Yoga is renowned for its health and fitness benefits, but could it also improve your gut health?
You’ve probably heard the term ‘gut health’ banded about, but what exactly is it and how can you achieve it? Your digestive system is made up of the gastrointestinal tract [also known as the GI tract or digestive tract], the liver, pancreas and gallbladder.
Scientists have discovered that the microbiome (the bacteria, fungi, viruses and their genes) that live in the gastrointestinal tract, don’t just process food, they have an influential role in our overall health, wellbeing and cognitive function.
‘Having a healthy gut is intrinsic to our health and wellbeing,’ says Eve Kalinik, a nutritional therapist, functional medical practitioner and author of Happy Gut, Happy Mind (£12.32, Piaktus).
‘Scientists have discovered that not only does the gut microbiome aid digestion and absorb nutrients from our food, but they have other influences, including regulating certain gastric secretions, helping to manage hormones that govern our appetite, producing neurotransmitters like serotonin and certain vitamins, plus managing our immune systems and inflammation in the body,’ she says.
‘To put it simply, our microbes do a huge amount for us.’ Gut microbes might be microscopic in size, but there are trillions of them and while we can’t actually digest fibre, it’s an essential fuel source for them to stay healthy.
‘It’s important to aim for variety of fibre in the diet as this helps to cultivate a more diverse gut microbiota which, research suggests, leads to a healthier and stronger gut,’ says Eve.
‘Fibre is found in all plant-based foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi and kombucha have had a massive resurgence recently, probably with the rise in the interest of gut health, but you can find ferments in more familiar things like cheese and natural
“live” yoghurt, too.’
Much has been reported on the connection between our gut and brain in recent years and if you’ve ever had a gut-wrenching experience or felt butterflies in your stomach when you’re feeling anxious, you’ll have experienced this.
‘In its entirety, the gut micro-biota weighs about the same as the brain and it’s now being considered an organ in its own right due to the role it plays in overall health,’ she says.
‘The gut and the brain are connected by a nerve called the vagus nerve, which is one of the main channels of communication between them. It was thought of as a top-down communication (brain to gut), but we now know the gut microbiota uses various ways to communicate back to the brain.
‘Stress can negatively impact on the gut and might result in digestive symptoms such as constipation, but studies indicate our gut microbiota can help control our body and our brain’s response to stress by producing positive substances like neurotransmitters that signal to the brain all is well.
‘Gentle yoga may help to alleviate digestive symptoms such as gas and bloating,’ adds Eve. ‘The postures are one thing but essentially yoga is a breathing practice and it’s the deep belly [diaphragmatic] breathing that supports the vagus nerve and the gut/brain connection.’
More than 12million people in the UK live with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), according to the IBS Network.
Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, wind, diarrhoea, constipation and even nausea and back pain.
With IBS awareness month starting tomorrow, yoga teacher Gabriella Espinosa advises anyone suffering with gut issues to take up yoga.
It’s thought that yoga postures gently stimulate the digestive organs allowing for better gut motility, and because yoga focuses on breathing and conscious relaxation, it lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, switching on the rest-and-digest mode of the nervous system.
‘Yoga is a brilliant way to support and improve digestion as specific poses promote “agni” [digestive fire] to not only prompt digestion but to help cleanse and release toxins in the body,’ says yoga teacher Gabriella Espinosa.
‘Certain poses also act as an internal massage for the organs. And yogic breathing and meditation have been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which clears stress responses within the body – restoring the health and balance within our gut.
Gabriella adds: ‘Because yoga is also a practice that cultivates self-awareness, it puts you in a better frame of mind to make healthier food choices to support diversity in the microbiome.’
It is not always easy to find time to move our bodies or practice a yoga flow in today’s crazy world, so Gabriella has created a series of 20-minute gut-specific yoga videos with yoga platform Movement For Modern Life and supplement brand Symprove — here are some moves to try out at home.
Gentle chair twist
How it works: ‘Twists create movement in and around our spinal muscles and digestive organs. They stretch the back muscles and stimulate the gastrointestinal organs.
‘The twisting action also stimulates blood circulation and releases tension in the abdomen. Twists create an intra-abdominal compression benefiting the digestive organs with fresh blood flow and oxygen which can support digestion.’
How to do it: ‘Sit upright in a chair, feet on the floor about hip distance apart. Press your left hand onto your right thigh and your right hand behind your right hip on to the back of chair. Inhale and lengthen the spine up, staying grounded.
‘Keep the spine long as you exhale and gently begin to turn the torso to the right starting with the abdomen, followed by the ribs, the shoulders and lastly the head to look over your right shoulder.
‘Hold the twist for 3-5 breaths. On the final exhale come back to centre and repeat on the left.’
Cat cow (Bitilasana)
How it works: ‘This pose stimulates the vagus nerve responsible for influencing heart rate, digestion, breathing and switching on the parasympathetic rest-and-digest mode of our nervous system.
‘It originates in the brain and wanders down to the throat, heart, lungs, respiratory diaphragm and gastrointestinal organs. The synchronising of breath with movement also relieves muscular tension, emotional stress and calms the mind.’
How to do it: ‘Begin in a table top position (on all fours). As you inhale, move into cow pose by gently pressing your chest forward allowing your belly to drop and your tailbone to lift upwards.
‘Raise your head and relax your shoulders away from your ears. As you exhale, come into cat pose, press through the hands, around your spine, draw your tailbone under and gently move your chin towards the chest.
‘Go back and forth between cow and cat on each inhale and exhale, matching your movements to your breath. Do this for 5-10 breaths.’
Garland Pose (Walasana)
How it works: ‘A form of yogic squat that places you in the optimal position to facilitate elimination. It increases the blood flow to your kidneys and intestines and creates space in the lower back.
‘It also stretches and relaxes the pelvic floor. This combination reduces stagnation, bloating and helps to stimulate our digestive flow.’
How to do it: ‘Stand with feet hip-width apart, hips and toes pointing slightly out. Come into a deep squat and bring your elbows to the inside of your knees, palms together at the chest.
‘Keep your heels on the floor and try not to collapse into the chest. Separate your thighs by pressing your elbows against your inner knees and push palms together.
‘Soften the belly, allow the breath to flow. To come out of the pose, release the hands to the ground and come on to all fours.’
How it works: ‘Diaphragmatic breathing encourages the body to relax by lowering the heart rate, reducing blood pressure, relaxing muscle tension and switching on our rest and digest mode.
‘The diaphragm is the main muscle responsible for respiration and by activating it you gently massage the intestinal organs and stomach, which can reduce abdominal pain and support elimination.’
How to do it: ‘Sit upright in a chair and place both hands on your abdomen. Breathe in slowly through your nose, letting the air in deeply, towards your lower belly.
‘Notice as you inhale, the abdomen naturally expands. Exhale, letting the abdomen softly floats back towards the spine.
‘Continue gently expanding the abdomen on the inhale and drawing it back on the exhale, supporting the natural movement. Repeat for 5-10 minutes.’
To view Gabriella’s gut health videos visit her website here.
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