Let’s talk about stress.
We all have some forms of stress in our lives. The question is how do we manage stress and our reactions to it. Stress is not just a feeling but is also a biochemical process that over time can cause major health issues. If you have digestive conditions such as IBS, SIBO, IBD, you may have noticed how stress can worsen symptoms. The good news is that there are quick and easy ways to help your body relax so it can digest, rest, repair and return to optimal function.
What is the Stress Response?
Think about what would happen if you were chased by a tiger. Stress hormones would be released, which signals to the brain that it’s time to hustle! The body mobilizes its resources and puts less important activities on hold. Right now digestion, reproduction, and repair are less important than surviving the tiger. You hear the tiger roar and your blood sugar increases allowing you to gain access to quick energy. Your blood flows away from your digestive organs and toward your limbs so you can run fast. Phew, that was close! This process is called the “stress response”. It’s also referred to as the “fight or flight” response and it involves your sympathetic nervous system.
What is the Relaxation Response?
Once you escape from danger, the stress hormones “turn off”. You may feel a sense of relief but boy are you exhausted. It’s time to rest. During this time, your body recovers, it’s now able to digest food, your immune system is able to bolster its defenses, your brain is able to make neurotransmitters and your body is able to repair damaged cells. This process is called the “relaxation response”. It’s also known as the “rest and digest” mode and involves your parasympathetic nervous system. The key is that it can only be activated when you are not having a “stress response”.
How Does Stress Affect Digestion & Health?
For most of us, we spend way too much time in “stress response” mode and not enough time experiencing the “relaxation response”. Your body doesn’t know the difference between the charging tiger and your demanding boss, the fight you had with your significant other, your never-ending to do list, sitting in traffic, the terrible twos (or teenagers), etc. Too much time spent in “stress response” mode is associated with countless health problems such as poor digestion, high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, insomnia, headaches, acne, cold/flu, just to name a few (1).
Think about your response to stress and your digestive symptoms. Some feel stress and experience constipation whereas others will experience diarrhea or loose stools. And yet, others may feel gassy and bloated. Ugh! Most of my clients’ health conditions started around the same time as a major stressful event. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Learn How to Feel Relaxed Starting Right Now
Here are some quick and proven ways to help your body experience the “relaxation response” more often. You don’t have to practice yoga or meditation to give these techniques a try.
The 7-Second Breathing Technique
If you can count to seven, you can do this incredibly easy and soothing breathing technique. The best part is you can do this anywhere – in the car, on the subway, at the office, before a meeting, etc. I recommend clients with digestive issues practice this before they eat. Practicing the 7-second breathing exercise can slow your breathing rate. This sends signals to the brain that all is good and that it’s time to rest, digest and repair. A slower breathing rate slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and helps the body to turn on the “relaxation response” (2).
How To - Inhale through your nose for a count of 5 seconds. Exhale through your nose for a count of 7 seconds. When you count to yourself, you can’t think of your to do list :-)
Studies have shown that breathing exercises are effective non-pharmacological methods for alleviating anxiety, depression and stress. Abdominal breathing exercises have been shown to reduce cortisol levels (a stress hormone), improve focus and decrease the physiological effects of stress (3).
How To - You can practice this sitting or lying down. Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose while expanding your abdomen. Exhale slowly through your nose as you gently pull your belly muscles toward your spine. Empty your lungs completely. Repeat. Start with 5 minutes and work your way up to 20 minutes. I like to do this breathing exercise when I get into bed to help wind down and fall asleep quickly.
Legs Up the Wall or Chair
This is a restorative yoga pose, also known as viparita karani in Sanskrit. Not to worry. You don’t need to have a yoga practice to benefit from this gentle inversion in which your legs are elevated on a wall, chair, bed, table, etc. This pose promotes blood flow to your abdominal organs, heart and head. It also helps relieve back pain, headaches and menstrual cramps (4). I find this pose to be incredibly relaxing as I notice my lower back, shoulders and head just melt into the floor.
*This pose is contraindicated if you have high blood pressure, glaucoma or a hernia. Please ask your doctor if this pose if appropriate for your health condition.
Place a folded towel near the base of the wall, chair, bed or table. This is to cushion and support your low back.
Lay down on the floor, with your low back positioned on the towel. Swing your legs up the wall, chair, bed or table. Option to place your hands on your abdomen and focus on the rise and fall of your belly. Stay in this position for 5 minutes – 15 minutes.
1. Aronson, D. (2009). Cortisol — Its role in stress, inflammation, and indications for diet therapy. Retrieved from http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml
2. Russo, M. A., Santarelli, D. M., & O’Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe, 13(4), 298–309. https://doi.org/10.1183/20734735.009817
3. Lee, C. (2010). Do less, relax more: Legs-up-the-wall pose. Retrieved from https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/legs-up-the-wall-pose
4. Ma, X., Yue, Z.-Q., Gong, Z.-Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N.-Y., Shi, Y.-T., … Li, Y.-F. (2017). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874