A change in routine can temporarily wreak digestive havoc. Here’s how to get things moving.
Fall means change, whether we’re coming home from a summer at the cottage, meeting new roommates at school or changing the clocks for daylight savings time.
For some of us, change also includes an uncomfortable, embarrassing struggle with our digestion — even if our diets haven’t changed. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
“I’ve just started a fantastic new job, but I am suddenly gassy all the time!”
“I moved into a new apartment with new roommates last week. Everything is going great — except I’m not having regular bowel movements anymore.”
“The kids are back in school and activities. We’re eating on the run and working hard to keep it healthy, but I feel puffy and sluggish.”
In fact, the food we eat is only part of the puzzle. Our environment and emotions also play a big role in digestion.
Why good stress can be bad
Digestion is a fairly straightforward process:
01 EAT: When we chew and swallow, food moves down the esophagus to the stomach, where it is broken down before passing into the small intestine.
02 ABSORB: The small intestine absorbs nutrients from the digested food and rhythmically squeezes it along to the large intestine. This squeezing is called peristalsis.
03 ELIMINATE: The large intestine absorbs water from what is now mostly waste, and peristalsis pushes the waste out of the body.
It’s also a largely automatic process. We don’t have to think about secreting gastric juices when food enters our stomach — it just happens. This process is controlled by our autonomic nervous system (ANS), the part of the body that runs those functions we say happen on auto-pilot.
The ANS has two main branches that work in opposing ways: the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) focuses the body’s resources on digestion, while the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) puts digestion on hold to handle stressful situations.
Let’s look again at those stressful scenarios:
01 Starting a new job: Even a great job with fantastic new coworkers is stressful. This increase in stress means less support for digestion.
02 New house and roommates: New roommates are almost always better than the old ones. But until you get to know them, your brain categorizes them as strangers and keeps your body on alert.
03 Back to school and related activities: Organizing schedules and spending extra time in traffic is stressful until it becomes the new normal.
Strategies to rest and digest
Even though we don’t consciously control the branches of the ANS, we can still affect them. One of the main components of the PNS is the vagus nerve, which connects to the heart, diaphragm and digestive tract. Stimulating this nerve increases PNS activity, reducing puffiness and sluggish digestion. We can raise PNS activity — and promote digestion — with breathing techniques.
Three Breathing Exercises for Better Digestion
01 Weighted Breathing
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Put a 2- to 4-pound weight on your belly button (Sandbells are great for this).
- Breathe in, pushing your belly button (and the weight) towards the ceiling.
- Exhale as you let your stomach fall.
- Repeat for 10 full breaths.
02 Ladder Breathing
- Sit or stand tall. Put your right hand on the right side of your abdomen.
- Breathe, pressing into your right hand as your stomach and ribs expand.
- Drop your right hand, and put your left hand on the left side of your abdomen.
- Breathe, pressing into your left hand as your stomach and ribs expand.
- Drop your left hand, and put your right hand at the bottom of your ribs on your right side.
- Breathe into the right hand. Repeat on left side.
- Put your right hand on the upper ribs on your right side and breathe. Repeat on left side.
- If you can enlist a partner, have him or her repeat this pattern on your back.
03 Cycle Breathing
- Sit or stand with a long spine.
- Inhale deeply through the nose for a count of 5 seconds.
- Slowly exhale for 10 seconds through the mouth.
- Repeat for 10 full breaths.
Change is an exciting and essential part of life. But when the stress of change gets in the way of other essential functions, use these three simple breathing exercises to get things, well, moving again.
Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
“Fight or Flight” response
• Elevated heart rate
• Elevated breathing rate (short, shallow breathing)
• Elevated stress hormones
• Resulting state: SNS sends blood to the heart, lungs and muscles. When the SNS is very active, we are alert and ready to react quickly.
Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
“Rest and Digest” response
• Lower heart rate
• Lower breathing rate (long, deep breathing)
• Reduction in stress hormones
• Resulting state: PNS sends blood to the digestive tract. When the PNS is very active, we digest food and eliminate waste easily.