Believe it or not, your gut health isn't just a matter of what you eat. It's also exquisitely sensitive to how you move and even what you think about. Your digestion can be as highly affected by trauma, chronic stress, sedentary habits and postural issues as it is by any allergenic substance.
The good news is that many of these stressors can be relieved by some simple movements. In fact, any form of conscious movement has the potential to unravel the stress in tissues that plays such a major role in conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and diverticulitis, where small pouches in the intestine (the diverticula) become inflamed and infected.
These simple movements are designed to get your gut moving correctly too.
Action throughout the whole digestive tract relies on peristalsis, a wave-like, spiraling muscular motion. This is the basis for 'gut motility,' and when it's not working properly and seized up, interrupted or spasmodic, it can be the basis for many digestive issues.
The speeding up or slowing down of gut motility is a feature of IBS, where sufferers experience constipation, diarrhea or an alternation between the two.
Efficient gut motility allows for ease and regulation of bowel movements. Since much of the immune system is housed in the gut lining (the mucosa), it can also help with immune modulation.
It can settle nerve tension and calm 'gut feeling' communications of distress from the enteric nervous system in the gut (also known as the 'second brain') to the brain. Relaxation techniques (such as breathing exercises and meditation) also help to reduce emotional stimuli from the brain that can promote hypermotility of the colon.
Gut motility is actually supported by gut mobility (and vice versa), which derives from movement throughout the entire body that pervades the core and supports fluid motion between and around the organs.
Laying spine undulations
Any undulating movements help support gut motility by regulating the nervous system through tissues rippling out from the spine. Cat-cow pose is commonly done on all fours in yoga and Pilates, but this floor version fully supports the body to enable you to feel very subtle effects.
When our lives are often sedentary—sitting regularly for over an hour—the resulting limitation in pelvic range of motion creates a parallel limitation of movement in the intestines, which affects food digestion and the contractions of the colon. Essentially this lack of mobility causes dehydration in the connective tissue (fascia) as it loses its ability to move fluidly.
This tissue dehydration prevents the proper removal of what are often termed 'toxins,' but are actually the byproducts of respiration, the energy production that occurs within every cell. Some researchers suggest that any change in this viscoelasticity—the ability for fluid movement—activates pain receptors.1
These metabolites need to be removed efficiently for optimal function. Their accumulation stimulates pain receptors and creates a more acid environment within cells,2 which tightens fascia and creates a cycle of pain, common in digestive conditions. This occurs alongside the release of inflammatory neuropeptides, also associated with chronic fatigue syndrome.3
Explorations into the belly while on all fours can provide some key movements that help promote the fascial 'slide-and-glide' as well as supporting gut motility and overall physical mobility.
To achieve proper 'fascial hydration,' a substance called hyaluronic acid must allow the fascia to glide, locally or out into the larger system. When tissues are dehydrated through lack or misdistribution of hyaluronic acid, the resulting viscosity can be lost, altering the lines of force within fascial layers.
This mechanism has been proposed as one of the causes of stiffness and pain on waking after sleep, far more than joint issues, which are so often blamed.
When functioning optimally, there is space between the organs of the viscera for ease of movement as they rub against and move alongside other organs and tissues, such as the stomach under the diaphragm.
Adhesions and obstructions in the fascia can cause tissues of the viscera to stick together—such as portions of the bowel that are fused together or to other organs, or any part of the digestive tract stuck to the wall of the abdominal cavity.
Fascial adhesion may be a result of poor posture, tight breathing patterns, whiplash, surgery, pregnancy, postpartum dysfunction and injury. It may also have psychological causes affecting the entire body, such as chronic stress, anxiety or trauma, where body tissues stay locked in tight and restricted patterns.
Adhesions within fascia can contribute to the poor gut motility that causes SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). SIBO is now believed to be a major cause of many cases of IBS, in which the wave-like motions of the bowel that move bacteria into the colon are hindered.
Seated primal movement
The natural motion of undulation allows you to feel how you come up from the ground, through the belly, while creating pliability in tissues that have been hardened from stress, trauma and postural issues, as well as any resulting fascial adhesions.
The motion is also strong through the abdominal muscles, felt most deeply at the end of the exhale. Your attention is naturally drawn to sensations here at the moment before the 'pick-up' of the in-breath.
Inflammation within the gut can often go unnoticed but causes symptoms such as soreness, tenderness or change in function, along with general irritability and tiredness. This can be a result of fascial lesions and inflammatory disorders such as colitis and Crohn's disease.
Inflammation is part of the stress response, a protective mechanism that can often go awry when much of our modern stress is psycho-social and unrelenting. The stress hormone cortisol and related molecules coordinate stress responses and have a direct effect on the gut, leading to increased gut permeability and pain perception, visceral hypersensitivity and changes in gut motility.
The effects of cortisol in conjunction with lower levels of oxygen and nutrients available for the digestive tract mean that continual healing of the vast expanse of the gut lining can be compromised by chronic stress. Inflammation within the bowel lining may make accessing and feeling core muscles difficult.
Long and slow breathing has been shown to reduce inflammation such as that seen in IBD, as has meditation, which can calm heightened responses like inflammation that can interfere with the microbiome, the bacterial environment in the gut that is crucial for digestion and health.
