Originally written for Yoga Matters
Digestive issues are on the rise and can often prove difficult to address through mainstream medical routes. This is not least because of their connection with the rise of psycho-social stress and poor dietary habits. With the deepening of neuroscientific understanding and the link between the gut and the brain, we are learning more and more how engaging with the nervous system and talking to the gut via calming have far-reaching effects to unravel conditions like IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disorder), acid reflux, colitis, diverticulitis and more.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the most widely diagnosed of all digestive issues; often as an umbrella term for unexplained symptoms in terms of gut functionality, but viewed as a stress-related disorder in more ‘alternative’ circles like yoga therapy, Ayurveda, TCM, osteopathy, naturopathy, Functional Medicine and psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). It is a debilitating and upsetting condition affecting 10-20% of the UK population at any time – probably more suffering who do not report to their GP. It is characterised by abdominal pain, bloating, altered bowel movements including diarrhoea and constipation – often with a see-saw between the two.
Much of IBS and other digestive issues can be related to poor gut motility, where the moving through of the contents of the intestines for full digestion becomes switched off or compromised. This can also affect the gut environment, the all-important colonisation of healthy, probiotic bacteria that live on the gut wall and support not only digestion, but also immune modulation – a balanced immune response, appropriate to the situation, so not too much and we become intolerant, oversensitive or in constant inflammatory response eg with conditions like eczema, asthma and arthritis.
Research into IBS showing facts like lowered bowel serotonin is linked to constipation and raised to diarrhoea, highlight how responsive the enteric nervous system – the ‘second brain’ in the gut – to how safe or unsafe we feel translates into digestive function. Gut feelings are being shown to be real and if we are shut off from feeling or listening to them, our bodies can try and shout louder to be heard. If initial gut rumbles are not attended to, down the line these can show up as the more pronounced conditions listed above.
The yogic viewpoint
The digestive system (particularly in the third chakra, manipura at the solar plexus) It is the area of the body associated with agni, the ‘digestive fire’ where we process, digest and absorb all that life offers us (in terms of the physical digestion of food, the processing of experiences via our emotional body and sensory impressions). The ability to properly digest what we eat is crucial for health and well-being but equally, if not more important to good health and energy is being able to process our experiences, so that we don’t hold on to anger, grief, sadness, guilt etc. An inability to process and integrate on this level is potentially more detrimental to our overall well-being than the physical nature of digestive issues.
Key tips for supporting digestion:
Giving our digestive processes a rest between meals allows the whole business to have the energy it needs. It takes up to 40 hours for food to travel from swallowing to out the other end and each time we put something else into our mouths, we start up the whole thing over again and allow little rest for healing. Some snacking can help regulate blood sugar at the right times, but oral fixation with food can lessen our relationship with hunger and our body’s true needs.
Full chewing is crucial to good digestion as it signals to the stomach and intestines to prepare for the arrival of food. The taste of foods tells the body exactly which combination of fats, proteins and carbohydrates are on their way, so your gut can prepare the right enzymes to break them down. This isn’t just important to absorb nutrients from our food, but also to ensure that only partially digested food isn’t hanging around, when it can putrefy, create gas and lead to symptoms like constipation, diarrhoea and food intolerances. Mindful eating during meals has shown to naturally regulate portion size and create the satisfaction that lowers food cravings later. Chewing also stimulates the thymus gland to produce T-cells, a major part of the protective immune system; your body knows that unwelcome guests like harmful bacteria may be on their way.
Allowing full rest regularly and good quality sleep allows the energy that the gut needs to constantly repair. Thinking, moving and even just standing directs fuel, circulation and nutrients to our muscles and brain. When you consider that the most recent approximation of gut surface marks it the size of half a badminton court and each cell is renewed every 4-5 days, it’s easy to see how our digestive health can suffer without adequate rest.
Digestive Supporting Foods
- Fermented foods – like yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir, miso, apple cider vinegar – help create a gut environment where probiotic bacteria can flourish.
- Gut wall cells can be fed by the fats in organic butter (butyric acid) and coconut oil (SCFAs), which also support the immune system.
- Daily cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, kale, broccoli and pak choi contain substances called sulphurophanes that support cell and liver detoxification and provide sulphur for gut wall healing.
- A diet high in vegetables feeds minerals, soluble fibre and fluids directly to the gut mucosa.
Key digestive supplements:
- Take a regular probiotic (beneficial bacteria) supplement for that may support everyday digestive and immune support. Quality brands include OptiBac For Everyday Probiotic MAX and Bio-Kult Advanced multi-strain formula.
- For those with bloating or constipation, taking digestive enzymes with meals can help break down food (whilst chewing and eating without stress helps the process) and can encourage our own processes to step up. Try Quest Enzyme Digest and Viridian High Potency Digestive Aid.
- For supporting gut healing and soothing an inflamed gut wall, try Nutri Advanced Nutriflux or other herbs such as turmeric, slippery elm and cat’s claw.
In terms of grounding and the sense of ‘coming home’, awareness of the belly area is crucial. This is the area of the body that we recoil in towards (via psoas flexion) when we feel overwhelmed, fearful or in need of safety. Learning to connect with this area, listen inward to what our needs are and how to get them met without having to completely disconnect or withdraw wholesale from one ourselves and world is potentially life changing. Routinely placing one or both hands on our belly – in life and in practice – is a nyasa (placing) that can help us cut through the noise of the head and connect us back into ‘what is true right now’ in the words of Tara Brach, author of Radical Acceptance.
All aspects of yoga both affect the autonomic nervous system and allow us to access the calming parasympathetics, often called the ‘rest and digest’ tone of the nervous system; the opposite of the fight-or-flight stress response. The asana (posture) practice physically moves into the fascia around and between organs, freeing space, glide, fluidity, mobility and tone into all of the physiology in the abdominal cavity and encourage gut motility. Breath awareness and control allows the breath to drop into the belly and diaphragm, a basic need for optimal digestive function.
MOVING FROM THE BELLY ON ALL FOURS
As well as cat/cow pose (above), coming onto all fours allows free movement of the spine with the safe feeling of being rooted to the ground. It also offers support for movement in the shoulders and hips that allows exploration of the ‘fluid body’ in the abdomen and viscera. Feeling your belly draw up to support your lower back here connects to core integrity for movement with awareness. Without this loosening, we can take much tension into poses with broader strokes. Creating awareness and space in to bellies and roots creates more integral, graceful movement less prone to injury as we reach congruently out from the midline as our bodies evolved and how we learn to move and strengthen as babies.
Take your pelvis to one side and circle down with an exhalation towards child pose then draw up the other side as you inhale to complete a circle. Keep circling, drawing up through the belly as you rise and then change direction to feel the difference. Keeps the arms straight, but not locked as you inhale to draw up and take weight off the hands. Feel the different qualities of each direction; one may feel more easy flow and the other may meet more resistance or feel more ‘sticky’ or staccato for instance. Move with no expectation, just feeling for moving around the belly.
- From neutral, rotate the pelvis as if belly dancing, imagining the tip of the tailbone as a pencil and draw large circles, limiting movement in the shoulders to direct motion into the pelvis and ‘slide and glide’ in the belly and the viscera. Start in just the pelvis until looseness travels up the spine to include shoulders, neck and head, however feels right; then change direction to explore.
- From neutral, inhale at the centre, then exhaling to look at one hip and lengthen into the opposite side flank. Follow the breath, inhaling to centre, exhaling from side-to-side, opening the side body and intercostal muscles between the ribs; good preparation for side flank poses eg trikonasana.
Other digestive considerations within a yoga practice:
- Practicing postures and breathing techniques which help to balance the first three chakras (root, belly and solar plexus) will help with any issues which affect our energy and sense of fulfilment in life. When stress is a factor digestion will usually be affected, as will breathing patterns, so focussing on calming and nurturing this area can help to reduce the experience of stress in the body and mind.
- Cleansing practices with strong abdominal breath work like kapalabhati, bastrika and nauli need to be taught and practised with sensitivity to postural and digestive issues and may be too over-stimulating for those with chronic stress whose digestive muscles may tend to seizure (constipation) and/or spasm (diarrhoea). In some cases these may be helpful to the overall system, but modern, sedentary mind-bodies may have too much restriction and psycho-social stress for them to be of benefit.
- Stagnation in the belly is also felt in the deep lymphatic tissues in the colon and around the groin; common when stress interrupts full digestion. Opening up the inner thighs, hips and groin, as well as the belly, helps relieve compression in the colon and encourages lymphatic flow that helps elimination processes and immunity; often compromised from stress.