Yoga has been proven as a safe and healthy way to support people with mental and physical ailments, including sleepand chronic pain. It’s also been shown to support people with digestive disorders.
An estimated 74 percent of Americans experience digestive discomfort in the form of gas, bloating, stomach pain, unexplained weight loss and frequent bowel movements(1).
Digestive upset can result from chronic illness, lifestyle choices, genetics or psychological distress, making it hard to pinpoint a single cause.
Still, the widespread occurrence of such issues, in combination with an increasing societal shift toward mindfulness, has sparked new interest in the role of yoga as a digestive aid.
Here’s what science says about gastrointestinal illnesses and discomfort, and how people with symptoms can use yoga for digestion and healing.
Digestion is a crucial bodily process because it enables the human body to convert food into nutrients, including carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals and water. These are all vital for providing the body with energy, cell preparation and regeneration.
Gastrointestinal diseases are those which influence the proper functioning of vital digestive organs. This includes the gallbladder, liver, pancreas and the hollow organs of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract: the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus(2).
There are many conditions that can interfere with proper digestion, though not all of them are easy to diagnose. Here’s a look at the most common causes of gastrointestinal disruption, and how they interfere with nutrient uptake and waste production.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a common condition that occurs in people of all ages and affects at least one in five adults in the United States (3).
In people with GERD, the stomach’s undigested contents move back up through the esophagus, causing acid indigestion, also known as heartburn or acid reflux. Smoking, pregnancy, obesity and certain medications increase a person’s risk of experiencing GERD.
GERD is common and not life-threatening, but the symptoms are uncomfortable and can interfere with a person’s quality of life.
Individuals with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a group of diseases that cause chronic digestive inflammation. The two main conditions that comprise IBD include ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.
Symptoms of ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease include, but are not limited to, diarrhea, fatigue, appetite changes and unintended weight loss.
People with IBD are at a higher risk of developing colon cancer, especially if their symptoms are unmanaged(4).
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common digestive disorder, affecting nearly 10-15 percent of all people worldwide(5).
The most common symptoms of IBS include constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating and abdominal pain. Another telltale sign of IBS is that symptoms are eliminated after a bowel movement(6).
Stress doesn’t directly cause the onset of IBS; however, the gut-brain connection means that stress can exacerbate symptoms. People with irritable bowel syndrome are also more likely to experience additional mental and chronic pain disorders, including fibromyalgia and migraine(7).
Anxiety is classified as a mental health condition, but it has been linked to gastrointestinal disruption and digestive disorders. The link between mental health and the digestive system stems from the gut-brain axis.
Research shows that stress affects the digestive system by causing disruptions to regular waste transport, leaky gut and changes/decreases in essential gut bacteria.
Over time, chronic stress and anxiety can contribute to more serious digestive illnesses, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) ulcers and gastroesophageal reflux disease, among others(8).
Digestive conditions can be a serious detriment to daily life, but yoga can help.
Yoga isbeneficial for digestion because certain poses gently compress and stimulate the gastrointestinal organs. This promotes essential functions like peristalsis, the involuntary contractions that move food through the digestive tract(9).
Other yoga poses help open the body through stretching. These postures increase the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to vital organs. Yogic breathing also promotes relaxation, which helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Both of these functions help reduce the tension and stress within the gut-brain axis, thereby reducing digestive irregularity(10).
Research has shown the effectiveness of yoga forgut health, including issues such as IBS(11). In one study on IBS patients, a consistent yoga program was shown to improve gastrointestinal symptoms, reduce pain and decrease instances of anxiety. This research shows that yoga has the potential to elevate overall quality of life among people who suffer from IBS(12).
Patients with GERD have also discovered relief through consistent yoga practice. Clinical studies have shown that specific yoga breathwork practices, such as kapalbhati and agnisar kriya, help tone the diagram to reduce instances of acid reflux. At the same time, these practices also strengthen the abdominals to increase motility throughout the gastrointestinal tract(13).
To experience these benefits for yourself, here’s how to use yoga for digestion.
Twisting poses are perhaps the most beneficial yoga postures for digestion. Twists gently compress the digestive organs, which promotes peristalsis and supports the release of essential digestive enzymes.
Twists can be incorporated into any type of yoga, including hatha, vinyasa, restorative and yin. The main difference is that in restorative or yin yoga, you would hold a pose for a longer period of time. Yin and restorative twists may be the most beneficial for regulating digestion because they stimulate digestion through compression, yet also promote relaxation to calm overwhelm along the gut-brain axis.
A simple bent-knee twist can stimulate the digestive meridians, promoting regularity in the small and large intestine(14).
A yogic squat, or malasana, is a great way to align the digestive organs. This can reduce gas and improve elimination. Unlike a normal squat, malasana is taken close to the ground, with the feet flat on the ground and the knees out wide.
By placing the elbows on the insides of the knees and holding the tailbone off the ground, this pose engages the muscles to improve circulation and stimulate digestion. The abdomen is also gently compressed in a yogic squat, which further stimulates digestive juices(15).
The breath control involved in yoga is also a beneficial element for those seeking relief from digestive distress.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also called deep belly breathing, is a breathwork practice that gently stimulates the digestive organs and diaphragm. During deep belly breathing, a practitioner intentionally fills the lungs to their highest capacity and allows the belly to rise and fill with air. This calms the mind, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, and promotes both rest and digestion.
Studies have shown mindfulness-based breathwork like diaphragmatic breathing to be effective for functional digestive disorders like IBS(16).
Such breath control has been shown to reduce bloating, gas and associated abdominal pain. It can also assist with general regularity by calming the system, which can reduce urgency and alleviate constipation(17).
Wind-relieving pose, or pawanmuktasana, is a helpful posture when you’reexperiencing bloating and gas. This pose involves lying on the floor and bringing one knee into the chest at a time. When the right knee is pressed against the chest, it massages the ascending colon.
When the left knee is pressed into the chest, it massages the descending colon. Optimum digestive functioning requires the stimulation and movement of both.
Similar to malasana, wild-relieving pose massages the digestive organs to promote digestion. Wind-relieving pose also promotes the release of gas, making it a quick way to find relief from intestinal discomfort (18).
Every element of the gastrointestinal tract plays an important role in the digestive process. If one organ or system isn’t working properly, it can result in digestive discomfort, inconsistency and nutrient malabsorption.
Fortunately, numerous studies have demonstrated the positive impacts of using yoga for digestion. Yoga combines therapeutic physical postures with healing breathwork practices that activate the parasympathetic nervous system while massaging the internal organs for optimal digestion.
Whether your symptoms are mild or severe, chronic or intermittent, yoga bears significant potential for promoting a stronger, healthier digestive system. Learn more about using yoga for optimum health in our next article in this series, which covers yoga for anxiety.
Michelle Polizzi, Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice