When we connect our body and mind, powerful things can happen.
This can be done with intention, or it can happen without us even knowing it. Have you ever gotten butterflies in your stomach before a big event or felt a little nauseous from being worried about something? Our thinking can profoundly affect what happens in our bodies, and this connection is especially strong regarding how our mind affects our digestive system.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Have you ever heard that your gut is a second brain?
While it may not “think” in the same way as our brain, our gut is lined with neurons and neurotransmitters, just like our brain. This allows our digestive system to send signals to the brain and vice versa.
When our bodies perceive stress, even if it is just from a flood of anxious thoughts, we shift into the “fight-or-flight” state of the nervous system, which suppresses digestive processes and can disrupt the healthy microbes that live in your gut. By consciously calming our mind and body and invoking the positive potential of the gut-brain connection, we can access a greater sense of well-being and harmonious digestion.
The Vagus Nerve
The extraordinary nerve of relaxation and rejuvenation.
Weaving its way down from the brain to the digestive organs, the vagus nerve is the main communication channel between our gut and brain. When this nerve is activated, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks into action, inducing relaxation responses throughout the body so that you can shift into the “rest & digest” state. Learning to stimulate this nerve can benefit your mood, strengthen your emotional resilience, and reduce stress responses that can interfere with digestion.
The vagus nerve can be stimulated by singing, humming, chanting, and other mind-body techniques, such as yoga and deep breathing exercises, which send relaxation signals to your gut. Over time, we can improve the tone of the vagus nerve with these mind-body practices so it becomes easier to bounce back from stressful situations, keep our microbiome in balance, and help our digestive system run smoothly.
Mind-Body Techniques for Better Digestion
Mind-body techniques are therapies or activities used to connect the mind with the body in a dynamic way. Many of these techniques have ancient origins and are used for specific therapeutic outcomes or to promote overall wellness.
With these techniques, we are tapping into the power of the mind to consciously influence the body in positive ways or by using body movements or physical manipulations to alter brain function or mental activity. In both cases, we can manage stress, benefit mental health, and affect the quality of our digestion with practices that bridge the connection between the body and mind.
There are many mind-body techniques that benefit digestion, including:
♦ Deep breathing exercises
♦ Mindful eating
♦ Visualization techniques
♦ Abdominal massage
♦ Mindful walking
♦ Progressive muscle relaxation
♦ Tai chi
♦ Qi gong
♦ Hypnosis (gut-oriented)
Our Favorite Mind-Body Techniques to Benefit Digestive Health
Deep Breathing Exercises
Have you ever noticed how your breathing gets short and shallow when you are nervous or scared? Sometimes we overlook the simplest of solutions, and although it might seem too easy to be effective, slowing down enough to breathe deeply can significantly alter how you feel and influence your digestion.
Breathing deep into your belly, which is also called diaphragmatic breathing, can help you center your energy and shift into a state of relaxation. This can help your digestive system better complete its efforts.
The soothing effects of deep breathing exercises are very effective for people with irritable bowel syndrome and other common digestive problems. The gentle movement from breathing deep into your belly can assist with constipation by helping to keep food moving along the digestive tract. In cases of diarrhea, deep breathing can calm feelings of nervous agitation that can trigger feelings of urgency.
Finding a breathwork or pranayama practitioner who can help guide you is a wonderful way to connect with your breath, but you can also access this powerful technique anytime. By simply counting how long it takes you to inhale and exhale, you can start to lengthen and deepen your breathing pattern. You can also explore specific techniques designed to help with digestive issues.
Expand your mind. Stretch your body. Heal your gut.
While not all yoga teachers will emphasize the connection between the mind and the body, it is at the core of yoga’s healing effects and should be a foundational aspect of any yoga practice.
The gentle movement of yoga creates a massaging effect on the internal organs, helping to encourage the healthy migration of food through the digestive tract and increasing blood flow and oxygen circulation to your inner organs.
Certain poses and movements stimulate the vagus nerve, and there are specific yoga routines and asanas (poses) for enhancing digestion and soothing the gut. Connecting with the breath while practicing asanas further deepens the relaxation effects and brings your awareness into the present moment.
