Digestive Trouble? 7 Ways Yoga Can Help

By: 
Baxter Bell, MD and Nina Zolotow, RYT 500

Before we get into how yoga helps your digestive system, let’s review the general factors that impact our digestive health: 

1.     Diet

2.     Sleep and rest

3.    Exercise and general activity levels

4.     Stress

5.     Chronic diseases 

6.    Environmental exposure, such as to chemicals

7.    Travel history

8.    Antibiotic exposure

While yoga cannot help with all of these factors, it can help with the first five! So yoga is a particularly powerful way to influence your digestion. And depending on the condition you’re addressing, yoga can provide all five types of treatment for digestive problems, from preventative medicine to curative medicine. 

Preventative Medicine. Practicing yoga for physical, mental, and emotional well-being will support your overall digestive health. 

Curative Medicine. Many practitioners report that yoga practiced for digestion has resolved longstanding general digestive problems, such as bloating, cramping, irregularities in elimination, and having a “sensitive stomach.”

Maintenance Therapy. For digestive conditions that are stable and non-life threatening but have a history of recurrences, such as irritable bowel syndrome, practicing yoga to support digestive health helps bring the digestive system back into balance during flares, and helps extend periods that are symptom free. 

Recovery and Rehabilitation. Gentle restorative poses, breath practices, meditation and guided relaxation can help shorten recovery times for digestive conditions such as post-gastrointestinal surgery, and after a flare of early stage ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.

Supportive or Palliative Therapy. Practicing yoga to foster digestive health can help support healing for a wide range of problems and illnesses, including:

·       sensitive digestive system 

·       bloating 

·       chronic diarrhea

·       chronic constipation 

·       irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

·       celiac disease 

·       reflux (GERD), general heartburn

·       peptic and duodenal ulcers 

·       inflammatory bowel disorders (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)

For digestive conditions that are incurable and are progressing, such as Crohn’s disease or advanced gastrointestinal cancers, restorative or very gentle asana practices combined with breath practices, meditation, and guided relaxation can help to relieve or reduce pain, improve sleep and appetite, and lower anxiety and depression. 

Yoga can help support your digestive system in the following 7 ways:

Stress Management. One of yoga’s global benefits for digestion has to do with its effect on our nervous systems. Not surprisingly, our digestive systems work much more efficiently while we are in rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) mode. So being able to use yoga’s stress management tools to switch from fight-or-flight (sympathetic) mode to rest-and-digest mode and to help us remain in that state, allows your digestive system to function optimally overall. Now, digestion does not cease when we are in a state of stress, but chronic stress can lead to imbalances in our digestive system, including:

·       decreased peristalsis (movement of food through the digestive tract) and digestion in the small intestines

·       halted absorption of food from gut 

·       buildup of stomach acidity, leading to indigestion and heartburn

Yoga’s stress management tools can help you turn these problems around. Stress management tools may also play a role in maintaining healthy gut bacteria. The community of microorganisms living in our large intestines and elsewhere in our digestive system make up our microbiome. Our microbiome has a variety of functions, including the metabolism of certain nutrients in our food, the regulation of our immune system, and modulating various behaviors such as hunger, satiety, and sleep. Maintaining a large variety of the organisms in our microbiome is important for the health of our digestive and immune systems as well as for the other systems that interact or communicate with our digestive system, such as the central nervous system.

Recent research has shown that chronic stress can actually have a negative effect on the health of your microbiome, by reducing the variety of the microrganisms living in it as well as shifting it to bacterial populations that may have long-term negative health consequences. So using yoga to manage your stress levels will help support the health of your microbiome, providing benefits for the other systems of your body as well.

Asanas. In general, practicing yoga asana for exercise is beneficial for your digestive system. It supports good circulation to the digestive organs, strengthens the muscular supports around the digestive organs, and stimulates good elimination. 

Static poses that strengthen and stretch the abdominal area help tone the abdominal muscles that house and support the majority of the organs of digestion, which helps contain your digestive system safely in your torso, and may assist in movement of material through the system. Dynamic poses that fold, stretch and twist the abdominal area can improve blood and lymph circulation, and create a squeeze-and-release effect on your organs, which may support improved functioning and stimulate good elimination.

