INCREASING DIGESTIVE HEALTH THROUGH YOGA
Did you know that 60% to 80% of our Immune System lies in our Gut? How about that 90% of our neurotransmitters, those wonderful little chemicals responsible for regulating mood, are made in our Gut?
It should come as no surprise then, that the vast majority of illnesses and disease stem from imbalances in our digestive tract. Things like; autoimmune disease, hormonal imbalances, rheumatoid arthritis and hashimotos thyroiditis, diabetes, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression, eczema and rosacea... just to name a few. It should also come as no surprise that finding balance and creating a happy & healthy life must begin with good digestive health.
The surface level fix to good digestive health is pretty straightforward:
Step 1 - Remove the bad, get rid of things such as processed foods, alcohol, dairy, soy, wheat, etc.
Step 2 - Replace with good, add in digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acids for digestion and bile acids.
Step 3 - Restore, replenish the beneficial bacteria in our gut, take probiotics and other supplements as needed.
Step 4 - Repair the gut itself by including essential nutrients needed so the gut can heal, by itself.
All of these steps will help to ensure your gut health begins to mend, repair and heal. But doing these things alone will not take care of everything.
Remember those neurotransmitters? Well, with the above steps, they will definitely be on their way to wellness, but is there a way to help them along? To increase their effectiveness? To, dare I ask...increase our balance and happiness? The answer to these questions...YES! Yes there is!
If you are waiting for me to tell you that there is a magic pill, herb or food to take and viola! You're healed...not going to happen. But, if you are truly interested in finding a way to gain digestive health and find balance throughout all areas in your life, then you should keep reading.
In order to enhance our ability for digestive health and a balanced, happy life, we must first understand Stress. That ugly word we hear so much about. We hear that it should be avoided, reduced, eliminated and ignored. But, it is rare when we hear HOW to do these things or WHY we need to do them. Let's start with the WHY!
Why should we avoid, reduce or eliminate stress? Because it's bad for our body, bad for our mind, bad for our skin, bad for our day. When you are under stress, perceived stress, lifestyle stress or chronic stress, your brain sends signals to your gut. The gut, in response, secretes a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands to produce and circulate Cortisol. In addition, stress causes changes in the micro biota, basically increasing the levels of "bad" bacteria in the digestive system while simultaneously reducing the levels of "good" bacteria. In small, infrequent doses, our healthy bodies will bounce back fairly quickly, balancing out the bacteria. In large and/or consistent doses of stress, our bodies can no longer balance those bacteria. It is pertinent to mention, Stress can wreak havoc on multiple systems of the body, but to keep on point, I will only be talking about its effects on the gut and our digestive system.
Continued exposure to stress can lead to many, many gastrointestinal diseases. A few are; food allergies, peptic ulcer disease, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, gastro esophageal disease (GERD), leaky gut syndrome and many more. It can also reduce transit time in the intestines as well as cause small intestinal bacteria overgrowth.
The longer stress goes unmanaged, the more damage it can do. The harm it does to our digestive system has a huge impact on our neurotransmitters. Digestive disorders have been found to cause or be linked to causing, depression, bi-polar disorder, dementia, Alzheimer's and anxiety disorders, just to name a few.
Other ways that stress impacts our digestive system is by reducing blood flow to that area by 4 times. This decreases our metabolism. It also reduces our body's ability to absorb nutrients, so we are not getting the most from our foods. Oxygen to our digestive system is also decreased from stress, and our enzyme production decreases by 20,000%. Yes, I typed that number correct...twenty thousand percent. This inhibits effective elimination of toxins and waste, slows transit time through our entire system, which allows toxins to sit in our colon over a longer period of time, where they get re-absorbed. Stress has just as much of an impact on our digestive health as food does. So what do we do about it? Here's where the HOW comes in!
How do we deal with stress on our digestive system? How can we manage its impact? With Yoga. One of the most effective ways to reduce and eliminate stress is by practicing Yoga. Not only does Yoga help with all stress, it is an exceptional way to heal stress damage done to our digestive system.