Here are a few yoga asanas that benefit digestion,
♦ Marjaryasana-Bitilasana: Cat/cow. Alternating between these two poses gives your abdominal organs a gentle massage. It helps to activate your core muscles to gently lift the area around the intestines to encourage food to move smoothly through the digestive tract.
♦ Apanasana: Knees to chest or wind-relieving pose. The name says it all. This pose helps to lightly compress your digestive organs and encourages gas to be released and bloating to be soothed.
♦ Anjaneyasana: Low lunge. This pose stretches your lower abdominal muscles and your psoas muscle, which helps to relieve tension and can have a relaxing effect on your digestive organs.
♦ Balasana: Child’s pose. An incredibly relaxing pose that helps to open the pelvis and soften the belly area, relieving built up tension and allowing the breath to deepen.
Turning inward can bring out our best selves.
It can be argued that every organ system in the body can benefit from meditation, and your digestive tract is especially responsive to the effects of a meditation practice. While meditation has relaxation benefits that can influence digestion, it also helps keep your gut microbiome in balance and can promote the reproduction of beneficial microbes. In turn, when our microbes are in balance, they help to keep our mental state calm and focused.
Toning or chanting, along with other meditation techniques, can further enhance the activation of the vagus nerve and gives your body the signal to begin a cascade of relaxation responses that helps keep you in a peaceful mental state and benefits overall health.
There are many kinds of meditation, so don’t give up if you haven’t succeeded at finding your inner peace yet. Keep looking for the right meditation technique for you!
How you eat can be almost as important as what you eat.
Mindful eating is about appreciation and awareness. We’ve probably all had a mindless meal, where we were so distracted by watching a show or thinking about something that happened earlier in the day that we barely even noticed our food.
With so many distractions in our lives, it's easy to forget to be in the moment, and we lose the connection with the foods that nourish us. If you are rushing throughout the day and then rush through your meals, your body never gets the signal to slow down and send its energy toward digestion.
Mindfully chewing each bite promotes the release of important enzymes and gastric juices so that your body can break foods down into more absorbable components. Eating mindfully can help you tune into your body’s cues of satisfaction, so you can realize when you are full and avoid eating too much, which can result in uncomfortable symptoms.
It can also be easy to fall into the trap of feeling guilty about what we eat or think about all the bad effects we may have from the foods we are eating. Mindful eating happens in a non-judgemental state of mind, where you allow yourself to fully appreciate your meal without guilt or shame.
Here are a few ideas to make your meals more mindful:
♦ Do deep breathing exercises or meditate for 2-5 minutes before eating.
♦ Play soft music in the background and avoid having the t.v. on.
♦ Set the table with attractive plates, glasses, napkins, a vase of flowers, etc.
♦ Eat by candlelight.
♦ Chew each bite a certain number of times and fully immerse yourself in the sensations and flavor that come along with it.
♦ Take a moment before or while you eat to let yourself be filled with gratitude for your meal. Whether you speak this out loud or just quietly in your mind, thank the farmers who grew your food, whoever prepared the food (including you), the animals, the earth, etc.
♦ Pay attention. This may help you identify meal-time stress and digestive irritability triggers. How do different foods make you feel? Are you feeling rushed? Do you feel full enough or too full? What are your comfort foods or guilty pleasures?
The imagination is a path to inner magic and personal empowerment.
While many people doubt the idea of using the imagination to change reality, there are quite a lot of successful people that have used it to their advantage. Often utilized for public speaking, improving athletic performance, and achieving life goals, visualization is powerful and can be applied to positive outcomes for your health.
Visualization takes practice and doesn’t come easily to everyone. If you are new to this technique, it’s a good idea to work with a guide, use an app, or find some other form of guided visualization while you learn how to exercise the imagery centers of your brain. Once you’ve practiced a bit, you can start to alter your mental images to meet your specific needs and dive into imagery that will benefit digestion.
