Five Surprising Ways Exercise can help DigestionMay 04, 2023
In her book Yoga Therapy for Digestive Health, Charlotte Watts explains the connections between how we move, how we feel and the deep mind-body connections with digestive conditions. Here she explains how any form of conscious movement has the potential for unravelling the loss of internal movement and stress in tissues that play such deep roles in conditions such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) and diverticulitis.
Five key digestive factors can be affected by trauma, chronic stress, sedentary habits and postural issues, and in turn relieved by some simple movements:
- Gut motility
Action throughout the whole digestive tract relies on peristalsis, a wave-like, spiralling muscular motion. This is the basis for ‘gut motility’, that if seized, interrupted or spasmodic, can be the basis for many digestive issues. The speeding up or slowing down of gut motility is a feature of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) where a go-slow means constipation and excess equals loose bowels.
Efficient gut motility allows ease and regulation of bowel movements. As much of our immune system is housed in the gut lining (the mucosa), it can help immune modulation. It can help settle nerve tension and so calm ‘gut feeling’ communications of distress from the enteric nervous system in the gut (aka our‘Second Brain’) to the brain. Relaxation techniques (such as breathing exercises and meditation) also help to reduce emotional stimuli from the hypothalamus in the brain that reduces hypermotility of the colon.
Gut motility is supported by gut mobility (and vice versa), motion from the whole body that also moves into the centre and supports fluid motion between and around organs.
Laying spine undulations
Any undulating movements help support gut motility by regulating the nervous system through tissues rippling out from the spine. Cat-cow pose on all fours is commonly known (in yoga and Pilates), but this floor version fully supports the body to be able to feel very subtle effects.
- From lying knees bent and feet hip-width apart, inhale to arch your back and rise the belly, lifting the waist and moving the tailbone down towards the ground.
- With the exhalation, let the chest and belly drop as lungs empty. Move between the two, following the natural rhythm of breath as you exaggerate the motion this creates in the spine and visceral fascia.
- As the movement becomes free, allow the chin to move down the meet the chest as you breathe in and let it lift to the ceiling as you exhale; tracking a line up and down the back of the skull, head heavy onto the ground.
- When the movement and breath synchronise, you can increase the wave-like effect by lifting the balls of the feet as you inhale and rocking on the feet to lifting the heels as you exhale.
When our lives our often sedentary – sitting down for over an hour regularly – the limitation in the pelvic range of motion this creates means the same in the intestines and affect digestion of food and the eliminative motions of the colon. Essentially this lack of mobility is dehydration of connective tissues (fascia) as they lose their ability to move fluidly.
For ‘fascial hydration’, a substance called hyaluronic acid allows fascia to glide, locally or out into the whole system. Some researchers suggest that any change in this viscoelasticity – ability for fluid movement – activates pain receptors (Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013;17(8):352). This tissue dehydration prevents proper removal of what are often termed ‘toxins’, but are the bi-products of respiration, energy production within each cell. These metabolites need to be removed efficiently for optimal function and accumulation has shown to stimulate pain receptors and create a more acid environment within cells (Surg Radiol Anat. 2011;33(10):891–896), tightening fascia and creating a cycle of pain, common in digestive conditions. This occurs alongside the release of inflammatory neuropeptides, also associated with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME) (Front Physiol. 2013;16(4):115).
Some key movements help promote the fascial ‘slide-and-glide’ that also supports gut motility and full physical mobility:
All fours enquiries into the belly
- Start on all fours (left figure above) feeling the natural movement of your spine as lungs empty and fill, exploring your body and the space around it, feeling roots through hands and lower legs. Rest in child pose or onto elbows whenever needed.
- Coming back to neutral, limiting shoulder motion, rotate the tailbone to create a circling effect deep into the pelvis and viscera; this is a key movement for slide-and-glide and loosens lower back tissues in preparation for downwards-facing dog. When these tissues feel loose, you can allow the movement to snake up into the spine and involve the shoulders, neck and head; letting your whole being fluidly express what it needs, without agenda or interpretation.
- Repeat on the other side, noting that as the one not picked first, it may be ‘going against the grain’ and meeting the more interesting stuff of tissues held where there may be dehydration. It may also be going against the tide of movement in the colon, so create resistance there that supports its muscular function.
- From there, explore any movement that simply feels good, without agenda, interpretation or judgement – simply listening and responding to your body’s needs with full and easy breath.
- Fascial adhesion
When tissues are dehydrated through lack or misdistribution of hyaluronic acid, the resulting viscosity can even become adhesive, altering the lines of forces within fascial layers. This has been offered as one of the causes of stiffness and pain on waking after sleep, more than joint issues so often blamed.
When functioning optimally, viscera has space between organs for ease of movement as they rub against and move alongside other organs and tissues eg the stomach under the diaphragm. Adhesions that stick tissues of the viscera together can cause obstructions in the fascia, eg portions of the bowel fused together or to other organs; any part of the digestive tract stuck to the wall of the abdominal cavity.
Fascial adhesion may be a result of poor posture, tight breathing patterns, whiplash, surgery, pregnancy, postpartum dysfunction and injury. It may also have psychological causes (that affect the whole body) such as chronic stress, anxiety or trauma where body tissues stay locked in tight and restricted patterns as the mind-body relives past reactions as if they are happening now.
Adhesions within fascia can contribute to the poor gut motility that contributes to SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) that is now believed to be the route cause of much IBS, where the wave-like motions of the bowel that move bacteria into the colon are hindered.
