Yoga And Digestion

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The benefits of yoga are numerous. One such effect of yoga is on the digestion process.

The process of digestion is a complex one, and begins from the time we put food in our mouth. Enzymes in different parts of the digestive tract breakdown the food we eat into its natural components. These are then absorbed by the intestine into the blood stream, and go on to nourish the cells and tissues of the entire body.

A good digestion is essential for a healthy body and for normal functioning of vital organs.

However, all of us do not have good digestion. In medical clinics, doctors find that a majority of patients that visit them complain of ‘bloating’ or ‘gastric’ or ‘acidity’. Some suffer from constipation, while some have loose motion often.

Any problems with the digestion process can affect our day to day activities. This is where there is a big role for yoga for digestion process.

In this article, we look at some of the evidence that backs the benefit of yoga in aiding the digestion process, relieving gas and constipation and building a healthier and stronger body. We have covered 3 topics – heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome and constipation.

The benefits of yoga on digestion

Let us look at the effects of yoga on different digestion problems.

Gastro-esophageal reflux disease (Heartburn / Acidity)

Also called GERD, this is a condition where the acid in the stomach constantly enters the food pipe. This acid can lead to a bitter taste in the mouth, bloating in the abdomen and a constant feeling of nausea. Constant GERD can lead to digestion problems, loss of appetite and sometimes even headache. If it is not treated, it can cause ulcers in the food pipe and even cancer of the lower end of the food pipe (called esophageal cancer).

yoga and heartburn

The causes of heartburn are many, and include weakness of the lower esophageal sphincter (the muscle that prevents acid from moving up into the food pipe from the stomach), diabetes, asthma, obesity, lack of exercise, painkiller medication and pregnancy.

Allopathic treatment of heartburn is available in the form of proton pump inhibitors (omeprazole, lansoprazole, pantprazole etc.). These drugs block the production of acid, thus stopping any acid from entering the food pipe.

In a case study published in the International Journal of Yoga in 2013, Kaswala et al found that combining yoga and allopathic treatment resulted in a significant improvement in the symptoms of GERD that a patient was suffering from.

Which asanas can treat heartburn?

The yogasanas used in the study included Kapalbhati Pranayama and Agnisar Kriya. They seem to be particularly effective.

How does yoga treat heartburn?

Kapalbhati is a form of Pranayama (breathing control techniques), in which breathing air in is passive and breathing our air is active through abdominal muscles. This particular asana can clear the respiratory passage and strengthen the diaphragm muscle.

Agnisar Kriya is a method of contracting or “flapping” abdominal muscles in and out in order to promote improved digestion and movement of the stomach.

These 2 asanas can help improve the tone of the diaphragm muscle. Improved tone prevents acid from moving up from the stomach into the food pipe, thus preventing heartburn.

On a more scientific level, yoga can decrease the mediators that are released from activation of the autonomic nervous system which are responsible for irregular stomach movements. In addition, yoga can reduce levels of stress, which can reduce the heart rate and blood pressure. These relaxation responses are accompanied by reduced secretion of gastric acid, which in turn decreases heartburn.

To summarise, combining yoga with medical therapy to treat acidity and heart burn can be an effective way of controlling the symptoms.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

This is a very common condition that the Indian population suffers from. Irritable bowel syndrome, commonly called IBS, is a condition where the individual has either troubling loose motion or constipation from time to time. Numerous factors such as stress and dietary habits have been implicated in causing IBS. Unfortunately, it is a clinical condition that has not been understood fully yet.

Medical therapy is available for IBS, and seems to be effective only is some patients. Behavioural therapy and emotional management have been proposed as treatment strategies, though they are also only partly effective.

Which asanas can treat IBS?

According to the Art of Living website, the asanas that can help treat IBS include –

  • Marjariasana (cat pose)
  • Pavanamuktasana (wind-relieving pose)
  • Adho Mukha Shvanasana (downward facing dog pose)
  • Ardha Matsyendrasana (sitting half spinal twist)
  • Bhujangasana (cobra pose)
  • Dhanurasana (bow pose)

How does yoga help IBS?

A study conducted by Kuttner et al looked at the effect of yoga on adolescents aged between 11 and 18 years who were affected by IBS. In particular, they looked at the effect of yoga on the symptoms of IBS such as pain in the abdomen, anxiety, depression and functional disability.

The study consisted of a questionnaire, followed by 4 weeks of yoga therapy, followed by yet another questionnaire on the symptoms. A review of the results demonstrated that yoga reduced pain associated with IBS, along with the emotional symptoms that was associated with it. Patients found it easier to cope with the symptoms as well.

Studies have been conducted in adult population groups as well with similar results. Taneja et al found that adults who underwent yoga interventions with conventional medical management found that their bowel symptoms (diarrhoea) improved significantly as did their anxiety associated with their health within 2 months of treatment.

The poses previously mentioned can help the body get rid of excess gas and can have a calming effect on the body. These are key elements in IBS management, and can help relieve symptoms remarkably over time and with regular practice.

Broadly, the effects can be divided into 3 headings –

  1. Physiological – This is where there is reduced heart rate and blood pressure, along with a more relaxed breathing.
  2. Psychological – People are able to cope better with the symptoms and have a positive mood.
  3. Spiritual – Individuals become more mindful and accepting of their condition.

These 3 factors can help improve long term effects of IBS and improve overall quality of life.

Constipation

Constipation is defined as ‘a condition where an individual has fewer than 3 bowel motions per week, or passes hard, dry stools in small quantities with difficulty’. It is a common problem in India, despite our vegetarian diet.

can yoga treat constipation

Numerous reasons have been cited in the development of constipation, including poor diet, lack of sufficient exercise and poor water intake. Low fiber in the diet is the most common cause. Constipation seems to be a common problem in the elderly population group, and can be a source of great distress.

In our attempt to find specific papers on how yoga can help relieve constipation, there does not seem to be any research articles that address this particular issue. However, IBS is often accompanied by constipation (called IBS-C), and there appears to be evidence from studies that yoga can help patients in this category. It could be deduced that yoga would help patients who have constipation without other symptoms of IBS.

Most of the benefits of yoga on constipation appear to be anecdotal, and are based on patient experiences.

What asanas can treat constipation?

The best asanas appear to be –

  • Mayurasana (peacock pose)
  • Halasana (plough pose)
  • Ardha Matsyendrasana (sitting half spinal twist pose)
  • Baddha Konasana (butterfly pose)
  • Pavanamukthasana (wind-relieving pose)
  • Bhujhangasana (snake pose)

How yoga can treat constipation

Yoga can stimulate blood flow to the bowel, and improve the function of the nerves that are responsible for bowel movements. In turn, this can increase the movements of the bowel, and can help normal bowel motions on a regular basis.

However, it is also important to follow a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and do other forms of exercise such as walking or jogging.

Conclusion

The benefits of yoga on the digestion process are clear from the above discussion. If you have not started yet, then now is the right time. Give it a try, and get rid of your digestion problems today!

Recommended reading

Below are some books that we are sure you will find useful. Click on the images to see more.

References
Kaswala, Dharmesh, et al. “Can yoga be used to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease?.” International journal of yoga 6.2 (2013): 131.
Kuttner, Leora, et al. “A randomized trial of yoga for adolescents with irritable bowel syndrome.” Pain Research & Management: The Journal of the Canadian Pain Society 11.4 (2006): 217
Taneja, Indu, et al. “Yogic versus conventional treatment in diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized control study.” Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback 29.1 (2004): 19-33.

 

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