In your visualizations, you can focus on the functions of the digestive system, such as imagining your food particles being absorbed or food moving through your digestive tract with ease. Many visualization methods use the idea of a healing light flowing through your body. You can focus this light on your abdomen or your lower chakra centers. Even using the imagery of being in a beautiful forest or on a tropical beach can have helpful effects as it will help to relax your nervous system and reduce stress.
This is a great practice to pair with other meditation techniques, as being in a meditative state will enhance the experience and make it more likely that you will be able to focus on the details of your visualization.
Simply press to decompress.
Acupressure is similar to acupuncture, except instead of needles, you use your hands or tools to stimulate different points on the body that are found along energetic meridians. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the meridians are pathways or rivers of energy that flow throughout the body. Stimulating different acupoints helps maintain the balance in the flow of energy. There are certain points that are specific for enhancing digestive function or helping to relieve symptoms like nausea or bloating.
After you have found the right point, try using your fingertips to stimulate the acupoint, massaging the point for a minute or two. You can use a circular motion or intermittent pressure like you are pressing a button, or simply press and hold, using light touch, or deeper if it feels good.
Try working the points throughout the day, before or after meals, or at bedtime, on a regular basis. Some points will be especially sensitive, and those areas may be the points you need to gently work on over time. Do not practice acupressure on yourself if you are pregnant. Seek out a qualified practitioner instead.
Try these acupressure points to assist with digestive functions:
♦ ST25: Tianshu or “Heavenly Pivot”- Located on each side, about 3 finger widths away from your belly button.
♦ CV12: Zhongwan or “Middle Epigastrium” - Located about 4-5 inches directly above the belly button.
♦ P6: Neiguan or “Inner Pass”- Located on the inner side of the forearm, about 3 finger widths from the wrist.
♦ CV6: Qihai or “Sea of Qi” - Located about 2 fingers width below your belly button.
Let it go, figuratively and literally.
Massage is a premier relaxation technique, and you can get a lot of relief from digestive problems by doing self-massage on your abdomen. Of course, you can have a massage therapist or abdominal specialist work on the area, but you will learn a lot about yourself by getting in touch with what is going on in your own belly.
Especially good for constipation issues and bloating, massaging your intestinal area gets things moving and can relieve built-up pressure. If you hold a lot of tension in your abdomen, which most of us do, abdominal massage can help loosen up tense muscles and relax the nerves that run through your digestive organs. Massaging this area of your body can also stimulate your vagus nerve and will have an overall relaxing effect on your mind and body.
Here is a simple abdominal massage protocol to get you started. Oil or lotion is not necessary, but it makes it easier for your hands to glide on the skin, and you can try an aromatherapy blend for added benefits. Do not perform abdominal massage if you are pregnant or if you have recently had abdominal surgery. If you have any medical conditions discuss this with your doctor before trying.
♦ Start by laying down on your back with your feet on the ground and your knees bent.
♦ Place your hands on your abdomen and take a few deep breaths.
♦ With each exhale, begin to lightly press in a circle around your belly button, noticing any areas of tension. Continue to widen the circle, still using gentle pressure and expanding outward across your belly area.
♦ Stop to take a deep breath, breathing deep into your belly.
♦ Place both hands on the lower right side of your belly and begin massaging gently in a circular motion. Continue the circular motion, slowly moving your hands up the right side of your abdomen. When you reach the area underneath your ribs, start massaging across your belly to the other side and then down the left side. Repeat 2-3 times, being sure to breathe deeply and slowly while massaging.
Awaken to Wellness
Tuning into the mind-body connection will nourish you on every level — physically, mentally, and spiritually. Practicing behaviors and techniques that will improve digestion is a step toward giving yourself more of the self-love you deserve and will thrive on. We can’t completely avoid stress in our lives, but tapping into the power of the mind to affect the way our body feels can be an effective approach that results in many health benefits and a greater sense of wellness. At Live Conscious®, we believe in intentionally making changes in our lives that help us stay attuned to our inner selves. Even taking small steps can help you align your life with your health goals to maintain a life in balance.