Our gut and emotions are intrinsically linked. I’m sure you have heard of the phrase ‘I felt sick to my stomach’ when someone is talking about a reaction to stress, or ‘feeling butterflies in your tummy’ when nervous, but did you ever think there was truth behind these common phrases, and that a feeling in our belly really can correspond to what’s going on in our brain?
The digestive tract is home to our enteric nervous system, a independent ‘second brain’ that runs through the entire digestive tract and contains more nerve cells than the spine. Did you know that the gut and brain actually share the same embryonic tissue and 90% of information between the gut and the brain travels belly up? I find this fact astounding and has helped to explain to me and many of my clients why during a lot of their life they can associate feeling sick with feeling stressed.
Stress (real or perceived) shows both short- and long- term effects on the function of the gastrointestinal tract. Exposure to stress results in alterations of the brain-gut interactions.
What is IBS?
IBS is classified as a functional disorder of the gut and affects about 1 in 5 people in the UK. IBS is diagnosed after 12 weeks or more of continuous or recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort plus at least 2 of the following:
- Pain relieved after a bowel movement
- Pain starts in association with change in frequency of bowel movements
- Pain starts in association with change in form of stools.
About 60% of patients with IBS have mood and anxiety disorders and 75% of patients with major depression and panic disorders report some IBS symptoms. In clinic a lot of my IBS clients commonly display mood symptoms such as pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia which are often viewed by conventional medicine as separate to their digestive issues.
In Functional Medicine and yoga we understand and appreciate the interplay between all body systems and see gut health and brain health as intrinsically linked. IBS is often explained or described as a visceral hypersensitivity, when the gut is more sensitive than it should be.
How you respond to stress plays a big role in how IBS presents itself
I can’t tell you how many times in clinic I hear ‘stress makes it worse’ when clients talk about their IBS symptoms.
Think about the stress response on a biochemical level – when sympathetic nervous system activity (Fight-Flight-Freeze) gets triggered blood flow shifts from all non-essential activity to our circulatory and musculoskeletal system. Body systems such as reproduction and digestion are not important, but being able to send blood to the lung heart and muscles to help us run away is. We move away from parasympathetic nervous system (Rest-Restore-Digest) in order to deal with the stessor.
Now many moons ago a stressor might be something short-term like a threat to life, think of the example of a sabre tooth tiger. Nowadays however, our stresses are chronic and long term, yet our physical reaction to them is the same. We respond to worries about our safety, security, finances, friendships and relationships in the same way as if our life was in immediate threat.
When you understand this, it’s easy to appreciate how stress can have a negative impact on your digestive health.
So how does Yoga help with IBS?
- Yoga includes physical movement which has been shown to help IBS symptoms
Studies have shown physical movement to help IBS symptoms. A well sequenced class will love through as series of different yoga poses, helping to tone and stretch the body. This can help IBS symptoms by relieving tension in the body, and gently massaging the digestive organs.
2. Yoga reduces stress levels
Stress is one of the most common triggers of IBS symptoms and yoga can help you shut down stress by calming the nervous system – and, in the process, calm your irritated digestive system.
Unlike other movement based exercises, Yoga has the added benefit of focusing on the breath. The breath is an amazing tool for moving us into parasympathetic nervous system activity (Rest-Restore-Digest). A simple example of this is to think about how someone breaths when they try to calm themselves down, it is wired in our DNA to take long exhales to help calm us down, as opposed to a panic attack where one might take short sharp inhales.
The breath has a magical quality of moving us in and out of a stress response. In yoga we seek to link movement with the breath, tapping into the basic rhythm of life and helping us to remain in the present moment. By being present we are better able to listen to our bodies and respond with love and compassion.
Choose postures that are accessible where steady, smooth breathing can be the focus of your practice.
3. Yoga anchors the mind and increases body awareness
Focusing on the breath also helps to anchor the mind, helping move us from ‘up in our heads’ to down in our bellies. Connecting with what we are feeling inside isn’t something that is generally supported in modern society and is at the root of why so many people are struggling with their health and experiencing mood disorders. An increased use and reliance on technology is just one example of how modern society has disconnected us from our bodies. People refer to what a screen says to let them know how they feel, rather than listening to their bodies and responding accordingly.
A regular yoga practice helps to dedicate time in your day just to you, an opportunity to tune in to how your body is feeling and learn to respond intelligently. Yoga can also help you to tolerate uncomfortable sensations, you might be used to recognising the first twinges of an IBS episode sending you into a state of stress and anxiety, but if you learn to breath and stay with the sensations, your body learns to relax, even with intense feelings.
4. Yoga restores balance to the entire body
During your day to day living it is likely you favour one side of the body to the other. For example are you currently sat with one leg crossed over the other, one hand propping up your head, making notes, or scrolling your phone!, with your dominant hand? We do not have to be perfectly balanced all the time, but a regular yoga practice helps to identify any imbalances within the physical body, and therefore strengthen our ‘weaker’ or less dominant side and restore balance.
This balancing effect also works on a deeper energetic level. A focus on linking breath with movement helps to balance out an aggravated mind by calming down ones thoughts, this helps to balance the breath and calm the central nervous system.
5. Yoga improves gut motility and improves posture
A lot of the yoga poses I use with my IBS clients focus on restoring blood flow through the digestive system, see examples below, and work on reversing the modern ‘cashew nut syndrome’. A term that has been used to describe our modern postural habits due to sitting at computers and crouching over our phones for too long!
Strengthening the core and back muscles helps to reveres this cashew shape, and also improve our digestion. By creating more space in the abdomen and chest we can take a fuller breath, and promote a healthier blood flow into our digestive organs improving gut motility.