Good digestion is key to living a healthy life and one of the fundamental pillars of our health, wellbeing and happiness. But the incessant demands of 21st century living are having an increasingly disruptive effect on our digestion, leading to all sorts of issues from IBS and Crohns, to acid reflux, constipation, ulcers and food intolerances.
According to Dr Anton Emmanuel, consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital in London, approximately 40% of people in the UK have at least one digestive symptom at any one time, resulting in a significant percentage of the population who would ultimately benefit from improving their digestion and reducing the stress in their lives.
Why is good digestion so important to our health?
If we don’t have strong digestive function, then it’s very difficult for us to absorb all of the nutrients that we have ingested. This can leave us depleted of vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are essential for a happy and healthy mind and body, making us feel low in energy even if we’re boshing green smoothies every day!
The problem for most of us is that our digestive function is getting worse by the year. The reason for this? The overstimulation of modern living is triggering our innate fight or flight response to chronic levels, and this impairs many of our physiological functions, including a very harmful impact on our digestion.
Under survival situations our body reacts by redirecting every bit of energy it can towards fighting or fleeing. Our digestive function is such an energy intensive process that shutting it down means the body can redirect a large amount of energy to enhance our chances of survival. The body’s innate intelligence dictates that instead of breaking down food, we could use that energy to run across the savannah or break down our opponent.
This process makes absolute sense when your life is in mortal danger, but most of the ups and downs of everyday life are not serious enough to merit such an over-reaction. And yet, from a biological perspective, this is exactly how your body is responding every time you rush for something, panic over a deadline, get worked up about an emotive email or you simply get tired and overwhelmed. Physiologically, we simply haven’t adapted to the hamster wheel life many of us find ourselves leading. Every time there is even a hint of a problem our body goes into shutdown to protect us, eventually recovering but often hours later when it can be too late and the damage has already been done.
Instead of turning all of that nutritious mush into broken down molecules that will keep your cells singing, the half-digested contents of your bowels begin to decay and toxify in your intestinal tract. So rather than providing you with health and vitality, your food becomes toxic when you don’t digest it properly.
How exactly do our bodies digest food?
When we’re relaxed, a key branch of our nervous system causes us to salivate which allows the amylase in our saliva to start breaking down the food we’re chewing on. The more we chew, the easier it is for our stomach to break down the food we consume.
However, when we’re stressed we don’t produce so much saliva and we tend to chew and swallow too quickly, before phase one of the digestive process has been properly completed. Even before the food has reached our belly, we have significantly reduced the probability that we will digest our food appropriately.
Once the food is in the stomach, it is processed mechanically by bashing the mush against the stomach walls to break it down further and, chemically by a series of powerful acids and enzymes which will help us extract the useful properties from the food ready for transportation around the body.
But even mild levels of stress will disturb these processes and cause too much or too little activation of the mechanical and chemical processes. This results in an imbalanced mix of acids in the stomach and foods that have not been properly broken down.
This may result in anything from indigestion and acid reflux all the way to fragrant farts!
It’s also worth noting that 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut, so having a healthy gut is essential for feeling the effects of this happy hormone floating around our body. Insufficient serotonin production is linked to cardiovascular issues, osteoporosis and irritable bowel syndrome as well as feeling uninspired by life and even depression.
It has been recently discovered that we actually have brain cells in the intestinal tract, so it’s easy to see how having strong digestion with lots of serotonin production will help make us feel good. On the other hand, it’s no surprise that weak digestion with excessive acidity and toxic detritus being absorbed into our cells and depleted serotonin production can leave us feeling rubbish!
There are so many players in our digestive orchestra and symphonic coordination is king. But to do that we need to ensure that we are more resilient to stress.
What can we do to help our digestive system?
Vedic meditation is a great way to increase your resilience to stress and get your digestion firing on all cylinders again. Most of the people we’ve taught with digestive issues have overcome their IBS, coeliac disease and food intolerances within the first two to six months of learning. –
The reasons for this are numerous:
- Vedic meditation reduces the hypersensitivity of the stress centres in your brain to everyday stressors. It also allows the body to rest much more deeply than the deepest point in sleep. This means that the body has a proper chance to reboot and begin harmonising its digestive system.
- The deep relaxation it promotes helps restore optimum levels of biochemistry in digestive fluids, resulting in much more efficient digestion
- It improves the flow of blood to the gut which means that nutrients can be distributed throughout your body much more quickly. Waste removal processes also begin occurring in the most optimal way
- It balances out the activation of the nervous system, meaning that any unhelpful conditioned responses (eg reaching for sweets when faced with stress) we have around food can be smoothed out
- Greater production of serotonin means that you will feel happier and healthier
Scientifically, this technique has been shown to deliver a 48% reduction in gastro-intestinal issues when it was trialled on 2000 people and anecdotally the results we’ve seen have at least matched these findings, if not exceeded it.
To sum up, by reducing everyday stress Vedic meditation makes it easier to listen to your body and give it the food it needs, rather than being hostage to your body’s desire to fuel all of the stress in your life with fat and sugar. The result is that you tend to give your body more of what it needs at the right time to function properly and keep you feeling good.
words by Will Williams