Meditation & Gut Health. How Are They Related?
by Buffy Owens
When you think of meditation you probably don’t associate it with better digestion and gut health. I know I didn’t. At least not until I learned just how much chronic stress influences our gut health and just how powerful meditation is for decreasing stress.
What Does Evolution Have To Do With Healthy Digestion?
Issues like leaky gut often come from living a high-stress lifestyle. Most of us are under a lot of stress in today’s world. When you’re feeling anxious or rushed, your body goes into fight or flight. This is a survival mechanism that’s been with us since long before our frontal lobes developed. Back when we had to struggle just to survive, fight-flight -freeze was useful, but nowadays we don’t have to fight off predators and run for our lives (at least not often). This response to external stress kicks in anytime something triggers our stress response.
When your body is in fight or flight it isn’t able to direct much energy towards proper digestion. The food we take in when we’re in a hurry, working, or worried just sits in our guts until we’ve calmed down enough to initiate digestion. But a person’s still gotta eat and that’s where things get tricky. If you want healthy digestion, more energy, clear skin and a calm nervous system, meditation is the answer.
How Meditation Helps Our Digestion.
Over time, developing a meditation practice can help you to decrease stress and regulate the fight-flight-freeze & delight response. The nervous system and the gut are inextricably linked. Humans were never designed to be stressed out all the time, and when we learn to calm our nervous systems our health improves dramatically. In fact, a one-year follow-up for those who were taught Relaxation Response Meditation for IBS and IBD found that many of them continued to show “significant additional reduction in pain and bloating.” (1-3) Another more recent pilot study looked at the impact of Relaxation Response Meditation on genomic markers related to IBD. They found that meditation reduced the expression of RR-MBI response genes was most significantly linked to inflammatory response, cell growth, proliferation, and oxidative stress-related pathways. (4)
Beyond IBD & IBS, integrating some form of Meditation into your life can help to calm your nervous system, improve your immune function, reduce stress & anxiety — all of which impact your gut health. And frankly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what can shift in your life.
Ways To Bring Meditation Into Your Life?
It’s important to remember that there are a lot of different ways to meditate. For many, taking time to scan their horizon and soften their gaze onto a point of interest will be the most accessible. For others, it will be a process like tuning into the breath, observing or naming the thoughts that arise, letting those thoughts go, and then once again returning to the breath. Whatever technique or strategy works best for you at the moment is always the right one… although you’ll likely adjust and refine “what’s best for you” over time. As your stress levels lower and your nervous system regulates, your digestion will improve and you’ll have more energy for doing the things in life that bring you joy.
The body scan is one of the elements woven into the Feldenkrais Method® and is utilized in many Mindfulness-based meditation programs. Some of the research literature out there shows that it can reduce some of the symptoms associated with IBS & IBD, lower anxiety, and decrease pain. The basics are simple and easy to do first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Starting with your head and working down to your arms and feet, notice how you’re making contact with the surface beneath you. Feel the weight of your body. Then observe the muscles in your head and neck — simply notice if you feel tense, relaxed, calm or anxious. As you observe yourself see if you can begin to take more support from the surface you are making contact with and let yourself settle into a sense of softness and relaxation to areas of your body that feel tense. Once you reach your feet, work back up your body. (5,6)
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
The general intention of Progressive Muscle Relaxation is to hone in on your ability to relax by intentionally comparing relaxed and tense states. In turn, this can help to reduce anxiety and stress by bringing awareness to and then releasing the physical aspects (i.e. muscle tension). This process offers a plethora of uses (and research). From decreasing stress and the associated hormonal responses like cortisol production to curbing night eating. It can also reduce anxiety & depression and improve emotional well-being. I know that’s a tall order, but I promise that the practice is simple. The basic gist of this practice is to simply engage the muscles of one area or region at a time and systemically work your way from head to toe. (7-11)
Guided Imagery can be a wonderful way to engage your nervous system and calm your physiology. Like meditation, there are also many ways to imagine. One favorite practice is to imagine a soothing waterfall washing away tension from your body and mind. Depending on your imagery preference, you might see the waterfall washing over you as an outside observer — like watching a movie. However, you can also imagine by engaging your senses and thus feeling the imagery from the inside out. You might feel the water hitting your skin, or smell the fresh air, or taste the water droplets as they softly land on your tongue, or even be swept away by the soothing sound of the water falling around you. Take a moment to discover your preference and then try to make your image as vivid as you can while slowly integrating some of your other senses. (3,12)
There are many ways to utilize the breath in meditation and/or for relaxation. Like all forms of practice, focusing on the breath will work well for some and not so well for others. If bringing your attention to your breath elevates your sense of overwhelm or causes you anxiety then try another practice, like the Progressive Muscle Relaxation Technique. The most basic aspects of focusing on the breath are simple. Begin by sitting comfortably. Tune into your breath, follow the sensation of inhaling from your nose to abdomen and out again. Let tension go with each exhalation. When you notice your mind wandering, return to your breath. Or click the link in the box above or below to receive a guided audio.
Find Time For Five
We all have five minutes to spare. It’s just five minutes. Maybe you subtract it from the time you spend on social media or the time you spend watching TV. You can snag a quick five-minute break at work, or take five at lunch, or grab your five at sunrise. Schedule it into your calendar each and every day. Set an alarm as a reMINDer. Whatever it takes to pause and breathe…
It is always easy to come up with reasons why we “can’t find the time.” But have you ever considered that taking the time to breathe can make all of those other moments feel less frantic and more productive? They may even feel more meaningful and soulfully satisfying. But most importantly, taking a little bit of time to attend to yourself can go a long way towards shifting your physiology and supporting that lovely internal ecosystem that resides within your gut.
Four Easy Ways to Incorporate Meditation Into Your Life
- Take a few minutes in the morning or evening to watch the Sunrise and/or Sunset. Soak in the beauty, drink in the calm, and let your eyes soften out onto the horizon.
- Give yourself 5-10 minutes a day to sit down in a quiet comfortable place and focus on your breath. A little bit of quiet each day can go a long way.
- Take a few. Take a few seconds or minutes before you eat or sip your cup of tea to take in the smells, the temperature, and the moment. You might even add in a prayer or acknowledge the effort that has gone into what you’re about to consume (i.e. gratitude)
- Enjoy a guided meditation. Letting the voice of another guide you into relaxation can be so much easier than doing it on your own.