When my stress levels peak, that frazzled feeling of anxiety tends to come along with physical side effects. Headaches, insomnia, and breakouts are the three I'm most familiar with, but recently, I've felt like my worries have thrown my digestive system out of whack, too.
Looking for relief for my heartburn and nausea, I kept stumbling upon the idea of meditation, and wondering if practicing could support my overall gut health, whether I'm stressed or not. After all, I have taken plenty of meditation and yoga classes that have touched on the "rest and digest" concept of the parasympathetic nervous system.
"The idea that meditation or other stress-management modalities can have an impact on our digestion comes from emerging research on something called the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis is basically the complex, bi-directional pathway between the brain and the GI tract," Dr. Tolentino says.
"This pathway actually encompasses a range of systems including the central nervous system, the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous systems, and the microbiota of the gut."
The brain and the gut, Dr. Tolentino says, have the ability to send signals back and forth to one another — and this can impact the speed of the digestive process or even gut inflammation.
"Our gut also has its nervous system, the enteric nervous system, that can communicate with the brain and regulates certain digestive processes and functions."
An example of this brain-gut connection is the physical digestive symptoms that are commonly experienced when you're overwhelmed or super stressed out.
Dr. Tolentino adds that stress has been linked to issues like heartburn, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, cramping, and bloating, and could play a role in GI disorders like GERD, IBS, and IBD. It could also exacerbate symptoms of conditions like Crohn's Disease or ulcerative colitis.
"So this idea that meditation, mindfulness interventions, or breath work can have a positive impact on our digestive health really comes from this emerging understanding of the close relationship between our brain and our gut, and how stress can have a negative impact on GI function, as well as the gut microbiome," Dr. Tolentino says.
"It's definitely not quite as straightforward as 'meditation is good for the digestive system because it helps us manage stress,' but there is a growing interest in exploring the links between all of these things based on our emerging understanding of the way the brain and gut interact with each other."
While meditation and mindfulness might not be the end-all, be-all answers to improving your digestive health, Dr. Tolentino explains they can be used in a comprehensive treatment strategy.
"What you eat, when you're eating, the health of your GI tract, and your gut flora are all things that are playing a role in your digestion."
It's important to remember that controlling stress through meditation might not yield the same digestive results for everyone. Practicing every day for a week (while impressive!), doesn't mean your symptoms of issues will disappear, either.
"There's not going to be a magic number of sessions or minutes or days, after which someone is definitely going to see results. This is really about incorporating meditation into an overall strategy and your lifestyle for improving digestion and even resolving specific complaints or issues; which again, are going to vary among individuals, and most likely aren't caused by stress alone. Many problems are multifactorial, which means they often require multifactorial solutions."
If you do want to add meditation to your lifestyle routine to support your digestive health, there's two different ways you can do so, Dr. Tolentino says.
One would be using meditation to help reduce your overall day-to-say stress levels. From Headspace to Calm, there are plenty of meditation apps that offer a vast variety of guided sessions for all levels, whether you're experienced or just getting started. YouTube is another great option if you don't want to spend money on a monthly subscription — this class by Yoga by Candace is actually curated specifically for digestive health.
The second way to utilize mindfulness for your digestive health is by practicing mindful eating, Dr. Tolentino says. This consists of "eating slowly, chewing our food thoroughly, being present, and really paying attention to the food we are eating and how we are experiencing it, and also being more aware of when we actually feel full."
These practices could benefit digestion by preventing a person from eating too quickly or too much at once. But again, it's important to remember that not all digestive symptoms are caused by stress — or eliminated by a reduction in stress — so if you have any concerns at all, reach out to your doctor for personalized advice.