By now, most of us know that there’s a link between emotions and our gut. We experience digestive upsets when stress or anxiety enters the picture.
Now research suggests that breathing exercises and meditation can go a long way in coping with chronic stress that impacts health in many ways.
Chronic stress messes with normal gut activity, changing the speed of digestion, and opening the door to a slew of gastrointestinal problems.
“Every emotion starting in the brain will be reflected in the gut, and anything that happens in the gut will be reflected in some way at the brain level,” says Dr. Emeran Mayer in his book “The Mind-Gut Connection.”
“We have this fascination with healthy diets,” he notes, “but people forget that unless you're in the right state of mind, the benefit of eating well is greatly reduced.”
So, what does Dr. Mayer prescribe to his patients with digestive issues? Diaphragmatic breathing exercises and a Mediterranean diet.
He says you need mindfulness, a relaxed state, and a non-inflammatory, plant-based diet to heal the body.
“Breathing and meditation are really the simplest things you can do for your health, both mental and physical,” he explains.
How Does Deep Breathing Improve Digestion?
Studies show that diaphragmatic breathing may trigger body relaxation responses and benefit both physical and mental health.
According to the University of Michigan Health, activating the diaphragm can simultaneously activate the parasympathetic system, which is associated with both relaxation and digestion.
Basically, this deep breathing helps you “rest and digest.” It creates a gentle massage for internal organs, quelling issues like abdominal pain, constipation, and bloating.
Likewise, meditation offers some of the very same benefits. As a stress-reduction technique, meditation encourages the cultivation of beneficial microbes that oversee the neurotransmitters, including the mood regulator serotonin. In fact, 95 percent of serotonin is found in the GI tract.
Consistently carving out a few minutes every day to sit quietly and meditate or breathe intentionally can lead to lasting health benefits.
In a Verywellhealth.com interview, Beth Chiodo, a registered dietitian, explains that deep breathing before a meal is one of the best things you can do to help with digestion.
She said this breathing exercise can help stimulate the vagus nerve. This nerve serves as the line of communication between the gut and the brain that helps “regulate muscle contraction and secretion of gastric acid and digestive enzymes.”
Simple Breathing Exercises
There are many different types of breathing exercises, but let’s start with diaphragmatic breathing. Beginners may want to start in a prone position and graduate to a sitting position.
The Cleveland Clinic offers some tips:
- Lie on your back on a flat surface or in bed, with your knees bent and your head supported. You can use a pillow under your knees to support your legs.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out, causing your hand to rise. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
- Tighten your stomach muscles, so that your stomach moves in, causing your hand to lower as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your upper chest should remain as still as possible.
Meditation for Beginners
Mindful.org offers some great advice for those of us just starting out.
What we’re doing here is aiming for mindfulness, not some process that magically wipes your mind clear of the countless and endless thoughts that erupt and ping constantly in our brains.
We’re just practicing bringing our attention to our breath, and then back to the breath when we notice our attention has wandered.
Here’s how to dip your toe into meditation:
Get comfortable and prepare to sit still for a few minutes. After you stop reading this, you’re going to simply focus on your own natural inhaling and exhaling of breath.
Focus on your breath. Where do you feel your breath most? In your belly? In your nose? Try to keep your attention on your inhale and exhale
- Follow your breath for two minutes. Take a deep inhale, expanding your belly, and then exhale slowly, elongating the out-breath as your belly contracts.
Need some help getting started? There are hundreds of free, short, guided meditations and breathing exercises available online.
And if seated meditation isn’t your jam, try a walking meditation. It’s a mindful movement practice for bringing awareness to what we feel with each step.
Managing stress and anxiety is essential for well-being, and gut health.
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