Standing motions from the belly
These loosening movements from the Chinese system of qi gong help bring awareness to how we move from the grounding of the feet and up through the belly to register safety and support. This body relationship allows us to come down from the survival mode of the stress response, and therefore reduces inflammatory signals (see box, middle of page 41).
Mindful movement practices such as yoga, tai chi and qi gong have been shown to reduce stress and inflammation, but that can extend to any exercise where the subtle moment-to-moment feeling of the movements is observed, acknowledged and used as a guide.
Interoception—our ability to 'read' our internal landscape—has long been associated with feeling something 'viscerally,' but more broadly, it is now equated with how we can consciously come back to physiological equilibrium. It helps us to play a part in our body maintenance, including ensuring safety and avoiding physical or emotional pain.4
There are sensory receptors for interoception in fascial tissue throughout the body,5 and recent research has investigated their links to complex disorders with a somato-emotional component, where past trauma, injury or chronic stress can be either dissipated or—as in the case of disease—retained, causing the body to adapt and creating symptoms. Anxiety, depression and IBS have all been described as interoceptive disorders.
It is suspected that people with IBS, and possibly any chronic gut pain, have altered visceral interoception. This is like having a distortion filter between a signal and the device picking it up. A brain imaging study of women with IBS found that brain activity arising from interoceptive feelings in the gut was altered—heightened by stress and anxiety—compared to healthy women.6 Any turning of attention inward while moving can help cultivate this sensory awareness.
Inverted cobbler pose
Inversions allow organs to drop and create mobility in the viscera and surrounding fascia. As organs pull on the ligament sheaths holding them in place, the resulting sensations will draw you into your inner world and develop interoception.
This held and supported yoga inversion opens the abdominal region and also the diaphragm for the full breath that supports digestion (see box, opposite).
Laying spine undulations
From lying with knees bent and feet hip-width apart, inhale to arch your back and raise the belly, lifting the waist and moving the tailbone down toward the ground.
With the exhalation, let the chest and belly drop as lungs empty. Move between the two positions, following the natural rhythm of the breath as you exaggerate the motion this creates in the spine and visceral fascia.
As the movement becomes free, allow the chin to move down to the meet the chest as you breathe in, and let it lift to the ceiling as you exhale, tracking a line up and down the back of the skull with the head heavy on the ground.
When the movement and breath are synchronized, you can increase the wave-like effect by lifting the balls of the feet as you inhale and rocking on the feet to lift the heels as you exhale.
All-fours explorations into the belly
Start on all fours (left figure), feeling the natural movement of your spine as the lungs empty and fill, exploring your body and the space around it, feeling roots through the hands and lower legs. Rest in child pose or on the elbows whenever needed.
Coming back to neutral, limiting shoulder motion, rotate the tailbone to create a circling effect deep in the pelvis and viscera; this is a key movement for slide-and-glide and loosens lower back tissues in preparation for downward-facing dog.
When these tissues feel loose, you can allow the movement to snake up into the spine and involve the shoulders, neck and head, letting your whole being fluidly express what it needs.
Repeat on the other side, noting that as the one not picked first, it may be 'going against the grain' and contain the more interesting stuff in terms of tissues where there may be dehydration.
It may also be going against the tide of movement in the colon, so creating resistance there supports its function.
From there, explore any movement that simply feels good, without agenda, interpretation or judgment—simply listening and responding to your body's needs with full and easy breath.
Seated primal movement
Sitting upright, bend and drop your knees to the side. The feet don't need to be together. Inhale to open the arms and chest, lifting in and up between the shoulder blades.
On the exhalation, drop the belly backward and scoop the arms forward as if you are holding a large ball, keeping the arms rounded, hands apart and head dropping fully. As you inhale, come back to the first position, lifting from the belly and heart.
Move between the two positions, keeping arm and hand movements fluid and expressive, shoulders soft for less stress in the belly.
Standing motions from the belly
Standing with feet hip-width apart and soft knees, hold an imaginary basketball at about eye height or higher, with arms bent in a circle.
Keeping your focus on the ball, rotating it fully in front of your body, moving from the belly and bending your knees as you reach it down past your inner legs (left figure).
From holding the imaginary ball in front of your chest (middle figure), inhale to reach one hand behind you, following it with your gaze to turn from the belly (right figure). Exhale to bring it back to join the other hand, then bring the other hand back on the next inhale. Alternate from side to side, retaining focus on the moving hand.
Inverted cobbler pose
Here (top figure), the tailbone and lower back are lifted up onto the end of a bolster (or stack of folded towels) so that the chest can lift as the shoulders rest on the ground. Find the place where the shoulders, neck and jaw can most release.
If there is pinching in the lower back, place the feet on the ground (middle figure) and only move them onto the bolster again if you feel a yielding through the tissues. Then spend some time in this counter-position before rolling out.
Lie for five to 10 minutes afterward (bottom figure) to allow tissues to settle, with kind attention on the rhythm of the breath.
Excerpted from Charlotte Watts' new book, Yoga Therapy for Digestive Health (Singing Dragon, 2018).