There’s more to yoga than just improving flexibility. It also improves digestion and all of us acknowledge good digestive health is priceless. Anyone who’s had to endure regular digestive discomfort such as constipation, stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, indigestion, esophagus spasms, or irritable bowel syndrome, will agree a well-functioning digestive tract plays a huge role in feeling healthy.
The effect of stress on digestion
The practice of yoga has been shown to be beneficial helping individuals reach the pinnacle of good digestion. In fact, ancient yoga understood that good digestive health is key to overall health and well-being and believed it to be related to the mind-body connection. Specifically, it refers to how stress has a big effect on how your tummy feels.
When under stress, our body activates the “fight or flight” response in the central nervous system. When this response is set off, most of the blood in the body is redirected from the digestive system and into the major muscle groups like our legs and arms. Your body just assumes you are being chased by a grizzly bear and therefore you need all the energy to flow to what will help you move the fastest. With this redirection of blood flow, it negatively impacts the contractions of the digestive muscles that help move food through the body as well as fluids and secretions that are needed for healthy digestion.
In today’s society however, only a tiny percentage of us will ever be chased by a wild animal. Today we have other types of stress from worry over finances, working on a major presentation for a job, dealing with a difficult family situation or even watching a scary movie – each one has the same impact. Our American lifestyle is so jammed packed with activity that just getting out the door to scheduled “recreational” activity can be stressful. If we are constantly feeling “stressed out,” this can be getting in the way of a well-run digestive system.
A brief look at how digestion works
The digestive tract is an approximately 25 foot length of a series of hollow organs. Beginning with the mouth, this tract then travels down to the esophagus, stomach, small intestines, large intestine, rectum, and then ending with the anus. Organs that help in the digestion process but are not part of the digestive tract include the tongue, salivary glands, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder.
There are two main functions of the digestive tract – to digest and to absorb. To digest food means to break down the large macronutrients of protein, fat, and carbohydrates which cannot be absorbed intact. These macronutrients get broken down into smaller molecules of amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose. Each of these molecules or nutrients are absorbed across the wall of the small intestine where they are carried in the bloodstream to become available to all cells in the body.
The final step in the process of digestion is elimination which is the removal of the indigestible waste in the form of urine or feces.
How yoga poses help make a healthy digestive system
The twisting and turning you do as you maneuver into various yoga poses is working magic on making your digestive tract quite healthy. Think of it like this – these poses are working on the soft tissues of the body sort of like a hand gently squeezing a sponge.
Yoga poses compress the organs of the digestive system which help stale and waste-bearing fluids in these areas to be released. Once these materials are freed up, the body is better able to eliminate them. Another benefit from yoga is that when stretching and holding the stretch, it circulates vital nutrients into the cells. These same poses are also gently massaging the organs associated with digestion as it stimulates the digestive muscles encouraging and increasing the wave-like contractions known as peristalsis.
Yoga also requires deep breathing sending oxygen deep into the cells of the body helping it to absorb nutrients and excrete waste products. In essence, yoga that works on your digestive tract is reducing stress while inducing relaxation as it rebalances the autonomic nervous system resulting in a better functioning digestive tract.
Research also agrees with the power of yoga poses for better overall health. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine, found that women who engaged in hour-long Hatha yoga classes three times a week for 12 sessions achieved significant reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression. Research also shows that yoga can lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Overall, yoga helps digestive functioning by providing relief from the following gastrointestinal problems:
- Leads to a feeling of relaxation which helps the digestive system to relax
- Improves blood flow and oxygenation to digestive organs
- Eliminates waste more efficiently
- Reduces gas and acid buildup
- Strengthens digestive muscle
So, grab your yoga mat and begin practicing learning to relax and breathe as you experience a reduction in digestive discomfort and improvement in digestive health.