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 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
Overtime, 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 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 jus 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. What ever technique or strategy works best for you in 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 your 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 like 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.
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Supportive Studies & Resources:
- Keefer L, Blanchard EB. The effects of relaxation response meditation on the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome: results of a controlled treatment study.Behavior Research and Therapy.2001 Jul;39(7):801-11.
- Keefer L, Blanchard EB. A one year follow-up of relaxation response meditation as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome.Behavior Research and Therapy. 2002 May;40(5):541-6.
- Mizrahi MC, Reicher-Atir R, et. al. Effects of guided imagery with relaxation training on anxiety and quality of life among patients with inflammatory bowel disease.Psychology and Health. 2012;27(12):1463-79. doi: 10.1080/08870446.2012.691169. Epub 2012 May 30.
- Kuo B, Bhasin M, et. al. Genomic and clinical effects associated with a relaxation response mind-body intervention in patients with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. PLos One. 2015 Apr 30;10(4):e0123861. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0123861. eCollection 2015.
- John R. Kelly, Paul J. Kennedy, et. al. Breaking down the barriers: the gut microbiome, intestinal permeability and stress-related psychiatric disorders.Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience. 2015; 9: 392. Published online 2015 Oct 14. doi: 10.3389/fncel.2015.00392
- Boris Bornemann, Beate M. Herbert, et. al. Differential changes in self-reported aspects of interoceptive awareness through 3 months of contemplative training.Frontiers in Psychology. 2014; 5: 1504. Published online 2015 Jan 6. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01504
- Pawlow LA, Jones GE. The impact of abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation on salivary cortisol and salivary immunoglobulin A (sIgA).Applied Psychopysiology and Biofeedback. 2005 Dec;30(4):375-87.
- Chellew K, et. al. The effect of progressive muscle relaxation on daily cortisol secretion. 2015;18(5):53844.
- Vander Wal JS, Maraldo TM, et. al. Education, progressive muscle relaxation therapy, and exercise for the treatment of night eating syndrome. A pilot study.Appetite. 2015 Jun;89:136-44. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2015.01.024. Epub 2015 Feb 4
- Wild K, Scholz M, et. al. Strategies against burnout and anxiety in medical education–implementation and evaluation of a new course on relaxation techniques (Relacs) for medical students.PLosOne. 2014 Dec 17;9(12):e114967. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114967. eCollection 2014.
- Li Y, Wang R, et. al. Progressive muscle relaxation improves anxiety and depression of pulmonary arterial hypertension patients.Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2015;2015:792895. doi: 10.1155/2015/792895. Epub 2015 Apr 1.
- Apóstolo JL, Kolcaba K. The effects of guided imagery on comfort, depression, anxiety, and stress of psychiatric inpatients with depressive disorders.Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. 2009 Dec;23(6):403-11. doi: 10.1016/j.apnu.2008.12.003. Epub 2009 Mar 27.