The gut can tell us a lot. It has been more recently referred to as “the second brain,” a complex system of nerves and neurotransmitters that link to the gray matter in our head. The “second brain” provides gut instinct, that barometer for our instinctual sense about bad food, situations and people. The gut is also sensitive and reactive to our thoughts and moods. The discovery that our gut contains a “second brain” provides a good explanation for why stress-reducing practices such as yoga, that help regulate physiology, thought, and mood, can be so helpful for the gut.
Nutrition and good digestion are vital for good health, clear thinking, and strong immunity. Step one is eating nutritious food. Food must then pass through all of the stages of digestion to be use-able fuel for our body. We need to be able to digest the food, breaking it into the component parts that can be absorbed and assimilated by our body.
Yoga aids the digestive process in several ways:
- Yoga practice can regulate the nervous system, helping to soothe stress symptoms, which in turn improves digestion and absorption. Stress usually involves a wild ride of thoughts and emotions that often need to be slowed down and quieted for better digestion, absorption, and assimilation.
- “Hyper” conditions of the stomach like excess acid secretion, ulcers and heartburn or of the intestines like diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease, often benefit from soothing, gentle, calming approaches to yoga postures, breath techniques, and sound. Workout, power and hot yoga practices are typically contraindicated for these types of conditions.
- Sluggish digestion such as constipation and poor absorption (gas, indigestion, bloating, poor energy, headaches) can be improved by a yoga practice adapted to create circulation in the area of the digestive organs and specific approaches to the postures and breathing to get things moving. Twists, forward bends and lateral postures are often quite helpful.
- Yoga trains awareness of our body, breath and mind, which is a powerful tool for dealing with digestive issues. Our yoga practice can help us become more sensitive to how stress affects our gut, what types and quantities of food work for us and how our digestion changes on a daily or seasonal basis.
A yoga practice tailored to your individual needs and interests and adapted to your specific health issues is the best approach for gut health. You might consider one-on-one sessions with a Yoga Therapist to get started, especially if you have a “hyper” condition such as chronic diarrhea or IBS or IBD.
If you have food intolerances and allergies, I highly recommend seeking out a registered dietitian (R.D.) with experience in gut health. It’s important to eat the most diverse diet possible so that you fuel your body and brain with the nutrients it needs. Long-term nutrient deficiencies can lead to serious health problems.
Don’t ignore significant changes in your digestion. Consult your health care provider if you have a change in your digestion that persists and affects your energy level, sleep, or your ability to do your normal activities.
- Eat a nutritious diet, getting as much variety as possible within the boundaries of any food allergies or intolerances.
- Use your yoga practice to relieve stress (an enemy of digestion)
- Soothing yoga practices help “hyper” conditions of digestion
- Consider twists, forward bends and lateral movements to get things moving.
- Use your practice as an awareness tool for your food needs.
Apanasana: The Gas-Relieving Posture
Benefit: May be soothing for bloating or gas pains and helpful for constipation.
Lying on your back, place your hands over the tops of the knees with your fingers pointed toward your toes. Inhale in place and then as you exhale bring the knees toward your chest. On inhale, slowly move the knees back to the position above the hips. Continue the repetitions at least 8 times, progressively increasing the length of your exhale. You might find it soothing to add a “hmmmm” sound to your long exhalation.