Ice Water with Meals? Think Twice

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Sit down in most any American restaurant and it won’t take but a minute or two before a restaurant staffer automatically plunks down a tall glass of free ice water. According to Ayurveda, India’s 5,000-year-old medicine and lifestyle tradition, you shouldn’t drink it. That’s because Ayurvedic medicine places importance on sipping hot or warm drinks with meals. And so does the Chinese tradition.

To be sure, such recommendations stem from pre-refrigeration times, but the explanation from modern-day Ayurvedic physicians goes beyond tradition and habit and any bias against modern convenience.

These doctors talk in terms of  “agni” − a Sanskrit word meaning “digestive fire,” the bodily mechanisms and enzymes involved in digestion − and “ama,” another Sanskrit word meaning toxins that develop as the byproducts of poor digestion and metabolism.

Simply put, cold beverages extinguish agni, and thus promote ama. Sipping hot water, on the other hand, improves digestion and appears to help keep open the countless channels throughout the body where ama can collect.

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Physicians familiar with Ayurveda with whom I have spoken over the years have told me that this one simple practice has helped patients with gastritis, indigestion, and even helped some lose weight. I am not aware of any scientific studies confirming these observations, however.

Switching from cold to hot may be a simple remedy for some of man’s basic ills. At least the ancients thought so. You may want to give it a shot and just send back the ice water the next time you eat out, and asked for some room temp, if not hot water, instead.

So where did the habit of ice water in restaurants start? Legend has it, that in 1936, during the height of the depression, Ted and Dorothy Hustead posted some signs on highway 16 that ran through their tiny cowtown of Wall, South Dakota (then, population 336). The couple owned the Wall Drug Store, a struggling mom and pop pharmacy and soda fountain.  It was a hot, dusty, grasshopper-plagued summer, and they were desperate for customers, so the story goes.

It was Dorothy’s idea to offer free ice water at the store to thirsty tourists headed for Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, or to truckers, salesmen, and farmers passing through town on business. So they handpainted a few signs, placed them out on the highway, and hoped for a miracle.

The miracle came! People stopped, attracted to the free ice water, and started buying food, ice cream, and aspirin and other goods for sale in the store.

The signs worked from day one. So well, in fact, that the Husteads put up signs in neighboring Minnesota and Wyoming. By the following summer, business was booming. The Husteads needed five employees to help them run the store. The ice water store – and an American dining tradition − was thus born, and lives on to this day, run by the grandchildren of Ted and Dorothy. It has expanded into a two block long tourist emporium, western art gallery, and a restaurant where you can buy a five-cent cup of coffee and, of course, get a free glass of ice water.

I personally never drink ice cold drinks with my meals – I like my water room temp, from the tap and filtered through a reverse osmosis system. My preference, in fact, is sipping hot ginger tea, at meals and throughout the day. Ginger enhances digestion and is also a great remedy for nausea.

The recipe is simple: chop up a small piece of ginger root into smaller pieces, and drop them into a cup of boiled water, let them steep for twenty minutes, and then enjoy. Or you can boil them with the water. Years ago I used to recommend ginger tea to my hospitalized cardiac patients to help them with digestive or nausea problems. It was usually quite efficient in reducing their symptoms.

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