However, there are some conditions for which using asana for exercise may not a good idea, such as severe cases of diarrhea or constipation, or for someone with an acute bout of pain related to their digestive disorders. In such cases, we recommended turning to other yoga tools, including stress management and relaxation. 

Besides using asanas for exercise, you can use restorative poses to shift into the rest-and-digest state. Restorative postures where your chest is lifted and your belly is very relaxed, such as Reclined Cobbler’s Pose (Supta Baddhakonasana), can be particularly effective.

Sleep. Using yoga to improve the quality of your sleep will benefit your digestive system. A sound night’s sleep provides a prolonged rest to your entire system, during which you spend time in the rest-and-digest state.

Healthy Eating. What we put in our mouths can have a direct effect on our digestion. Some examples of unhealthy eating includes:

·       Overeating, which leads to bloating, cramping and discomfort.

·       Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, which contributes to ulcers, pancreatitis and liver disease. 

·       Eating foods that we have an allergy or sensitivity to, such as dairy if you are lactose intolerant, or gluten if you have celiac disease.

·       Eating fatty foods that can aggravate the gall bladder, which is part of the digestive system.

·       Eating acidic foods if they worsen conditions such as reflux or hiatal hernia or healing ulcers.

Reducing Chronic Stress. Chronic stress can not only cause digestive problems, but the cortisol that is released can also cause overeating and weight gain by stimulating your appetite. So using your yoga practice to reduce your stress levels and reduce cortisol levels is one of the most important things you can do move toward healthy.

Mindfulness. Many poor eating habits are just that—habits! Practicing yoga asana mindfully and meditating will help you tune into your body, rather than ignoring it. And as you tune into your body, you may learn about foods you are currently eating that are compromising your health or notice poor eating habits, such as eating beyond satiety (feeling satisfied). Cultivating mindfulness can teach you to recognize:

·       which foods are good for you and which are not (whether that means junk food or food to which you are allergic or intolerant) 

·       when you are full and don’t need to eat more

·       when you are thirsty instead of hungry

·       when you are eating for stress, not for hunger

Mindfulness will also help you start to recognize habitual thoughts that are getting in the way of healthy eating. You can then work on changing your perspective.

Will Power. Once you’ve identified your habits or have decide to eliminate or cut back certain foods, it takes willpower to change! According the Dr. Kelly McGonigal, being in a state of stress can increase impulsive behavior and decrease willpower. So practicing stress management as we describe above will help with your willpower. However, you can also use a meditation practice to intentionally strengthen your willpower. Meditation teaches you to return to your object of meditation (your focus) and tune out distractions (temptations). And beyond that, research has demonstrated that is little as three hours of accumulated meditation alone can improve willpower. 

“Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. People who meditate regularly aren’t just better at these things. Over time, their brains become finely tuned willpower machines. Regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, as well as regions of the brain that support self-awareness.” —Dr. Kelly McGonigal

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Reprinted with permission from yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com

Baxter BellBaxter Bell, MD, is a yoga teacher and educator, physician and medical acupuncturist. These days he focuses on teaching yoga full time, both to ordinary students of all ages and physical conditions, and to the next generation of yoga teachers, to whom he teaches anatomy and yoga therapy along with his accessible, skillful style of yoga. Baxter brings a unique perspective to his teaching, combining his understanding of anatomy and medicine with his skill at instructing people from all walks of life and all levels of ability. Baxter is the co-founder and writer for the popular Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, where he shares his knowledge of medical conditions, anatomy, and yoga with practitioners and teachers across the world. In addition to being a frequent presenter at Yoga Journal Alive events and yoga conferences such as IAYT’s SYTAR, he is often quoted as an expert on yoga and health by major national news outlets such as The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. To learn more, visit www.baxterbell.com, www.yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com, and his YouTube channel Baxter Bell Yoga.

Nina ZolotowNina Zolotow, RYT 500, Editor-in-Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, is both a yoga writer and a yoga teacher. She trained to be a yoga teacher at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is especially influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She also studied extensively with Rodney Yee, and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. Her special area of expertise is yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety) and she teaches workshops and series classes on yoga for emotional wellbeing, stress management, better sleep, home practice, and cultivating equanimity. Nina is the co-author, with Rodney Yee, of two books on yoga: Yoga: The Poetry of the Body and Moving Toward Balance, both of which are widely available, and is currently writing a book with Baxter Bell on Yoga for Healthy Aging for publication in 2017.