Using yoga to calm your gut
Can doing yoga help with stomach issues? How does yoga improve digestion? What is the relationship between the gut and the brain? Does stress affect the stomach? In this guest post written by Dr. Julia Loewenthal (LinkedIn / Instagram), we explore how yoga can improve your digestive health.
WHAT IS THE GUT-BRAIN AXIS?
Indigestion and stomach upset are incredibly common and affect all of us at some point. As you probably know, your psychological state can drastically affect your gut. This phenomenon is well-described and known as the “gut-brain axis.” The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” given the complexity and size of the enteric nervous system. Researchers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries found that stress and emotions originating from the brain can affect gastrointestinal function, and also that sensation from the gastrointestinal tract itself can affect pain and emotion regulation. For example, anxiety can make you feel “butterflies” in your stomach, or experiencing indigestion can make you feel anxious.
In recent decades, researchers have begun to elucidate the biological mechanisms mediating the gut-brain connection. Both the parasympathetic (rest and digest) and sympathetic (fight or flight) branches of the nervous system connect with the gut. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for activities that occur when the body is at rest. When the mind is calm, the parasympathetic nervous system, via the vagus nerve, sends messages to the gut to work on digestion. The gut itself can also sense what’s going on in the intestines and relay messages to the brain.
CAN THE GUT-BRAIN AXIS GET OFF TRACK?
There is a group of diseases called “functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorders” where the gut-brain axis is out of whack. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common of these functional GI disorders and affects up to 1 in 5 people during their lives. Patients with IBS and other functional GI disorders have been found have both brain-to-gut problems and gut-to-brain problems. For example, many patients with IBS also suffer from anxiety, and when their anxiety and stress level worsens, they tend to have more constipation, diarrhea, and/or bloating.
CAN YOGA IMPROVE THE MIND-GUT CONNECTION?
Mindfulness practices such as yoga have been shown to correct underactivity of the parasympathetic nervous system and improve release of the relaxation neurotransmitter, gamma amino-butyric acid, also known as GABA. Yoga practice has been found to be effective in stress reduction and psychological distress in many different populations. In patients with IBS, yoga has been shown to improve GI symptoms, quality of life, and anxiety when compared to no treatment.
Even if you have not been formally diagnosed with IBS or a functional GI disorder, you can use yoga as a tool to help improve your digestive function. There are several yoga postures that you can use to directly access your gut. Yoga also calms the mind and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby soothing your gut.
What yoga postures can be used to improve digestion?
There are many forms of yoga these days, and those taught at local studios and gyms may be very physically active. If your gut is acting up, however, you may choose to start with a more relaxing form that you can practice in your home. Yin yoga is comprised of seated and supine (laying down) poses that are held for 3 to 5 minutes. It is designed to help people stay in poses longer and with more comfort. No matter what type of yoga you practice, it is generally best to avoid eating for at least 1 hour prior to starting.
Here is a sequence of 5 postures to get your gut feeling a little better. You do not need a yoga mat or any special supplies to practice this sequence. It may be comfortable to use a thick blanket or pillows for some of the poses.
- Before starting, lie on your back on the floor and place your hands on your abdomen. Start to notice your breath. After several cycles of breath, begin to lengthen the exhale. On the inhale feel your belly expand and on the exhale feel the belly drop down. Let both the inhale and the exhale become longer.
After several minutes, sit up slowly into a cross-legged position and practice breathing in the same manner. Feel free to begin the sequence when you are ready. The time intervals below are suggestions. You do not need to use a timer or clock.
1. Child’s Pose (5 minutes)
Start on all fours in table. Extend your hands long on the floor and release your hips back onto your heels. You can make the knees wider to accommodate a bloated belly or tight hips. You can use a pillow under your forehead or chest to make it more comfortable to hold. After 5 minutes, push the floor away and slowly sit upright
2. Knee to Chest (3 minutes each side)
Lie down on your back. Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. Bend one knee and reach for your thigh or shin, drawing the knee towards your chest. Extend the opposite leg on the floor. After 3 minutes, switch legs.
3. Supine Twist (5 minutes each side)
Lie down on your back. Bring both knees into your chest. Open your arms into a “T” and gently let both legs fall to the right side. You can use a blanket or pillow under the legs. After 5 minutes, switch sides.
4. Sphinx (5 minutes)
Come to all fours in table. Walk your hands forward and lie down on your abdomen. Bend your elbows and place them under the shoulders with the arms parallel. If there is too much sensation in the low back, move the elbows forward. Feel free to use a blanket under the arms. It may be more comfortable to drop the head down or keep it upright, feel free to experiment!
5. Rest Pose (5 minutes)
Lie down on your back, extending your legs on the floor. Keep the legs wider than the hips. You can place a blanket under your knees and/or under your head for comfort. Rest your arms by your sides or on your belly. Enjoy for 5 or more minutes.
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