“Spilling your guts”, “gut instinct”, “listen to your gut” – the gut has long been linked to a deep decision-making process. Amazingly, these sayings are more than metaphors, as this complex organ literally does function as another ‘brain’ in the body. Recent research has found that there are more than 100 million brain cells in the gut, more than in the spinal column and the central nervous system!
As more and more research is done, it seems that the gut is not only important for our physical health but our mental health too. And yoga can play a crucial part in the health of your gut too.
The gut is an amazing organ. The food we eat has to travel an average distance of almost 10 metres through the body. Starting at the pyloric sphincter (the exit from the stomach) and ending at your anus (always a great word to get into an article), the gut consists of the small and large intestine. The intestines are covered in cells resembling a shag-pile carpet – made up of microscopic loops called villi. These loops add to the already massive surface area of the gut, ensuring that every scrap of goodness is retrieved from our food, until the unwanted leftovers are expelled, as poo (yet another excellent word).
As well as providing fuel for the body, the gut also contains an information superhighway, which goes direct from the gut to the brain – the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is quite a nerve. It is the longest cranial (attached to the brain) nerve in the body and controls our old friend, the parasympathetic nervous system.
The gut is also crucial for our overall health as it houses 70% of the body’s immune cells. These immune cells help to fight off infection as well as control inflammation in the body. And to add to all this, the gut also produces 90% of the body’s serotonin, the ‘feel-good hormone’, linking it with emotional health.
So, if we have a healthy gut, our brains and emotional health will be healthy too.
As well as the gut itself being linked to mental health, we have millions of guests living in there too. Gut bacteria, or the microbiome, are increasingly thought to be essential, not only for a healthy gut but even for life itself. Friendly bacteria help to break down food, aid the immune system and prevent allergies. In fact, the huge increase in childhood allergies has been linked to the overuse of antibiotics as well as anti-bacterial cleaning products, which mean we live in increasingly bacteria-sparse conditions.
Amazingly, it’s been found that there are gut bacteria which produce substances that affect nerve cell function, as well as our moods. People who are missing certain types of bacteria have been linked with depression.
The Gut and Yoga
How can yoga help our gut? The ways are actually multitudinous:
- Through stress reduction – Yogic breathing, or pranayama, and meditation have been proven to switch the body from our stressed-out sympathetic nervous system to the restful parasympathetic nervous system. This allows the body’s own healing processes to work, restoring the balance within our gut.
Through physically aiding the process of digestion – Yoga poses which balance on the abdomen (such as bow pose) can provide an internal massage to the organs of the gut, flooding the area with more blood cells, and thus more oxygen, helping to heal any areas that need healing and keeping the gut in better health. Twists can also help to detox the body by wringing out the liver and kidneys, thereby reducing the number of toxins in the body. Certain poses can even reshape the intestines if there are any kinks or blockages, through stretching and opening the area. Supta Virasana is a brilliant pose that you can do at any time, even after eating a massive meal, as it stretches out the gut and allows maximum space for the digestive process to take place.
- Through increasing the digestive fire needed to digest efficiently – The ancient science of Ayurvedic medicine has long recognised the importance of the gut as part of a balanced, healthy body. A sluggish gut is put down to a lack of digestive fire, in the form of “agni”. Yoga can help to re-ignite that fire and aid in the efficiency of the digestive process. Headstand, for example, is a pitta-inducing pose, which re-ignites the digestive system, clearing out unwanted toxins. According to B K S Iyengar in ‘Yoga – The Path to Holistic Health’:
Salamba Sirsasana brings relief from digestive and eliminatory problems, when practiced in conjunction with Salamba Sarvangasana.
- Through encouraging the microbiome – The microbiome is a treasured asset that needs to be treated respectfully. In order to keep our inner world happy, we need to eat a diverse array of healthy foods, take gentle exercise to keep the stress hormones under control, as well as the more active exercise to keep the body fit with a strong immune system.
Give the Gut some love
One of the great benefits of becoming a yoga-addict is that we get to know our bodies in a very different way. Instead of being something we mainly look at critically in the mirror, or complain about when it hurts, we start to get intimate with parts of the body we barely knew existed. Starting from the outside layers, as we become more experienced, our awareness becomes more fine-tuned and moves inwards until we are even aware of our organs.
So, having found out about the wonderful things our gut (and its inhabitants) do for us, let’s use our yogic powers and give the gut some loving attention, first of all by bringing our awareness there, and then by thinking about how we can aid the work of the gut, rather than hinder it.