Lifestyle

How to use yoga for a healthy gut

Gut health and yoga have been big trends over the last few years - and for good reason. Yoga is considered an excellent combination of exercise and meditation while gut health is now seen as our second brain, one that has a big impact on our overall health. But while the two are highly regarded by the health conscious, they are usually considered in isolation. However, modern science is now suggesting these two health and nutrition trends are actually highly correlated. That’s to say, yoga may actually improve gut health.

The benefits of a yoga practice, combined with regular meditation, exercise and a probiotic-rich diet, will help create the right setting to help boost those friendly gut bugs, which in turn, promote good health.

According to a 2016 study by research company Roy Morgan, an estimated two million people now enjoy yoga’s many benefits, a rise of a million since 2008. This makes it the fastest growing sporting or fitness practice in Australia. (1)

With its roots in ancient Indian philosophy and religion, yoga has been used by its followers for thousands of years as a method of enhancing spiritual practice. First mentioned in one of the world’s oldest texts, the Rig Veda, it developed into a form of meditation designed to prolong life and improve health. In more recent decades though, it has become accepted by mainstream Australian society as a purely secular form of mind and body exercise.

Yoga first made its way to the country around 1895 and coincided with the establishment of the esoteric-minded Theosophical Society whose teachings align closely with the Indian concept of karma. Yoga was spread as the society founded study centres in many cities around the country. By the 1950s, its importance as a relaxation and exercise tool saw Australians embrace yoga in a big way. Its popularity surged as it became accepted as part of the countercultural revolution that caught hold in Australia in the 1960s and 70s. The new ideas and new ways of thinking that challenged the status quo became the vogue and yoga became accepted as a key part of this new wave of thinking.

Today yoga is enjoyed by people in all walks of life and its health and lifestyle benefits — such as stress reduction and increased flexibility —  are well documented. (2) Yoga has also been shown to improve core strength and help practitioners reach fitness goals. However in the past few years, it has been linked with even more exciting health discoveries. For it has been shown to have a positive impact on the trillions of gut bugs that inhabit our intestines and therefore a healthy way to promote better gut health and its associated health advantages.

While yoga has been with us for thousands of years, awareness of the importance of the gut biota is a relatively new discovery.

Its importance has made its way into the public consciousness in the last decade as scientific studies have made us aware of the vital role the gut microbiome plays in our health. Indeed, the study of the gut has been described as the next frontier of health and medical science. It seems not a week passes by without the latest scientific revelations linking gut bacteria diversity to a variety of key health issues and our wellbeing. Just some of those issues include depression; diabetes, chronic heart diseases and bowel diseases, to name but a few. (3)

Feeding the gut microbiome with the right fibre-rich foods became one of the most publicised health issues of 2017 and this is likely to continue into 2018 and beyond. The advice to steer clear of processed foods and focus on a high fibre diet to feed the good gut bacteria has now become embedded in most good nutrition advice.

Obviously the right food is crucial in boosting our gut health, but did you know that exercise and meditation can also play a vital role? Studies show exercise helps create the right setting for the growth of friendly gut bacteria and enrich microflora diversity. (4)

As a combination of the two, yoga can be of great assistance in boosting the balance of the right gut bacteria and therefore help lead to better physical and mental health. However, how exactly does yoga improve the diversity of our gut bacteria?

Exercise

Science now points to a correlation between the right form of exercise and good gut health. Combined with a high protein diet, regular exercise has been shown to be beneficial for gut microbiota diversity and therefore overall health and wellbeing. (5) Yoga provides a popular exercise routine that people can practice, not only to promote suppleness and strength, but also to increase beneficial gut microflora.

However, it’s important to note there are many types of yoga, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and they should be selected carefully depending on your own condition. For example, those recovering from injuries and the less mobile may prefer the less energetic — yet still beneficial — styles. These include: 

Yin yoga

Great to help calm and balance the mind, this is a slower-paced form of the practice with each pose held for longer periods of time. It is a form of yoga that targets connective tissues in the body and is well suited for those who need to learn to stretch muscles and unwind. This slow-moving and deeply relaxing form helps create the right mind and body balance for our gut bacteria.

Hatha yoga

A reference to the more generic forms, most hatha yoga types are excellent for those new to the practice and still learning its techniques. It is a gentle method where each pose is held for a shorter time with the emphasis on practising physical postures and the breath.

Restorative yoga

This is usually based on only five or six yoga poses with the emphasis very much on repairing the mind and body and restoring balance. Great for relaxation and rest however it is also well suited to repairing sore muscles after long periods of strenuous exercise.

Meditative techniques

Yoga helps people develop a better sense of mindfulness through breath. This helps relax us, clearing our minds and making us happier, more aware human beings. Carrying this state of mind through into the day will help improve our well being say experts and this helps promote good gut bacteria.

Breath control

One the most helpful tools that you will learn at yoga class is the gentle method of breathing. Combining exercise with breath control will help reduce stress levels and allow you to cope better with day-to-day living. Learning how to control the breath will help reduce stress and create the right environment for better balanced gut health.

Indirectly help improve diet

A clearer and happier mind may help you make conscious decisions to improve other aspects of your health including your diet. According to Sydney yoga practitioner Lucinda Mills: “Clearing the mind through yoga also enhances a person’s general level of happiness. This can result in more conscious decision-making in the moment, such as choosing healthier food and drinks, which your gut will thank you for,” she adds. There are some yoga schools that offer suggestions on the right diet for practitioners, usually this advice, combined with the yoga exercise, will help you lose weight and be healthier.

Suggested yoga poses

Most yoga poses will help you relax and there may be some that you prefer to carry out depending on your physical condition, level of suppleness and how long you’ve been practising yoga. However, there are poses which are specifically recommended for improved gut health which you may consider trying.

Three suggested yoga poses for assisting gut health include the following:

  • Crescent lunge twist
  • Reclined twist
  • Puppy pose (5)

The gut is often referred to as our “second brain” because of the important role it plays in regulating our mental and physical health. Our gut contains trillions of these gut bacteria, some good, some not so. Overconsumption of the wrong foods — those that are highly-processed such as white bread, breakfast cereals, pastries and biscuits — will encourage the wrong type of bacteria to thrive. Correspondingly, the good bugs will decline in number. Obtaining the right balance — promoting the “good” over the “bad” — is therefore a prime way of improving mental and physical health and wellbeing.

The benefits of a yoga practice, combined with regular meditation, exercise and a probiotic-rich diet, will help create the right setting to help boost those friendly gut bugs, which in turn, promote good health. In this way, the right environment is created for a better balance for our microbiome. As shown above, studies underline the link between this equilibrium and better physical and mental condition as using yoga as the medium for helping us get that vital exercise is an excellent way to promote the friendly gut bugs and therefore improve our entire health and wellbeing.

As always, we recommend you talk to your health professional about changing your diet and exercise plan. Ask their opinion about yoga and gut health, and the type of yoga that will best suit your needs. It may be worth asking them if they can refer you to a local yoga practitioner, one who will be able to suggest the type of yoga to suit your requirements and level of fitness.

Do you practise yoga? If so, please let us know your experiences in the comments below. 

Rich Bowden

Article by Rich Bowden

Rich Bowden is a freelance writer and podcaster. Based in NSW's Central West, he loves family life; reading, thinking outside the square and writes and podcasts about natural food, the environment, renewables and the organic movement in general. You can check out The Real Food Chain podcast, at http://realfoodchain.libsyn.com/website.

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