Top nutritionist, Hannah Braye reveals five ways to practice mindfulness through your gut
Words Hannah Braye
Many don’t realise that stress could be playing a major role in their digestive issues. In fact, for many IBS sufferers stress is a key trigger of symptoms. This is because when a person becomes stressed enough to trigger the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, digestion slows down or even stops so that the body can divert all its energy to facing a perceived threat, leading to abdominal pain and other digestive symptoms.
‘Gut-fullness’ is an extension of the practice of mindfulness and involves using techniques to help reduce stress levels in order to improve digestion. Below are 5 top tips on how you can start de-stressing your gut and improve symptoms today.
Five Top Tips For A Healthy Gut
Prepare your food
Digestion starts in the brain as we prepare our food. This is known as the cephalic stage of digestion and helps to stimulate bile, stomach acid and digestive enzymes, all of which are needed for the breakdown of food and absorption of nutrients. The modern reliance on convenience and pre-prepared foods often means that this important stage of digestion is bypassed. Cooking from scratch and taking a few moments to really concentrate on the smell and texture of food may help get digestive juices flowing.
Look after your gut bacteria
More and more research is highlighting that the link between stress and digestive disorders is bidirectional. Therefore not only does stress impact digestion, but the health of the gut (and in particular its composition of bacteria) plays an influential role in what is going on in the brain. This is known as the ‘microbiota-gut-brain-axis’. Studies indicate that using a good quality multi-strain live bacteria supplement may help to modulate the stress response, which is likely to have knock-on benefits for digestion. In fact, in the largest ever clinical trial conducted on live bacteria supplements in IBS patients recently shown that the 14 strains of bacteria in Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-Strain Formula (£9.25 from bio-kult.com) not only dramatically improved abdominal pain in IBS patients but also reduced anxiety too.
Check Your Heart Rate Variability
To best digest food we need to be in parasympathetic nervous mode (known as ‘rest and digest’). One quick and easy way to check this is by measuring your heart rate variability (HRV). As our heart doesn’t beat at a constant frequency, HRV (ie. the variability that occurs between heartbeats), provides a way of objectively monitoring physiological stress. A low HRV indicates higher stress levels, meaning the body is less likely to be ready to receive food. There are phone apps available which can accurately monitor HRV by simply placing your thumb over the camera on your phone.
One method to help switch from fight or flight mode to rest and digest is to practice breathing exercises shortly before eating. Studies indicate that diaphragmatic breathing may reduce cortisol levels and trigger the body’s relaxation responses. Before eating try sitting for a few moments with your eyes closed. Inhale and exhale through the nose with the mouth closed, extending your breath to its comfortable maximum (ie. inhaling as deeply as you can, and exhaling as fully as you can). As you breathe in the rib cage will move out and up, as you exhale the ribs will move in and down. Repeat 20 times and then take a few moments to let the breathing return to normal before eating.
Visualisation techniques are used by some as a way to focus the mind and program the brain. It entails sitting comfortably and quietly for a few moments with your eyes closed, whilst concentrating on a mental image. This may help down-regulate the stress response and help prepare the body to eat. Some mindfulness experts recommend picturing your digestive tract as a long, calm river that flows gently, passing through the throat, stomach and intestines, cleansing, healing and helping your body to feel full of energy and life.