In the U.S., an estimated 70 million people suffer from digestive problems every day. 1 From indigestion and constipation to diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), these conditions cause discomfort, anxiety and stress in the daily lives of Americans. We’ve all been taught to reach for relief in the form a chalky, chewable tablet from our local drugstore. Is it possible to find relief without medication?
Ever thought about yoga to improve gut health? Sounds strange, but there may be something to it.
Many people perceive yoga as a low-impact stretching and exercise regimen that can help improve your physical health. But for the more than 36 million American practitioners, yoga provides relaxation, spiritual balance and increased mental clarity. 2
Yoga and Your GI Tract
It may be surprising to learn that yoga can offer direct benefits to people who are having digestive issues. Some of the asanas (or poses) apply gentle pressure on the organs in the gut, while others help relieve abdominal tension. Twisting motions help“wring out” some of the organs and enable more efficient peristalsis (the involuntary muscle activity which facilitates better bowel movements). Yoga can also help stimulate the digestive tract and increase blood flow to those organs, which can help the entire system perform more smoothly.
yoga can assist digestion-troubled individuals indirectly, as well.You see, one of the main goals of yoga is to reduce stress — common trigger for digestive ailments. Since yoga emphasizes deep breathing, it helps the entire body to relax and directs more oxygen into the cells so that they work more efficiently. This increased awareness of mind and body also has a positive impact on the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for helping inner organs to relax, heal and recover.
Science Explores the Benefits of Yoga
From a research perspective, yoga has been touted as an effective tool in managing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, which is the most common functional GI disorder suffered by Americans today. 3 Here are some interesting findings:
A University of British Columbia study on adolescents with IBS revealed that yoga was successful in improving the quality of life for the test subjects. 4
Another study that was published in the journal Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback detailed the “enhanced parasympathetic reactivity” experienced by a group of adults with diarrhea-predominant IBS after a two-month regimen of twice-daily yogic exercises. 5
A pilot study, conducted at UCLA, demonstrated that adults with IBS who were observed for six months saw positive results from self-regulated group yoga programs. 6
Finally, a systematic review of yoga therapy to treat IBS was published in the December 2016 issue of the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. The researchers suggested that “yoga might be a feasible and safe adjunctive treatment for people with IBS.” 7
Yoga = Gut Health, Studies Show
There have been other medical studies which have attempted to find a link between yoga and an improvement in digestion. A 2013 article in the International Journal of Yoga focused on gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a disorder where stomach acid flows backward into the esophagus. The researchers concluded, “Practicing yoga in conjunction with medications can be helpful in controlling and/or alleviation of symptoms related to digestive diseases.” 8
In a 2007 issue of the Journal of the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society, an article outlined the results of a study designed to test the efficacy of yoga on anxiety and stress. The researchers concluded, “yoga appears to provide a comparable
improvement in stress, anxiety and health status” which indirectly improved digestion.
Introducing Yourself to Yoga
Like any medication or exercise regimen, yoga must be performed correctly to maximize benefits. The most important thing to remember is to start slowly. Start by doing simple stretches instead of jumping into difficult asanas or challenging poses (like headstands, for instance).
Ideally, you shouldn’t drink any water during yogic exercises or for an hour before practicing yoga, since a full bladder while bending and stretching can exacerbate GI issues. For similar reasons, it’s wise to forego eating for at least two hours before beginning your yoga routine (for spicy foods, wait at least six hours before practicing). And if you’re not wild about experimenting with yoga in a class setting, you can use online videos, smartphone apps or DVDs. Trying out yoga in the comfort at your home, especially when first learning the movements, is a great, low pressure way to try out yoga.
Despite the optimistic tone of recent research relating to yoga and digestion, there still isn’t any precise information about which asanas are better for a particular disorder or about the ideal length of each session or program. But yoga is a relatively easy lifestyle adjustment—you don’t even need to leave your bed to do some poses—and has great stress-management benefits.
And while you shouldn’t abandon all other treatment options for your digestive issues, incorporating yoga into your life can produce a myriad of benefits for your physical and mental health.
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