Keeping our gut happy and healthy is the holy grail of wellness these days. And with good reason. A healthy gut is a key component of overall, and even optimum wellbeing. With 80% of our immune system located in the gut, it makes sense that a happy gut helps us maintain a healthy weight, absorb more nutrients from our food, fight off illness and even help us feel more positive.
I’m lucky not to suffer with any serious food intolerances or gut-related conditions myself, I do however - like most women I know - experience bloating, food-related fatigue, gas and constipation despite what I could consider following a gut friendly-diet (healthy fats, nuts and seeds, plant protein, fish, slow carbs and high-fibre low-glycemic carbs). For me and my gut, it’s always about my emotional state. My symptoms flare up with worry, when I bottle things up and if I skimp on the self-care and sleep. Giving up coffee has helped massively but I’m still fascinated to learn more improving my digestive system and I’ve spent a lot of time lately looking into the mind-body connection as it relates to our gut-health.
I must say at this point, if you have a serious gut condition I urge you to seek out the advice of a qualified nutritionist and/or doctor. This blog is by no means intended to offer medical advice. It is also not going to tell you what you need to eat and what you need to avoid eating in order to heal your gut. Instead, my aim here is to offer digestive support from a friendly position along with some tips using natural ingredients and holistic techniques that you may not have tried before, or at least not in this combination or from this perspective.
If you’re still with me, you obviously like to take an integrated, holistic approach to your wellness and will probably agree with me when I say that it seems to me, that we can eat fermented food and drink delicious digestive concoctions but if we’re out of balance in our heads and hearts, we can expect to be out of balance in our gut too.
In fact, it’s no surprise that we say “go with your gut” or “trust your gut instinct” when we advise our friends on making important decisions. Our guts are at the very centre of everything we do, from a holistic perspective our stomach is the centre of our emotions. In Ayurveda, there is a particularly deep relationship between our emotions and our digestion, and Samana Vayu, is the name given to the particular type of energy, which represents the integrated digestive capacity of the human mind-body system. Samana Vayu is what enables us to digest and absorb the nutrition from the food we eat. It's also the force responsible for digesting our life experiences. In other words, the same force that enables you to extract nourishment from food, allows you to extract sustenance from life. When this force is dampened due to emotional upheaval, or just the modern stressors of daily life, it can have a direct effect on our capacity to digest food, as well as our feelings. This just seems to make sense to me.
So as always in matters to do with my health I’ve been inspired by the holistic eastern approach to digestion and I’ve been experimenting with specific yoga poses, breathing exercises and even some tummy massage with essential oils. Here’s what I’ve discovered…
When you think of supporting gut health, eating leafy greens and sweet potato probably springs to mind before practising yoga. However, I believe healing is an integrative approach, and alongside eating the right foods yoga can nourish and assist beautifully, especially if practiced from an Ayurvedic perspective taking into account your dosha to bring harmony to your body. If you're dealing with serious gut issues, gentle yoga poses and deep breathing exercises are a great way to relax the gut, but as a general rule a regular yoga practice is an effective way to support our gut health.
All yoga is actually deeply detoxifying and can help improve digestion, however, the warmth generated in more dynamic styles and also specific twisting postures particularly help to enhance digestion and encourage our liver and kidneys to flush out toxins. Certain poses can also relieve bloating and trapped wind. Think of your yoga practice as a massage for your internal organs and while there are many yoga postures that aid in digestion, circulation, and detoxification - all important factors in gut health - I have listed six below that most of you will be familiar with that you can put together and create your own at-home, gut-soothing flow.
I would recommend starting your practice sitting in a comfortable cross-legged position on your mat. Ground yourself by deep breathing and setting an intention for healing before standing up and moving on to 3-5 rounds of Sun Salutation A to gently energise your body. Once you are warm enough and you can feel the blood flowing move on to the specific postures. Hold each for a minimum of 5 slow inhalations and exhalations. Don’t forget to finish with Savasana.
Return to this sequence whenever your stomach feels uncomfortable or bloated or just pick and mix the poses you know help you find relief.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
Revolved Crescent Lunge
Marichyasana (Seated Twist)
Ushtrasana (Camel Pose)
Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Apanasana (Wind Relieving Pose)
Stress management is a key component to our gut health, here are a few ideas that are helping me, that you might like to try.
Mindfulness at meals - simple deep breathing before meals can help digestion and long, slow breaths from the belly help activate your parasympathetic nervous system. When this happens, we’re technically reaching the “rest and digest” phase that helps our body process foods better, while absorbing more nutrients and eliminating gas or bloating if you eat fast. I am trying to get the kids to all sit calmly and quietly and just breathe for a few moments before they tuck in and it seems to be benefiting everyone – far less hiccups, the kids, far less bloating, me. Think about how you can apply this at work too, if you grab something on the go and eat quickly at your desk. I used to do that and end up feeling really uncomfortable in the afternoon.
Deep breathing exercises - pranayama soothes the nervous system and calming the mind, which in turn benefits our digestive system. When I feel anxious, tight or have trapped gas in my stomach, I like to lie down on my back with butterfly legs, my right hand on belly, my left hand on my heart and just inhale and exhale slowly until the sensations and feelings pass.
Anytime Savasana - you don’t have to limit the amazing powers of Savasana to your yoga practice. This is absolutely the best posture for relaxation and the ideal environment for digestion. As you lie still, you’re allowing any stress to melt away and you are literally creating a healing environment for your body. Your blood will start to flow away from your extremities and towards your digestive organs.
If my tummy is feeling really bloated and tender, I find giving myself a soothing stomach massage works a treat every time. A tummy rub is low-fuss, low-cost, works almost immediately. It’s so simple to perform you don’t need to have any special skills, the combination of the massage pressure and anti-inflammatory properties of the essential oils simply combine to work their tummy calming magic. There are number of different essential oils you can choose to help get rid of gas, calm stomach irritation and relax the muscle lining of the intestines including Chamomile, Ginger, Black Pepper, Fennel, Cardamom, Peppermint, Rosemary and Lemongrass. Please note you should always dilute essential oils and mix them in carrier oil, such as Coconut, Jojoba or Almond Oil, before you apply them to your skin because they are extremely concentrated and can irritate your skin at full strength. A good rule of thumb for diluting essential oils is 12 drops of essential oil per 30 ml of carrier oil.
Here is a little massage ritual for you to try.
Soothing Tummy Rub
Mix 3 drops of Chamomile, 1 drop of Peppermint and 1 drop of Fennel in with about 10ml of carrier oil, in a little bottle or small dish, shake or blend well. Warm about the half the oil blend in your palms. Lie back and massage your stomach in clockwise circles about 20 times. Use the rest of the oil if necessary. Stay lying down, cover up to keep warm and relax – adding a hot water bottle and an eye pillow is a lovely soothing finishing touch. Rest for as long as you can.