Seated primal movement
Back to an undulation, this very natural motion allows us to feel how we left up from the ground, through the belly, whilst creating pliability in tissues hardened from stress, trauma and any resulting fascial adhesion.
It is also strong through the abdominal muscles, felt most deeply at the end of the exhalation, where it draws our attention to sensations here at the space before the ‘pick-up’ of the in-breath.
- Sitting upright, bend and drop your knees to the side, feet don’t need to be together. Inhale to open the arms and chest, lifting in and up between the shoulder blades.
- On the exhalation, drop the belly backwards and scoop the arms forward as if you are holding a large ball; keeping the arms rounded, hands apart and head dropping fully. As you inhale, come back to the first position, lifting from the belly and heart.
- Move between the two, arm and hand movements fluid and expressive; shoulders soft for less stress in belly.
Inflammation within the gut can often go unnoticed, but cause symptoms such as soreness, tenderness or change in function, but also general irritability and tiredness. This can be a result of fascial lesions and inflammatory disorders such as colitis or Crohn’s Disease.
Inflammation is part of the stress response, a protective mechanism that can often go awry when much of our modern stress is psycho-social and unrelenting. The corticotrophin releasing factors (cortisol related) family of peptides coordinate stress responses and have a direct effect on the gut, leading to increase of gut permeability, contribution to visceral hypersensitivity, increased perception to pain, and changes to gut motility.
The catabolic (breaking down) nature of cortisol married with less oxygen and nutrients available for the digestive tract mean that continual healing of the vast expanse of the gut lining can be compromised by chronic stress. Inflammation within the bowel lining may make accessing and feeling core muscles difficult.
Long and slow breath has shown to reduce inflammation (eg in IBD), as has meditation which can calm heightened responses such as inflammation that can interfere with the microbiome, the bacterial environment in the gut that is so crucial for digestion and health.
Standing motions from the belly
These loosening movements from the Chinese system of Qi Gong help bring awareness to how we move from the grounding of the feet and up through the belly to register safety and support. This body relationship allows us to come down from the survival mode of the stress response, and therefore reduce inflammatory tones.
- Standing feet hip-width apart with soft knees, hold an imaginary football at about eye height or higher, with arms held in a circle. Keeping your focus on the ball, rotating it – from the belly - fully in front of your body, bending your knees as you reach it right down past your inner legs (left figure).
- From holding the imaginary football in front of your chest (middle figure), inhale to reach one hand back behind you, following it with your gaze to turn from the belly (right figure). Exhale to bring it back to join the other hand, then inhaling that back. Move from side-to-side, retaining focus on the moving hand.
Mindful movement practices such as yoga, t’ai chi and qi gong have been shown to reduce stress and inflammation, but that can extend to any exercise where the subtle feeling of the movements moment-to-moment are observed, acknowledged and used as a guide.
Our ability to ‘read’ our internal landscape was originally just associated with feeling something ‘viscerally’, but more broadly, interoception is now equated with how we can consciously come back to physiological equilibrium. It helps how we play a part in our body maintenance, including safety and avoiding pain, physical or emotional (Schleip et al 2012).
The sensory receptors for interoception are mostly located in fascial tissues throughout the body (Exp. Brain Res. 200;25-35) and recent research has been investigating links for complex disorders with a somato-emotional component, where past trauma, injury or chronic stress can be either dissipated or (as in the case of disease) retained, causing the body to adapt, creating symptomology. Disorders such as anxiety, depression or IBS are described as interoceptive disorders.
It is suspected that those with IBS and probably any chronic gut pain, have altered visceral interoception. This is like having a distorting filter between a signal and the device picking it up. In IBS and chronic pain, the interoceptive gut feelings, have shown to be distorted - heightened by stress and negative emotions (Gastroenterology 2010;139:1310-1319).
Inverted cobbler pose
Any turning attention inwards whilst moving can help cultivate this sensory awareness. In particular, inversions allow organs to drop and create motility in the viscera and surrounding fascia. As organs pull on the ligamentous sheaths holding them in place, the resulting sensations draw us into our inner world creating interoception.
This held and supported yoga inversion opens the abdominal region and also the diaphragm for the full breath that supports digestion.
- Here (left figure) the tailbone and lower back is hooked up onto the end of a bolster (or stack of folded towels) so that the chest can lift as the shoulders rest on the ground. Find the place where the shoulders, neck and jaw can most release.
- If there is pinching in the lower back, place the feet on the ground (middle figure) and only move in again if you feel a yield through tissues. Then spend some time in this counter position before rolling out.
- Lie for 5-10 minutes after (right figure) to allow tissues with settle with kind attention on the rhythm of the breath.
Discover more on Charlotte's online course, Teaching Yoga for Digestive Health, here.
Stecco A, Gesi M, Stecco C, Stern R. Fascial components of the myofascial pain syndrome. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013;17(8):352
Stecco C, Stern R, Porzionato A, et al. Hyaluronan within fascia in the etiology of myofascial pain. Surg Radiol Anat. 2011;33(10):891–896
Rowe PC, Fontaine KR, Violand RL. Neuromuscular strain as a contributor to cognitive and other symptoms in chronic fatigue syndrome: hypothesis and conceptual model. Front Physiol.
Schleip R, Findley TW, Huijing P, Chaitow L. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body: The science and clinical applications in manual and movement therapy (Churchill Livingstone, 2012).