Yoga and Gut Health

Yoga and Gut Health

How mindfulness can lead to a healthier microbiome.

 

I am no stranger to stress! And I bet you aren’t either. When was the last time you felt stressed? Was it 10 minutes ago?

I often talk about stress because it’s SUCH A COMMON problem!

In our hectic lives with jobs, social dynamics, family responsibilities, financial difficulties, and small annoying things too, we feel an increased heart rate, lack of patience, and an angry or annoyed mood all too often.

In this mini blog I’ll talk briefly about some of the research linking stress to poor gut health, why this is important, and what this has to do with yoga!

 

A bit about MY Stress Story

Despite being a yoga teacher, I definitely get stressed! Thankfully my yoga practice does help me be a little less reactive, but the stress definitely rears it’s ugly head at times!

One example of how I think my stress shows up on me is this: When my little boy was 6 months old, I started to get redness on my cheeks. I did ALL sorts of elimination diets. I cut out alcohol, chocolate, caffeine and gluten, but none of these made a difference.

Now looking back at this time of my life, I was severely sleep deprived and also felt very anxious and stressed about the weaning process of a 6 month old baby (as well as most other factors about having a 6 month old!)

I’ve spoken to a functional nutritionist since, and they agree with me that it could very well be stress related. Psychosocial stress could be reducing how well I absorb my food in my gut, and potentially it could be leading to more systemic inflammation from a “leaky” gut (more on this later), which shows up as a skin rash on my face!

So, my prescription…. More mindfulness in my yoga practices, and 3 slow breaths before every meal.

 

The Science-y Bit

There is a whole field of research dedicated to the connection between our gut and our brain. This includes growing evidence showing a connection from brain to gut. 

This connection means that psychosocial stress negatively affects the microbiome (bacteria in our gut), the movements of our bowls, the permeability of our gut-lining, and the resulting inflammation in our bodies (Konturek et al. 2011; Bailey & Maddison, 2024).

There is also evidence of a connection in the other direction: form gut to brain. This shows that a dis-regulated gut (microbiome, movements and gut-wall permeability) can have a negative effect on mood and even psychiatric disorders! (Bailey & Maddison, 2024).

But in this blog we’ll focus on the connection from brain to gut – as this relates to how mindfulness practices, such as yoga, could be helpful for our gut health!

 

What is Leaky Gut?

I know, it’s not a very pretty term, is it? You’ve probably heard this phrase, but might not quite understand what it means. 

The barrier between what’s inside our gut and our blood-stream is on only one cell thick. This is called the “gut barrier”. We are meant to absorb water, the nutrients from digested food and a range of other beneficial molecules through this barrier, but it’s important that some things don’t cross this barrier!

When our gut barrier gets “leaky”, this allows other molecules (e.g. gluten) to cross into our blood and can lead to the activation of our immune system. This is an inflammatory response which can lead to a host of other issues in the rest of the body (e.g. rashes, bloating or more serious symptoms such as those form Coeliac’s Disease).

From a review of the science available at the time, Konturek et a. (2011) concluded that STRESS negatively affects the intestinal permeability (“leakiness” of the gut), GI-motility (the movements our bowls make to move everything along) and leads to an increase in pro-inflammatory mediators (an activated immune response).

 

Why Does it Mater?

All this talk about the effects of stress on the gut matters because Konturek et al. (2011) also found that chronic stress is a major risk factor for:

  • Gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), 
  • Peptic ulcer, 
  • Functional dyspepsia, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), 
  • Irritable bowel disease (IBS), 
  • And other functional disorders of gastro-intestine (GI) tract.

 

What’s This Got to do With Yoga? 

Good question. Well, yoga is known to be a stress-reducing activity (Cocciara et al., 2019; Della Vale et al., 2020).  This may not surprise you. Many people who join my in-person and online yoga classes do so in hopes to reduce their stress – and they find that is does!

However, WHAT is it about yoga that helps to reduce stress? This is an even more interesting question! While I love a strong plank pose, arm balance and hip-flexor stretch for other reasons, this is probably not the stress-reducing side of yoga.

But what is?

 

Mindfulness (Not Plank Poses)

I believe (and it is backed by science) that it is the mindfulness aspect of yoga which is the real secret ingredient for stress reduction in the long term.

If you’re wondering, mindfulness is a mental exercise of creating awareness of everything around and within you, and working towards acceptance of whatever you’re feeling or experiencing. 

Yes, any physical exercise will give you “feel good” hormones, and make you forget about your troubles in the short term. But there is a whole field of research dedicated to mindfulness, which suggests that THAT is the aspect of yoga that leads to stress reduction.

If you’ve ever done a yoga class (that was about a bit more than the stretching), then you’ll remember cues such as “Feel the sensations in your body, and try not to judge.” Yoga puts you in uncomfortable positions and then trains you to become accepting of all the sensations you feel in these poses.

After a lot of practice, then this acceptance of discomfort can radiate out into other difficult/uncomfortable aspects of life.

Take heart – this takes practice!

 

Acceptance Seems to be Key

One interesting study by Lindsay et al. (2018),  found that the aspect of acceptance seems to be key in the stress-lowering power of mindfulness.

In this study 153 stressed adults (average age of 32), were assigned to three groups, at random, who received 15 lessons on a smart-phone focussing on:

  1. Guided awareness + acceptance of sensations in their bodies
  2. Only guided awareness of sensations in their bodies
  3. Freely reflecting on sensations in their bodies (this was the control group)

They found that those in group 1) who focussed on BOTH being aware of sensations as well as on the ACCEPTANCE of them, had a greater stress reduction that those in groups 2) and 3). They decreased their level of cortisol (stress hormone) and has a smaller increase in blood pressure after a deliberately stressful speech test conducted by the researchers.

 

The Take-Away Message?

It’s highly likely that there is room for improvement in your stress-response to daily life’s events. (I’m not judging – I’m right there too!)

If you’re open to seeing how mindfulness can help you, here are a few suggestions:

  • Do Yoga Nidra (this is a lying down yoga which focusses purely on mindfulness of the body, emotions, thoughts and intuition). You can find audio-recordings of Yoga Nidra classes on every meditation/yoga app out there! (Including mine. 😉)
  • In your regular exercise / yoga practice / and life: Focus on awareness and acceptance of every sensation, thought and emotion you feel.
  • Before every meal / on the loo: Take 3 very slow breaths!

 

I hope you enjoyed this little deep-dive into the science of health, yoga and mindfulness!

Need a little help?

If you need a little help getting started with 15-20 minutes of mindful yoga at home have a little look at my classes… 😉

Learn more about BendyLife yoga...

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


References

Cocchiara, R. A., Peruzzo, M., Mannocci, A., Ottolenghi, L., Villari, P., Polimeni, A., … & La Torre, G. (2019). The use of yoga to manage stress and burnout in healthcare workers: a systematic review. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(3), 284.

Della Valle, E., Palermi, S., Aloe, I., Marcantonio, R., Spera, R., Montagnani, S., & Sirico, F. (2020). Effectiveness of workplace yoga interventions to reduce perceived stress in employees: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of functional morphology and kinesiology, 5(2), 33.

Konturek, P. C., Brzozowski, T., & Konturek, S. J. (2011). Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol, 62(6), 591-9.

Lindsay, E. K., Young, S., Smyth, J. M., Brown, K. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Acceptance lowers stress reactivity: Dismantling mindfulness training in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 87, 63-73.

Madison, A. A., & Bailey, M. T. (2023). Link Stress-Related Gut Microbiota Shifts to Mental Health Outcomes. Biological Psychiatry.