Yoga is a practice that shows us how everything is connected. So when we talk about our digestive system in yogic terms, we are really talking about it literally and in the abstract. In this manner of thought, we don't just digest or "metabolize" food, but also water, air, earth, experience, emotions, relationships, joy, STRESS, sadness...truly everything. Don't believe that? Think about this. Everyone has received bad news at some point in their lives. It could be news of a loved one passing on, of someone close to you being injured, that you've lost a job, that you've lost your marriage, that you've been diagnosed with an illness...anything. What happened when you heard it? I bet you felt "sick to your stomach". How about when you've received information about something very exciting? Did you get butterflies in your stomach or did your stomach do flips? These reactions demonstrate that truly everything impacts us through our digestive system...our gut. We've all had a "gut feeling". By coming to the understanding that everything; emotions, STRESS, relationships, career, food, etc. directly effects our digestive system, it allows us to understand how Yoga can heal us.
So, exactly how does yoga do this? Through certain poses or asanas, healing of our digestive organs begins. Certain asanas work on the soft tissues of the body, kind of like gently squeezing a sponge. When in asanas that compress our digestive organs, it allows stale fluids, holding toxins and waste, to come out of the tissue. Once this occurs, our body is able to eliminate them much easier. A few examples of asanas that compress our internal organs and help remove those stale fluids and eliminate them are:
1. Forward Fold (standing and seated)
2. Downward Dog
3. Reclined Knees to Chest
4. Childs Pose
5. Pigeon Pose
There are also asanas that stretch and open our digestive organs. This encourages fresh blood flow and nutrients to circulate and fill the cells. Examples of asanas that open and stretch our internal organs are:
1. Bridge Pose
2. Reclining Hero
3. Chair Pose
4. Tree Pose
By moving between compressing and opening our organs, we create a "wave" like quality of movement in the body. This is actually how our organs function naturally...through a "wave" called Peristalsis.
By enhancing this movement, it stimulates the digestive muscles, bringing fresh oxygen and blood into the area, and increases the elimination of toxins and waste as well as increases the transit time throughout our digestive system. Examples of asanas that actually both compress and stretch are:
1. Seated Twist
2. Side Bends
3. Extended Side Angle
5. Reclined Twist
6. One legged seated spinal twist
In addition to asanas, Yoga is a practice of breathing techniques. Linking movement with breath increases the oxygen flow into our bodies and especially into our digestive system. By incorporating breathing into our yoga practice, we are increasing the oxygen to our cells, which also increases the nutrients absorbed by these cells. The more nutrients absorbed by the cells, the more toxins and waste the cells eliminate.
Breathing, in Yoga, is also the most direct and effective way to lower stress levels and immediately reduce stress hormones released in the digestive system. By concentrating on our breath, and doing some deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises, we immediately begin to lower stress levels.
To end yoga practice is to take time in shavasana. This is an important part of each and every practice. It is the final relaxation piece that allows our body to absorb the benefits of the practice as well as shed any last bits of stress and tension. It is also a time to continue the focus on our breath, which ensures our cells get as much oxygen as they need.
When beginning a digestive healing Yoga practice, you want to start where you are. You do not, necessarily have to wait until your digestive issues subside before beginning. Most times, just beginning where you are will immediately start your body healing and moving towards health & balance. To notice benefits from yoga, you should practice two to three times per week. However, practicing everyday is highly recommended and will increase the noticeable results very quickly.
All parts of yoga work together to help our digestive system heal and stay healthy. The asanas help to remove toxins and waste and increase blood flow and nutrient absorption. Which in turn balances hormone levels, increases enzyme production, increases blood flow and helps in eliminating toxins and waste. The breath increases oxygen to our cells increasing energy and efficiency. Everything working together creates healing and balance in the body. Add in whole, real foods with each meal and you are well on your path to living a healthy, happy and balanced life.