Yoga Therapy for Digestive Health

Health Tips / Yoga Therapy for Digestive Health

I’m no yoga expert, so this week’s Health Tip comes from Renee Zambo, WholeHealth Chicago’s yoga therapist. Dr E

The belly is one of the most sensitive areas of our bodies. Situated at the center of our being, literally forming our core, it’s lined with hundreds of millions of nerve endings and affects everything from immune system to mood. So it’s no surprise that bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and other stomach issues accompany just about every ailment. To add further stress, we place an enormous amount of external pressure on what our stomachs should look like and feel like and how they should process and function.

The gut-brain connection

Scientists are deep into the study of the gut-brain relationship, going so far as to call our stomachs a second brain. Last year, Dr. E wrote a Health Tip on bacterial happiness and health that focused on the differences in gut flora between people who have fibromyalgia and those who don’t have fibro.

For years now, scientists and medical experts have been working at describing the link between gut and brain in projects affiliated with the Human Microbiome ProjectHere’s a 2013 piece from NPR that describes part of the project. Out of this research, we’re able to see a relationship among foods we eat, the health of our gut, and diagnoses such as Alzheimer’s, depression, autism, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, bipolar disorder, and anxiety.

All this is partly due to the millions of nerve endings, immune cells, neurotransmitters, and neuropeptides that line of the GI system (which runs from mouth to rectum) and directly communicate with the brain. So the old adage “you are what you eat” can be taken quite literally. What you eat can lift your spirits or bog you down, make you sick or strengthen your immune system. These environmental and biological factors play an enormous role in digestive health, as do food quality, balanced nutrition, eating for your lifestyle, and knowing your sensitivities.

The slippery slope

Psychology plays a part too. Despite a tsunami of information on the gut-brain connection, for many there’s a growing disconnect between body and mind. Some of us want to eat anything we like and take a pill to reduce the side effects. Or we make living healthfully a chore, something on the to-do list and therefore unenjoyable, even stressful. An article published in Molecular Psychology and later reported on by NPR describes how stress can override the benefits of healthy eating.

Other times we punish ourselves with extreme dieting, workouts that promise flat abs, calorie restriction, or obsessing over how-to-eat blogs. Eventually most of us stray and the negative self-talk begins. We’ve all been there: fighting against ourselves to “be” a certain way, creating a disconnect between body and mind.  It’s this disconnect that’s at the root of what yoga therapy defines as “dis-ease.”

It’s difficult to tell what comes first: did an outside stressor affect the health of your gut or was the health concern itself the main cause of stress? Either way, chronic stress creates a cyclical pattern of dis-ease and disconnection in the body, impeding true wellness.

Stress and your belly

Since digestion is a regenerative, restorative function activated by the parasympathetic nervous system, we must be in a restful place for digestion to occur. When we enter fight-or-flight mode or in any way activate the sympathetic nervous system, the smooth muscles of the digestive tract tighten and contract, shunting blood away from digestion to supply muscles and brain with every available resource so we can move quickly and make snap judgments. On top of this, some of us lose our appetites during periods of high stress, while others “stress eat,” causing additional burden.

Acute stress is different from chronic stress, but even with the day-to-day pressure of chronic stress we’re constantly on guard for the next “attack.”

External messages tell us our stomach should look a certain way, what to eat so it performs at peak function, and, worse, shame us when we stray from eating ideal foods. Many people live with this chronic stress without even being aware of it.

How yoga therapy can help

Yoga therapy’s foundation is stress reduction. When we reduce stress, we active our parasympathetic nervous system and create a comfortable, safe space within ourselves. Yoga therapy does this via breathing exercises, movements, or meditation depending on what’s most appropriate for you.

Rest-and-digest mode not only supports the digestive system as a whole, but helps us approach outside stressors and internal dialogue with a greater awareness. This is one of the many benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction, the practice of pure awareness in the present moment. Yoga therapy draws on mindfulness practices as it helps create deeper connections, steering us away from feeling lost in thought, action, or stress and ultimately reinforcing decisions that better support our entire being.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. These speak directly to gut issues:

  • Do you enjoy what you’re eating or does it feel like a burden?
  • Are you stressed when you eat or when you think about eating?
  • Could you serve yourself more or are you content?
  • When you’re are grocery shopping, do you rush through, stressed about getting all the “right” foods or do you enjoy finding the foods that best support you?
  • Most importantly, when you look at and feel one of the most sensitive parts of your body, do you wish it to be a certain way?
  • Do you feel stress when it isn’t what you want it to be, or from the sensations in your belly?
  • Instead of objectifying your tummy, could you be more mindful and patient of your digestive health and of all the thoughts, feelings, and stressors triggered by it?

Yoga therapy tools

Like all healing modalities at WholeHealth Chicago, we work best when we work together. Through the lens of integrative health, yoga therapy includes stress-reduction techniques that not only promote wellness, but enhance the energetic flow throughout the entire GI system. What might work for someone with constipation could be completely different for someone with acid reflux, nausea, or IBS. The energetic flow might be stuck, overactive, anxious, or ungrounded.

Different yoga movements and breathing techniques stimulate GI motion if it’s slow, soothe if an area is inflamed, and promote grounding and embodiment if there is anxiety.

To learn more about how yoga therapy can support digestive health, join us Saturday, April 1, for an afternoon of education and yoga therapy techniques. WholeHealth’s nurse practitioner Katie McManigal will educate us on the biology of our digestive system and the many environmental factors affecting it. I’ll be leading participants through a series of breathing techniques and postures that ground and soothe the entire GI system.

The workshop will end with a mindful eating exercise to further explore our relationship to food and digestion. If you’re uncertain whether the workshop would be right for you or would like to set up an individual session, you can contact me here.


Take care,
Renee Zambo
1000hr CYT (Certified Yoga Therapist)