of antioxidant flavonoids, including kaempferol and rhamnetin, which are responsible for its "anti" properties. Cloves also contain strong oils that are anti-bacterial agents, anti-virals and anti-fungals – making them a fantastic addition to any meal during the cooler months of the year when most people find themselves becoming sick more often.
Along with salt, black pepper is used in nearly every cuisine worldwide to enhance the taste of various foods and to give the digestive organs a boost. Stronger varieties of pepper are known to increase the metabolism and even help with weight loss since they warm the body and produce a thermal effect. Pepper also helps aid in stomach acid secretion, bile production, digestive enzyme functions and lowers water retention and uncomfortable swelling. If making your own chai spice blend, look for whole peppercorns and grind them freshly to get the most benefits, since this preserves the delicate oils in pepper which can go bad if left on store shelves for too long.
When and How to Use Chai Spices
The best time to make yourself a cup of chai tea? This depends on your schedule and personality, of course; but, traditionally in Ayurveda, the time period between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. is believed to be when the metabolism and, therefore, digestion is strongest.
You can add chai tea to your meal times or have some before eating in order to ignite the digestive system and help keep symptoms like bloating, gas and nausea from becoming overly full, or acid-reflux, at bay. Another option is to end your day with a warming cup of chai, since ideally you want to finish eating several hours before bedtime and allow your body to temporarily “fast” and cleanse itself over night. The healing spices used to make chai facilitate this detoxification process, helping you to wake up feeling fresh, light and ready to take on the day. Cooling foods are beneficial in the hotter months, but as fall and winter near, make an even bigger point to shift your diet and focus on grounding ingredients. (Learn more about yogic diet in A Plant-Based Diet Makes Better Yogis.) This means drinking more tea, but also using traditional chai spices to cook – such as in stews, soups or steeped into milk before bed.